A few nights ago I was looking for something to watch while I went to sleep and I settled on an old movie called Conspiracy about the Wannsee Conference. There’s only one record of what happened at the Wannsee Conference and it’s obviously incomplete, so it’s hard to say how accurately the movie portrayed what actually happened. But the basics were probably captured accurately.
Adolf Eichmann organized a meeting on the behalf of Reinhard Heydrich that included representatives from various ministries and branches of the military and police. The major decisions had already been made at the highest level, but there was some pretense of debate about what to do with the Jewish population in the occupied areas of the Third Reich.
Heydrich knew that there would be opposition to what he was going to propose so he walked them slowly up to the real news. He didn’t just come out and say that they had built gas chambers and crematoriums. He walked them through all the logistical problems with trying to feed and house so many Jewish prisoners. He explained why their suggestions were impractical for one reason or another. And only after he’d gotten a lot of input and dismissed a lot of ideas did he and Eichmann spring the big news that there would be a highly mechanized program of complete annihilation.
In the movie, probably more than half of the participants were untroubled by this, although they were at least a bit surprised. But others who would have clearly objected in strong moral language at the beginning of the meeting had been beaten down by the time the announcement was made. Overall, what won the day is that no one present was willing to argue that any Jews should be allowed to live in a future Reich. They all agreed that they must be removed, only differing on the timeline and whether it could be done in the near term without undermining the war effort. It didn’t hurt that Heydrich was considered powerful and dangerous enough that no one wanted to cross him.
In the end, there was a consensus built that there would be a Final Solution, or a Holocaust. Yet, I was struck by how that consensus was built, and it made me think about the broader German public that wasn’t consulted at the Wannsee Conference.
How many Germans would have voted for Hitler in 1933 if he had run on a program of mass extermination of Jews? And how did that change over time as people were exposed to Nazi propaganda and the stresses of war? Who convinced themselves to go along happily even though their decision was made more out of fear than enthusiasm? What happened in two hours during the Wannsee Conference happened to Germany over eight years.
Sure, there were some genuinely bad people in Germany, as there are in any society. And they were put under a lot of stress, which rarely brings out the best in people. But their morals were corrupted slowly, almost imperceptibly, until they could support things that they never would have supported at the beginning. And, yet, those things were there from the beginning if you were willing to look for them. What Hitler did was implicit in his rhetoric and in some cases explicit in his book, Mein Kampf.
That’s what I’m reminded of when I read Adam Serwer’s The Nationalist’s Delusion. Here’s a sample:
During the final few weeks of the campaign, I asked dozens of Trump supporters about their candidate’s remarks regarding Muslims and people of color. I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities. What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked.
It was not just Trump’s supporters who were in denial about what they were voting for, but Americans across the political spectrum, who, as had been the case with those who had backed [David] Duke, searched desperately for any alternative explanation—outsourcing, anti-Washington anger, economic anxiety—to the one staring them in the face. The frequent postelection media expeditions to Trump country to see whether the fever has broken, or whether Trump’s most ardent supporters have changed their minds, are a direct outgrowth of this mistake. These supporters will not change their minds, because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of.
You see, I don’t agree with Adam Serwer. Yes, you could go around the table at the Wannsee Conference and see that the SS-Gruppenführers and SS-Oberführers and Gestapo members were all more or less agreeable to a Holocaust. They were Hitler’s “most ardent supporters.” But many of the others were from different backgrounds, perhaps international relations, for example, and they needed to be coopted and coerced into going along. On the whole, the group was shocked by the news that Auschwitz was built and ready to go because it was beyond anything they had imagined. Yet, none of them should have really been surprised that this was the end result of the political and military program that they had been supporting. When they finally came face to face with what they had enabled, none of them had the strength to push back.
With Trump’s supporters, I likewise see more complexity than that they’re all just a rage-fueled mob seeking permission to hate the people they hate. Countless Trump voters have already changed their minds, although you won’t see much of that if you only focus on his “most ardent supporters.” The bigger problem is the slow, almost imperceptible corruption of morals, so that people who would have never justified pedophilia, for example, will now do so just because Trump tells them to do it. All manner of unethical and illegal behavior becomes justifiable because punishing it would reward political enemies.
This is what we have to worry about. It’s not that there are a bunch of irredeemably racist and misogynistic and religiously bigoted people in our country so much as Trump is making more of them, and he’s getting them to drop their standards on pretty much everything else, too. The Germans didn’t start out supporting or capable of the Holocaust. They were led there.
But people can be led away from these things, and it’s a mistake to focus on what seems immutable about Trump’s support. Trump won the allegiance of people for a host of reasons, and he’s breaking promises to people every day. He’s dropping support wherever he goes, and it’s part of our job to pick it up and rehabilitate it.
Writing people off, especially whole communities, is a mistake resulting from flawed analysis and too much self-righteousness. In a way, it also understates the seriousness of the danger we face because it doesn’t account for the fact that things and people are actually getting worse rather than staying the same.
If you want to stop Trumpism, you have to understand that the phenomenon is both worse and not quite as bad as it seems.