It’s time to revoke the moratorium that intellectuals and political thinkers have imposed on a certain mode of argument. From here on out, we should talk openly about the dangers that extreme political groups pose to democratic societies, even if that means we need to talk about (gulp) the lessons that include the history of Nazi Germany.
I want to say at the outset that, although this should be obvious, the United States is not now Nazi Germany. Despite all attempts by the left to portray the U.S. as a teeming majority racist country, there is no evidence that is true, even with the surge in growth among hate groups in recent years. Similarly, conspiracists on the right who project Nazi-esque totalitarian motives onto liberals and Democrats are unhinged and misguided.
Nor does it seem likely that even in the unlikely event that America descends into extremism it would ever feature horrors on the magnitude inflicted by the 20th century’s ethno-fascist powers; our demographic diversity is a bulwark and a deterrent.
Nevertheless, is should be clear that something is not right in the U.S. body politic. It’s time for a sobering check and to consider the true condition of our political health, even if doing so requires denying ourselves to daydream about what we wish it to be.
Not only because of Charlottesville do we need this examination, but also because of Oak Creek, and Dallas, and Baltimore, and so many other recent moments in which hate boiled over and erupted into uncivil violent rage. Charlottesville was a focal point of white supremacist hate; there will be others. Now is the time to condemn that particular brand of evil, but we can do more than one thing at once. We are, after all, Americans. We fought fascism in two hemispheres; we can identify and defeat it on two poles of the political continuum here at home, too. We only need to be brave enough to face it directly. It’s time to face the reality that the dark forces are conducting their war on the fringes but through the middle of the political landscape. There are real potential concerns if the middle doesn’t take steps to confine corrosive insanity to the edges.
The real danger posed by these extreme groups is not their direct impact—their raw influence is overstated, partly due to tactical shrewdness on their part and partly due to media amplification. Under normal circumstances, the clear majority of people intuitively recognize extremists for who they are and insert proper distance from them and their views. But today’s circumstances are far from normal. The real danger posed by extreme groups is different today than in the past 20 years because it manifests at a time when extremists warring in the streets occurs against the backdrop of hyper-polarized politics in the middle (relatively speaking) of the spectrum.
Political machines making maps to nowhere
There are entire machines inside of mainstream politics working to ensure that people see Democrats or Republicans as sympathetic to one extreme or the other. They are good at what they do.
The political maps generated by millions of social media posts, emails, and other forms of messaging is, to be fair, useful—the groups on the fringes are bad folks—but each side isn’t handing out the same map.
Republicans look across the line to see a movement that runs through Black Lives Matter, Linda Sansour’s Women’s March, and culminates in groups such as Antifa, the Muslim Brotherhood and the BDS movement.
Democrats stare over the barbed wire and see the Tea Party, President Trump hardcore base and the NRA coalescing into the alt-right, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
When there is blood in the streets between the extremists (as there was in Charlottesville and has increasingly been in clashes around the nation), the political maps come out. Enemies are identified and history tells us that far too often we use the oft-misleading rationale that an enemy of our enemy is our friend to enter uneasy and unhealthy alliances. We recognize how that method of calculation can backfire by reviewing the checkered realpolitik track record in foreign affairs. It is also the domestic political trapdoor through which the German establishment fell in 1933 and all of the world fell through it with them as the Nazis rose to full power.
German politics in the interwar period—the years between World Wars I and II—were chaotic. Here’s a speed course through the history. Conservatives and progressives tugged back and forth over bitter divisions for control of the parliament; Communists and the fledgling National Democratic Socialists (Nazis) fought violently in the streets for control of towns to gain footholds. Communists and Nazis each accreted a small base of power, and in the end, the balance of the German establishment’s concern went to its fear of communism. The more conservative elements reluctantly hopped into bed with the Nazis who promptly fulfilled their end of the bargain. This bit of Joseph Goebbels speaking in 1933 conveys the story well.
(Hat tip to Ben Shapiro for including this clip from a 2005 British-made documentary “Hitler in Colour” on his very fiery podcast today and prompting me to use it here.)
What do we take from this? Only that democracies aren’t invulnerable and a small or divided political center (in terms of dialogue, not beliefs of agenda) can be manipulated to follow its own interests straight to destruction.
It might be comforting to soothe oneself into blissful ignorance by picking up the flag of American exceptionalism and hugging it like a security blanket, believing that the mere existence of the values the nation was founded upon really do have magical prophylactic characteristics to repel viral forces as they emerge. (Constitution! Kills pesky extremism on contact!)
Because we’re immersed in an automated, push-button, retail on-demand world, it may have become very easy to also think of our way of life as self-cleaning. At times pundits promoting confidence in the durability of our system even speak of self-correction to quell fears about how far instability can really take us.
In reality, our system is not self-correcting at all. Our system requires real moral leadership and real will within the public to utilize the tools the system has provided to cause a correction to happen.
In order for that moral leadership to coalesce, it might be best to set aside Pollyannaish talk about how checks and balances and the oh-so-parchmenty substance of the Constitution form an impenetrable defense against threats to real freedom coming from several directions. In short, it’s time for us to heed Sinclair Lewis’ warning and stop telling ourselves that it can’t happen here. It—fascism, whether on the right or the left—can gain a foothold anywhere and when even a nation’s “mainstream” political dialogue becomes nothing more than artillery-grade name-calling across a deep and polarized policy divide, the ground becomes a little too fertile for extremism to grow.
We can do things in an effort to ensure that it won’t happen, but waiting for our leaders to adjust their behavior is not one of them. The hard, cold fact is that politicians are more responsive than they are proactive; they react to stimuli. Pat them on the head for a good deed and they do more good deeds. Smack them on the nose… you get the gist. It is necessary for all people, on both sides, to draw the same tough line for themselves and their political friends as they draw for their foes.
We have everything to gain and potentially so much to lose. Other generations have done their part to preserve the nation. If this is the most ours must do—to let each other know that extremism doesn’t have a home in any legitimate political movement—we’ll have drawn the short straw.