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By Adam Knowles
Gleichschaltung: Pages from the Totalitarian Playbook
In the first volume of his classic work of Holocaust history Nazi Germany and the Jews, Saul Friedländer recounts an episode from Hitler’s early days of power which should give us pause us to reflect on the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States. In a letter dated February 23rd, 1933, less than a month after Hitler’s ascension to power, a Jewish woman from Berlin named Frieda Friedmann wrote to then President Paul von Hindenburg complaining about the anti-Semitism and incitements to pogroms by the National Socialists. Hindenburg passed on the letter to Hitler and, as Friedländer recounts, Hitler wrote these words in the margins: “This lady’s claims are a swindle! Obviously there has been no incitement to a pogrom!”
With a simple swipe of the hand Hitler thus discredits a female Jewish critic and simultaneously wills a reality into being. The speech act of the Führer makes what is through the constitutive power of his speech. His voice is vested with an ontological power, the power to discredit Frieda Friedmann as a “nasty woman.” And if Hitler desired to claim that there was no incitement to a pogrom this was because beginning in the mid-1920s he had begun, as Peter Fritzsche shows in his book Germans into Nazis, to steer the party towards an agenda of spiritual and economic renewal of the German people and away from the brash anti-Semitic rhetoric of the early 1920s. Hitler would make Germany great again in the face of the defeat of the Versailles Treaty, the economic collapse of the 1920s, and a Weimar culture regarded as suspiciously modern and urban (and hence Jewish) by conservative elements in Germany society. Yet with Mein Kampf serving as a firm ideological bedrock, along with a well-established reputation as an anti-Semitic party, Germany’s anti-Semites knew that Hitler represented their racial and racist interests. So-called moderates, on the other hand, those who might have been too ‘polite’ to openly align themselves with anti-Semitism, could feel comfortable associating with the party’s agenda of greatness restored while praising how ‘toned down’ and ‘different’ Hitler had become. Thus, such ‘moderates’ could reap the benefits of anti-Semitism even while being distanced from it by several degrees of removal.
With the election of Donald Trump, the United States finds itself in a moment of what is known, in the wretched Nazi euphemism, as Gleichschaltung: falling into line, forced assimilation, coordination. One could hear it already in the voice of Anderson Cooper in the wee hours of election night as the unimaginable became inevitable, as the map assumed that eerily pockmarked red surface now familiar to us all. One can see it in the cowardly falling into line of the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, with none more obsequious than the fallen Wunderkind Paul Ryan. One sees it as the Mitt Romneys and Al Gores of the nation strut across the stage of the cabinet-selection-turned-beauty-pageant graciously presented to the nation by ringmaster Trump. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazi groups cloak themselves in the dangerously misleading euphemism ‘alt-right’ and hate crimes are on the rise. We are normalizing Trump, devouring his spectacle, clicking on his latest tweet bait. Even such venerable institutions as the New York Times follow the latest red herring and let—among other things—the news of Trump’s $25 million fraud claim for the sham Trump University cascade down the list of priorities. As I write Trump has already begun to target the civil service by disturbing questionnaires in the Department of Energy. Ideological alignment of the civil service is an essential starting point for serious Gleichschaltung.
Yet what exactly is it that we are normalizing? By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing sexual assault, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hate speech, ableism and racism of all kinds. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing rape culture and bullying. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing white supremacy and a ferociously violent patriarchy. By electing a President who allied himself with Mike Pence, a proponent of gay conversion therapy, we are normalizing an atmosphere of violence and intimidation against the LGBTQ community. Gay conversion therapy means nothing less than normalizing people out of existence. The proposed Texas Senate Bill 242, which would make teachers into mandatory reporters of gay, lesbian and gender-nonconforming students is a harbinger of this normalization. We are normalizing graft, political corruption and the destruction of the rule of law. We are normalizing the further marginalization and increased vulnerability of the working class of all colors. We are normalizing Flint and a government that will turn a blind eye to poisoning its citizens. At a more abstract level, we are also normalizing the systematic evasion of civic responsibility and simple human decency and replacing them with a rapacious ethics of absolute selfishness. Perhaps the election of Trump is the realization that much of this has, for too long, been normal.
This list is only partial and it will continue to expand as the incredible cast of characters known as the Trump ‘team’ begins to assemble itself. For many of us, the last month has been a dizzying crash-course in far-right-wing politics. Jane Mayer’s recent book The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a useful resource to understand the perverse consistency of Trump’s choices for cabinet: a Labor Secretary derisive of labor rights, a HUD Secretary who claims poverty is a choice, an Education Secretary who has systematically sought to dismantle public education, an openly racist Attorney General, and an EPA chief who has rubberstamped briefs written by energy lobbyists. And even more questions arise about the Trump team: Is there really any justification for distinguishing Stephen Bannon from a garden-variety member of the Ku Klux Klan merely due to the sophistication of his tactics? Does Kellyanne Conway ever get off point? Or is she truest progeny of the sophists? And weren’t Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich condemned to some dark, lonely dustbin of history? When Trump drained the swamp, was it this crew that was clinging tenaciously to the drain spout?
Yet I do not want to indulge in humor, not now. The moment is dire. In the days following the election I had a number of discussions with students from my sections of “Introduction to Western Philosophy.” Fittingly, the election overlapped with our lessons on Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon. In these discussions I heard an overwhelming tone of fear and mute confusion, yet also a quiet tone of defiance and triumph from students who supported Trump. Muslim students, female students, LGBTQ students, African-American students, and Hispanic students all openly admitted to no longer (or never) feeling safe—and these voices only reflect those who spoke up in class. We must find a way to resist further normalizing this fear. Moreover, a student body that had once supported Bernie Sanders felt disillusioned by the democratic process in their first presidential election and this reaction was only confirmed by the disparity between the electoral count and popular vote.
In my class “Holocaust and Philosophy” the conversations have been even more difficult. The election bled into the class from the first day. This is because the students had no trouble recognizing the parallels between their own lives and the world created by the Nazis. It is troubling, especially for a young person, to be forced to plot your own time in the arc of the rise of totalitarianism. I teach the students that Trump is not Hitler, but that, if we can already identify so many parallels with National Socialism, then we must assume that this could lead to the same place where Hitler took Nazi Germany. I believe that we have an ethical imperative to assume the worst. The history of National Socialism may teach us very little about the goals of this regime, but it will help us understand its tactics.
Right now we are in a moment of coordination, of falling-into-line. In 1933, the Nazis arrested Hannah Arendt for her part in collecting incidences of anti-Semitism occurring at the everyday grassroots level for a publication meant to be disseminated abroad. Ushahidi, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map and Shaun King of the New York Daily News have been doing similar work by collecting incidences of hate crimes inspired by Trump on twitter and their websites. It is important to understand that the Nazis were able to coordinate so well by first making many Germans bystanders and then escalating the violence so that a large portion of the population would either willingly tolerate or actively foster mass killing. What Nazi Germany teaches us is that such events of public hazing and outright violence, including the chants of “Build the Wall” reported from schools across the country and the students chanting “White Power” in a Michigan high school (to name but a few), serve an important role in radicalizing a population. They help to produce the bystanders who can later be made into perpetrators. Normalization bridges the gap between the early zealots and the later converts to a totalitarian movement.
Donald Trump has called for the deportation of 11 million people, a deeply symbolic number that also coincides with the number of Jews in Europe who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis at the Wannsee Conference—the planning conference for the so-called ‘Final Solution’. Trump has since revised this to between 2 to 3 million people. Such crass ‘margins of error’ were also exemplary of Nazi rhetoric and serve to normalize the removal of individual human beings—or even entire ethnic and religious groups—from the body politic. But since we know that Donald Trump is always a man to think “huge” and “big league,” let us take his highest number as indicative of his intentions. By now at the latest, we should know not to underestimate Trump. The very mention in public discourse of a deportation force and of “ideological certification” for immigrants is a terrifying normalization of the monstrous.
The peculiar self-delusion of the Führer was that he thought he could wave his hand and either cause things to come into being or cease to exist. “Obviously there has been no incitement to a pogrom!,” he can proclaim and thus will away the call to violence. If updated slightly to reflect Trump’s carnival-barker patios, these words could have come straight from the mouth of our president-elect. As he has openly disavowed Neo-Nazi groups since the election and halfheartedly ordered “Stop It!” to those committing hate crimes, he is demonstrating a terrifyingly detailed knowledge of the totalitarian playbook. Indeed, it is astounding how well Trump seems to know this playbook. As we make our way through the Trump years, let us never underestimate Trump’s political intelligence.
As Arendt documents in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Himmler was a master at persuading SS officers that the Holocaust would be a terrible burden on them for which they would suffer greatly in service of the German people. The Holocaust, Himmler would teach the SS, would be hard on good Germans. In his 60 Minutes interview from Nov. 13th Trump, swathed in his gilded apartment, echoes this cruel twist of rhetoric. “Sometimes you need a certain rhetoric to get people motivated. I don’t want to be just a little nice monotone character,” he proudly proclaims. Lesley Stahl then interjects the question, “Can you be?” Trump responds by saying: “Sure I can. I can easily. That’s easier. Honestly, doing that is easier.” In his self-understanding, Trump is suffering greatly to make America great again by doing the difficult work of proffering bigotry and inciting racial violence. Being the strong man is hard on him, he would like us to believe. In dwelling on this example, let us also note the element of complicity on the part of the media, in Stahl’s jovial, laughing tone that normalizes the monstrous by reducing it to an ironic spectacle. The same subtle normalization can be seen when the editors of the New York Times asked Trump to address claims that Bannon is “racist and anti-Semitic.” Trump responded along similar lines: “I think it’s very hard on him. I think he’s having a hard time with it. Because it’s not him. It’s not him.”
I have no interest in parsing out whether or not Trump actually believes that Bannon is or is not a racist and an anti-Semite, but I do know for certain that Trump thinks he has the power to make us believe it. The world of the Nazis was a grand aestheticized delusion, as best exemplified by the promise at the gates of Auschwitz that work would set you free and by the taunting faux-medical signs declaring the importance of cleanliness at the entrance to the gas chambers disguised as showers. Trump, this great man of pageantry, is already setting up his own aestheticized delusion as our reality in a world where—as he said in a now infamous tweet—“millions of people who voted illegally” have robbed him of the “so-called popular vote.” Yet while the Nazis had to build their camps and ghettoes, let us not forget that we live in a country that already has camps, ghettoes and a robust infrastructure of mass incarceration. Trump is already promising to fill Guantanamo Bay with “some bad dudes.”
We must accept that we live in dire times of which nothing good will come. There will be no moral victories for liberals who hope to come out of the other side with a clean conscience. There will be an increase in hate crimes. There will also be tactics of gradual escalation in order to secure complicity from those not subject to such violence. We should not try to speculate what Trump’s true aims might be, but instead calculate what they could be based on the most extreme scenario. We must resist any outward claims of moderation and out them as a classic strategy of totalitarian regimes. The so-called ‘good’ white people (especially men) of America, those for whom normalization is a possibility, must also resist allowing Trump to be normalized in our names and on our behalf. Yet we must also ensure that our resistance is not parasitic on the aesthetic spectacle of the Trump phenomenon.
The Role of Philosophy?
With the Nazi rise to power universities and the discipline of philosophy stood at a crossroads. Once the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” was passed in April 1933, 313 full professors in Germany were released from service within a year. An incredible emigration would begin, changing the landscape of philosophy in North America. The Frankfurt School was targeted early for both political and racial reasons and became a key site of resistance. Meanwhile, a figure no less than Martin Heidegger enthusiastically joined the early group of academics who sought to lend legitimacy to the National Socialist movement, becoming the paradigmatic academic figure of Gleichschaltung by ruthlessly implementing the anti-Jewish measures as Rector of Freiburg University from 1933-34. Aside from perhaps Germanistic, no discipline was more deeply complicit in National Socialism than the discipline of philosophy.
In the last week, at least two major philosophical organizations have issued statements on the 2016 election: the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. I believe that both statements fall short of living up to the ethical demands of our current situation. Firstly, the APA statement, which is the shorter of the two by far, rightly mentions that “the nation has experienced increasingly divisive rhetoric and a rise in bias-based attacks on members of vulnerable groups.” Yet the statement fails to specifically name any of those vulnerable groups and—more importantly—fails to mention any particular individual or group who has propagated this divisive rhetoric. It also fails to condemn the divisive rhetoric it mentions. The SPEP statement by and large ameliorates this first concern by mentioning that “[d]uring the electoral campaign and in its aftermath, we witnessed the amplification and even normalization of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ-bashing, and ableism (to name a few, in an enumeration that will not be complete).” Perhaps the disclaimer at the end, a sad capitulation reminding us that any enumeration of Trump’s proliferation of hate speech will always be incomplete, may have led to a preemptive acquiescence on the part of the APA, causing it to be unwilling to mention any particular vulnerable groups in its statement. But this preemptive acquiescence is a form of evasion and thus a form of normalization. The SPEP statement avoids this crucial step of normalization, but acquiesces in its own way by refusing to name the primary agent and beneficiary of the hate speech it condemns: President-Elect Donald Trump. Instead, the statement employs the passive voice and refers simply to the hate speech “mobilized and emboldened by the election.” This acquiescence and deferral to the passive voice—with the agent named through the preposition ‘by’ being not a person but a thing—perpetuates another form of normalization. Do we not risk being complicit in the crimes we condemn if we are unwilling to name the perpetrators of those crimes?
I do not know if philosophy has any special role to play in resisting Donald Trump in 2016. It is certainly not the moment to hunker down to work out fine philological details—work that I normally value. If we work on thinkers who were oppressed by totalitarian regimes of any kind, we should learn from and teach about their resistance. If we work on thinkers who became perpetrators, we should learn from and teach about what lead them to become complicit. But this is what many of us already do everyday in the classroom anyways. We should teach ceaselessly about language and the power to manipulate language, as exemplified by Marianne Constable’s “When Words Cease to Matter.” We should teach about power. We should be in classrooms, in discussion groups and anywhere where students need to be listened to.
But we should not pretend that the infamously ‘strange’ life of the philosopher is somehow so ‘abnormal’ in Trump’s world that being a philosopher is in and of itself an act of resistance. Hence, I disagree that the APA’s statement that “the work of philosophers and humanists is needed now more than ever” is in and of itself valid. Philosophy per se is not the answer to anything, though certain kinds of philosophy may help lead us to some answers about our current dire predicament. After the release of Jewish and politically ‘undesirable’ professors from service in Germany in 1933, the discipline of philosophy by and large settled back into business as usual, resuming all the normal conferences, publications and deadlines. Philosophers of many stripes, much like humanists and academics from many fields, played a crucial role in all stages of National Socialist violence. I therefore say this especially to the philosophers who—like me—are white and male: being a self-styled economic and intellectual gadfly does not qualify as resistance. Philosophy alone is not an act of resistance. It may even be an act of complicity.
Adam Knowles is Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Drexel University, where he is currently preparing a manuscript entitled The Measure of Silence: Heidegger, Language and the Greeks. He received his PhD from the New School for Social Research in 2014. His research combines influences from Continental philosophy, phenomenology, Ancient Greek philosophy, ethics and feminism, drawing especially on Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Irigaray and Derrida.
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