“Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the German people through single words, idioms, and sentence structures which were imposed upon them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously,” the linguist Victor Klemperer wrote about the language of the Third Reich. A German Jew who managed to survive the Nazi era, Klemperer understood that words shape perception, change lives, and convulse the histories of nations. The meanings of words grow and change. New words appear.
Rhetoric is a driving force in the imminent US election, and effective rhetoric is a catalyst for powerful, contagious feelings that can lead to catastrophic events, such as the end of Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s Germany or the re-election of Donald Trump and, as appears ever more likely, a time of authoritarian rule.
Words matter. They are the connective tissue of collective life and, as Klemperer noted, they move us not only in conscious but unconscious ways. A failure to understand the degree to which human beings in particular situations are inflamed by the dogged repetition of what may appear to others in very different situations as worn phrases, absurd ideas, and blatant fictions has had a crippling effect on our national discourse and generated a peculiar blindness to the gravity of what is happening now.
The many organizations of what is known as “mainstream” media have created a contagious language all their own, which has been broadly accepted and repeated by their consumers. We live in a “post-truth,” “anti-science” era of “viral” social media, and the job of upright journalists is to report the facts. The notion that these precious nuggets of reality will somehow counter the anti-democratic, racist, demagogic forces that catapulted Donald Trump into office is naïve at best and morally suspicious at worst. A fact is a wan thing without interpretation. The same facts are often marshaled to prove wholly contradictory arguments. Journalism is not mathematics. There is no single correct answer or proof.
The push for objective news began in the 19th century and grew in the 20th. Journalism sought to drape itself in the dignity of impartial, value-free science. Whatever their pretensions, the sciences are human endeavors and have never been free of ideology. In journalism the dubious ideal of objectivity is even more remote. No human being can be scrubbed clean of subjectivity and regard unfolding events from a distant perch that allows “the truth” to emerge. What passes for objectivity is a tone of neutrality, sobriety, and inhibition written in the third person with a heavy reliance on the passive voice so dear to the science paper: The effects of the additive were then examined. X-number of women were killed in incidents of domestic violence last year. Actors are missing. No one is doing anything.
The New York Times managed to write about the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto without once using the word Jew. In 2015 the venerable paper covered a report on lynching in the US, which avoided the word white. “A Black man was hanged…” The word white appeared solely to qualify the girls and women whom Black men had supposedly offended. The suppressed: White people murdered Black people. It is important to say it.
Mainstream media outlets continually described Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as equally abhorrent candidates during the 2016 campaign. They leapt on the story of a private email server as if its use were tantamount to business fraud, tax evasion, and sexual assault. As far as I can tell, government officials routinely use their private servers improperly, but no one seems to care anymore.
The same serious news organizations wobbled for years over whether to use the word “lie” to describe a presidential statement, and, mesmerized by Trump’s “norm-breaking” outrages, have amplified every spoken or tweeted word, idiom, and fractured sentence verbatim by repeating them over and over. As the linguist George Lakoff has pointed out since before Trump was elected, “It doesn’t matter if you are promoting Trump or attacking Trump [by repeating his words] you are helping Trump.” A million repetitions strengthens the message, and the message sells. Moral outrage sells, whether it is to endorse an ideological position or disparage it. The emotional jolt it promises to bring is attractive. For some it is irresistible.
Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda, never said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as a truth.” Variations on this sentence are ubiquitous on the internet. Countless journalists have quoted it and attributed it to Goebbels before they proceed to explain the big lie. In fact, Goebbels claimed he always told the truth. The propaganda minister nevertheless understood the crucial elements of efficient political rhetoric: incessantly repeat a few simple ideas in stereotyped phrases, appeal to people’s emotions, avoid abstract thought, and identify particular enemies to vilify.
Goebbels was a ferocious anti-Semite. He depicted Jews as parasites on the pure Aryan body politic and conveniently blamed them for all the ills of Germany, just as Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, feminists, amorphous left-wing radicals and numerous others serve the Republican party and its millions of adherents as scapegoats for what they perceive as personal emasculation and humiliation. The elevation of a Black man to the presidency became the image of their ultimate degradation. Barack Obama’s Ivy League education, his elegance, his calm demeanor all fed the fire. “Birtherism” entered the American language to designate the racist suspicion, endlessly repeated by the man who followed Obama into office, that the Black man was not born in the US, that he was not one of “us.”
The factual documentation of the birth certificate did not end the spreading fiction. It ended only when Trump conceded the truth.
I do not believe that Donald Trump has read Goebbels, but he is a master of the rhetorical techniques the Nazi advocated and has used them with great skill. He reinforces a statement by saying it twice, if not three times. In a typical performance at a news conference during the Kavanaugh/Blasey-Ford hearings, September 26, 2018: “It does impact my opinion. You know why? Because I have had a lot of false charges made against me. I am a very famous person. Unfortunately. I have been a famous person for a long time. But I’ve had a lot of false charges made against me. Really false charges. I have had friends that have had false charges.” After a few more words, he repeats “false charges.” False charges made by dishonest, bad, disgraceful, disgusting people against the immaculate, perfect self is a reiterated Trump theme that resonates among those who feel that the simple cultural recognition of Others—a female, Black, brown, trans, immigrant, Muslim, or disabled person—is itself a false charge against them, a perceived attack on and diminishment of them. This is “purity politics.” I spew all my demons onto you. It is old, deep, and human. “Witch hunt” becomes a verbal trajectile that purges the self of the very sin it names.What passes for objectivity is a tone of neutrality, sobriety, and inhibition written in the third person with a heavy reliance on the passive voice.
Negativity, simplicity, repetition, hyperbole work. Donald Trump offers his followers a speedy route from shame to pride. He is the personification of their redemption, a potent medicine for what ails them, which works best at rallies when indignant, hostile emotions can travel from one body to another in rhythmic repetitive beats and swell to a peak that belongs not to the individual but to the crowd. And when it reaches that climax, the relief after exorcism is palpable. The now docile crowd files out of the convention center satiated. The pandemic has interrupted this mass purgative, and that respite may have benefited the Democratic ticket, but the itch for release can be felt in roaming militias; unmasked, armed right-wing agitators; and the unidentified military personnel sent by the government to quell protest. Facts will not protect Americans from this mounting violence.
Aren’t the parallels to the 1930s in Europe obvious? No, the US is not the frail Weimar Republic. Fascism attracted the young in large numbers. The American right does not. Hitler and Trump are not identical. European fascism abhorred individualism. Rugged individualism is an American mantra. Ironically, Trump is perceived as the incarnation of our masculine fantasy of complete autonomy and mastery, a self-made entrepreneurial hero—despite his less than vigorous appearance, despite his inherited riches, despite his multiple bankruptcies, despite his brutal treatment of women. Then again, it may be that these same factors enhance him in the eyes of those who love him.
The far right in Germany has anointed the American president as savior. He panders to neo-Nazis, codes his language for white evangelicals, some of whom have been reading political reality through the Book of Revelation for a long time: Hillary Clinton as the Whore of Babylon, Barack Obama as the forerunner of the Anti-Christ. Trump bestows his muted blessing on Q. QAnon is growing internationally. The protagonist of this conspiracy fiction, the great man fighting the deep state of Satanists, pedophilic brutes, and rich Jews—is Trump.
Anti-Semitic tropes reappear in a new guise. The Nazis used religious imagery to depict Hitler, a man who radiated light, a man with a halo, a man to lift the nation from the misery of humiliation and defeat after the First World War to national glory. There is a “Trump the Redeemer” Christmas ornament for sale. The president is equipped with a halo. It is advertised as “a great gift for anyone you know who loves Trump and an even better gift for someone who hates Trump.” There are portraits of the president illuminated in sacral light. “I am the chosen one,” Trump says. Just a joke? Irony? A coded remark? How does one interpret this sentence? Doesn’t it depend not only on who you are but where you are? Doesn’t it depend on your situation?A million repetitions strengthens the message, and the message sells. Moral outrage sells, whether it is to endorse an ideological position or disparage it.
The meaning of words is social, created in and by the lived experience of a group. Human beings are always looking beyond what is said to glean more. We interpret the gestures, gazes, and intonations of other people for signs of welcome or danger. To do otherwise risks missing important clues. And yet, we often over-read or misread. The delusions of patients with schizophrenia are dense with potent signs. Numbers on a license plate correspond to significant birthdays, biblical passages, news reports. Patterns are established and whole cosmologies are born from them. The CIA, global corporations, the medical establishment, God and Satan figure frequently in psychotic delusions, powerful forces that pull invisible strings to torment the patient. Telling her that the facts do not support her conclusions is futile. The enthusiasts of QAnon are not psychotics, but the quest for a secret meaning that will explain a deeply felt malaise is strikingly similar
There is some evidence that those with less schooling take to conspiracy theories more readily than those with university degrees. Then again, Goebbels had a PhD and he believed in an international Jewish cabal. “We are condemned to meaning,” wrote the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Human beings look for patterns and for words that confirm their feelings about the world. Language is shared, but every language is also shot through with power relations that have established rules of speech. The master can rant and rave with impunity. The slave is forbidden to speak. Brett Kavanaugh is free to wail out his grief and vituperation, but the woman who accuses him must remain calm and polite, untouched by any sign of anger. Public rage is reserved for the powerful. What is said is secondary to who is allowed to say it. There are moments when these implicit societal speech laws are challenged. The United States is living through one of them. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a measured, “balanced” recitation of facts or an appeal to science and hard evidence will carry the day.
Those who brandish symbols of the Klan in secret meetings or tattoo themselves with neo-Nazi signs or decode Q’s cryptic messages substantiate their paranoia about enemies and sinister global plots, but they also aggrandize themselves by creating a sense of control over an uncertain world and comfort themselves with the superiority of knowing what others don’t. The pleasures of exegesis are many, but in the land of white delusion, just as important as uncovering a grand narrative of good and evil is the role of ritual. And ritual, after all, is repetition.
The incantation has magical properties in many cultures. It is a form of shared understanding that has less to do with the specific meanings of the words spoken than enacting them in a repetitious pattern that affords both mystery and succor. Chanting, like drums and dance, binds the group into one. In fascism, politics took on the aura of religious rite.
“Mechanical” is a good expression for the slogan that is taken on board automatically and unconsciously, whether it is Deutschland über Alles or America First. These slogans are defensive acts that create a magic circle for those who step inside it, and that inner space is effectively thoughtless. This is what Hannah Arendt stressed when she wrote about her much-misunderstood concept of the banality of evil. Conventional, stock phrases and the complacent repetition of received knowledge are bricks in a wall that protect people from a multifarious, ambiguous, and threatening reality. On trial for crimes against humanity, the Nazi Adolf Eichmann said again and again that he was just doing his “duty,” just “following orders.” Those orders included genocide. For Arendt this was the thoughtless evil of the ordinary. Evil is not a superhuman force that resides exclusively in psychopaths or monsters. After all, Adolf Hitler would have been nothing without popular support. Donald Trump would vanish tomorrow without his “base.”
Evil, Arendt argued, resides in apparently innocuous human beings. This is the immense difficulty, of course. Mainstream media have taken great pains to protect the patriotic white guy from the accusation of evil, the guy who drives his SUV to the Trump rally; the guy who loves his wife and kids; the guy whose heart pounds with joyful malice as he howls, “Lock her up!” and “Send her back!” It is much easier to look back in horror at the ordinary German who railed against Jews, Slavs, Roma, the mentally disabled, and psychiatric patients as unfit. How could they believe all that? What possessed them? It’s unthinkable. Will thinking help us now?
Arendt idealized thought. “Thinking,” she wrote, “means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life, you have to make up your mind anew.” I suspect this is not possible. Every person is a creature of habits of mind and of feeling, but there is terrible danger in the rote and the mechanical, in the thoughtless repetitions of hatred and cruelty celebrated by a significant portion of the US population, led by a cynical redeemer and his Republican defenders. Huey Long did not say, “When fascism comes to America, they will call it Americanism.” The sentence was written in a paper by an obscure professor decades ago. The sentiment is hardly new.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but the past reveals similarities to the present. It provides lessons and insights. In the early 1930s, serious American journalists regarded Hitler as a wannabe Mussolini, a buffoonish character whose tenuous hold on power would quickly evaporate—including the sages at the New York Times.