This is ostensibly a review of the biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, but is actually a fragment of a year’s worth of jumbled thoughts on the 2016 election.
I’ve been questioning this idea, the core of which I still can’t articulate, but essentially asks this: if the Germans didn’t know the future, can we cast moral judgement on their decision in the early thirties to vote for Hitler, and in 1933, before the worst of the fear regime made resistance deadly, to worship him?
Why that’s important is because, the narrative has been distilled (and now that I read the book I know is fairly inaccurate) into: the Germans felt sad and the economy sucked, and so were eager for a savior to make them great again. Similarly, in country after country, election after election, people feel downtrodden, forgotten, disenfranchised, and not represented, plus the economy almost always sucks, and if it doesn’t suck for everyone, it sucks for a lot of people, and so they vote for whomever promises them salvation: Obama gave them hope, Trump promised them greatness.
I don’t pretend to know how Trump won or why people voted for him (I suspect it’s less a mystery than it seems) but I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique that the “economic anxiety” narrative is bullshit. Not necessarily because the real reason people voted for Trump was racism — I’ll let Coates argue that point. It’s bullshit because that’s what they said in 1968 and in 1972 and in every single election since the glory days of the fifties, which were an anomaly. (And white people means default people, who can’t explain life’s difficulties as a factor of structural intent to make life difficult.)
So back to Germans and the early thirties and Trump voters: even if it were true, even if times were hard and jobs were scarce and the ladder to the middle class was essentially rung-less, how much does that excuse?
Can the German who wildly and throatfully exclaimed his or her admiration and support for Hitler in 1931, when he was already the party of the ethnic German, and of hate and violence — though not to the degree he would be later — but did it out of a desperate hope for a better tomorrow, be held accountable? After a decade of national indignity and personal sorrow, can we blame the German citizen for falling for a carefully curated message of a future rectified by way of a return to the past, by an image of restored German sovereignty and power, by fear of an enemy just as carefully curated and held up for righteous indignation? After all, he may not have wanted the Jews dead or an Aryan-only state; he certainly didn’t want a world war and a dictatorship, but he was experiencing economic anxiety, and when along came a firebrand rebel who was equally man-of-the-people and savior who promised change, how could he refuse?
I do believe that thirties-era Hitler was far worse than Trump. And so I do believe that forgiving Trump’s sins in the name of a vague promised land is probably a more forgivable offense, but that may be because I know what happens next.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the essential question: when people vote out of their own concern, and are driven only by a sense of grievance, are they morally to blame? or perhaps they are not to blame, but there is a more noble idea of citizenhood which we may have, or never did, believe in — and what is that? we vote for the greater good? for the greater good of who, our neighbors? the entire country? at the expense of whom?
And a second, but crucial question: if I had been there, if I was a me in 2016 but with a different sense of geography and history and a different set of social and media inputs, what would I have done? And since I have no way to know, what right do I have to wave the moral banner and dismiss half the nation as racist bigots? But if I do not renounce them, then am I perpetuating moral ambiguity that is merely a luxury of not being the one to suffer the fallout of my pretty mental games?
(Okay, that’s like 8 questions, but who’s counting?)