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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Lessons from the rise of 1930s fascism

As I reflected on our country’s narrow escape from authoritarianism, I decided to explore the destruction of the Weimar Republic as a helpful precedent. The first website I visited was one with a collection of quotations from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist. Here are a few that struck me as pertinent:

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over ... A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

“There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be ‘the man in the street.’ Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.”

“[T]he rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine.”

“Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.”

I found those last two assertions especially helpful. Starting in his 2016 campaign, Trump’s rhetoric epitomized aggression and licensed it in others. Death threats by his followers have become commonplace. Who could have imagined that the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would need police protection?

It seems as if, like high German culture, which proved no bulwark against Hitler, U.S. civility was only a veil that Trump pulled back. Nor does the right have a corner on barbarity. At the risk of violating political correctness, I’d note that brutality has long characterized much Black inner city speech and conduct, and elements of protesting leftist youth revel in it. Progressive online discourse now can be uncouth.

Ever since European arrivals on this continent began forcing Native Americans off their lands and enslaving Africans, we have been a violent people, at home and abroad. Our civility may not be a mere veil and we may not be fundamentally primitive, but it’s both pointless and insulting to urge civility on peoples who have been violated and abused. The causes of their anger and corresponding aggression need to be specified and addressed.

Black Americans have no difficulty specifying the sources of their grievances and identifying the rightful targets of their anger. White Americans, by contrast, have been befuddled, and thus more easily manipulated by demagogues. Rarely did poor whites in the South figure out why they were poor, but instead consoled themselves by oppressing Blacks. Now that an unrestrained capitalism has induced insecurity in large swaths of the white working class, many of them are behaving in the same way.

Karl Polanyi, in “The Great Transformation” (1944), argued that the rise of fascism was determined by the market economy. “Nineteenth Century civilization was not destroyed by the external or internal attack of barbarians; its vitality was not sapped by the devastations of World War I nor by the revolt of a socialist proletariat or a fascist lower middle class ... It disintegrated as the result of ... the measures which society adopted in order not to be, in its turn, annihilated by the action of the self-regulating market.” Until a national administration properly specifies and curbs the ongoing damage wreaked on our society by an untrammeled economic system, the resentment Trump mobilized will not be allayed.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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