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The Normalizing of Authoritarianism in America

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany personify evil.  Responsible for the most horrific genocide of human beings in modern times, Hitler and the Nazis serve as the yardstick by which to measure evil (authoritarianism) and good (democracy) in societies.  Most American citizens are so conditioned to the United States being portrayed as a democracy – and its president “the leader of the free world” — that any comparison with Nazi Germany would never come to mind.  Besides, portraying Hitler and the Nazis as singularly evil incarnate serves a fundamental purpose: it diverts attention from, and allows Americans to remain oblivious to, the authoritarian evils lurking in our own halls of government and houses of worship.  The similarities between Nazi Germany and America today reveal that the normalizing of authoritarianism is happening here — before our very eyes.  The similarities are instructive – and alarming.

In 1933, Germany was a democracy when President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor.  As independent researcher Gregory Paul writes, Hitler himself was a Catholic Christian, and “said publicly on several occasions that Christ was his savior,” and “at one time considered entering the priesthood.” (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” Free Inquiry magazine, churchandstate.org.uk, October 11, 2003)

In fact, Gregory Paul states that Christians dominated Hitler’s Nazi leadership.  “According to standard biographies, the principal Nazi leaders were all born, baptized, and raised Christian.  Most,” Paul says, “grew up in strict, pious households where tolerance and democratic values were disparaged.”  Those of “Catholic background included Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Joseph Goebbels . . . [and] Rudolf Hoess, who as commandant at Auschwitz-Birkinau pioneered the use of the Zyklon-B gas that killed half of all Holocaust victims.”  The Protestant Christian Nazi leaders included Rudolf Hess, Martin Borman, Albert Speer, and Adolf Eichmann – with “Hermann Goering [of] mixed Catholic-Protestant heritage.”  Paul adds, “Not one of the Nazi leaders was raised in a liberal or atheistic family.” (Ibid)

Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party (The Nazi Party)) rose to power at a time of economic hardship, low national self-pride and political conflict in Germany.  The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, hit Germany hard, coming on the heels of its national image being shattered by defeat in World War I — with the resulting Treaty of Versailles forcing the country to pay reparations to the victors, give back conquered territory and limit the size of its military.

Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s woes.  Professor Milton Kleg, who studies racism and ethnic violence, writes that Hitler “viewed the Jews as the source of evil.  Marxism, Socialism, white slave traffic, and most other national maladies were described as Jewish.”  Hitler believed that he was “engaged in a struggle against a Jewish menace,” charging that the Jews “dominated the economic and political life of Germany.”  A charge Kleg documents as a “myth,” which many still hold “to this day.” (Anti-Semitism: Background to the Holocaust,” www.socialstudies.org)

Hitler promised the German people greatness, rallying them with his belief in the “biological superiority” of the pure white Germanic Aryan race.  A “master race,” whose economic and military power he will restore, and whose providential destiny is to rule the world.  As reported, the racial purity of Hitler’s Germany, legitimized by accommodating scientists and physicians, led to the holocaust of six million “contaminating” Jews, the killing of racially “unfit” gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black people, disabled persons, communists and other political dissenters, and the “sterilization of an estimated 400,000 “hereditarily” inferior Germans. (“The Nazi Euthanasia Program: Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.jewishvirtual library.org)

Hitler was not an insane monster from an alien planet.  His anti-Semitism was rooted in his Christian faith.  In his book Mein Kampf, he wrote, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: ‘by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.’ ” (“Adolf Hitler about the Jews: Quotes from Mein Kampf,” www.mosaisk.com)

Where did Hitler get his anti-Semitic belief in “the Lord?”  From The New Testament, which records that Jesus drove the Jewish “money changers” out of the temple, and overturned their tables and benches because they were making God’s “house of prayer” into “a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21: 12, 13)  Jesus is also recorded, in detail, denouncing the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23)

A classic, Biblical, example of blaming the victims, which no doubt also nourished Hitler’s – and most German Christians’ – anti-Semitism, is the writer of Matthew’s Gospel putting words in the mouths of the Jewish people “as a whole.”  They supposedly called for Jesus’s crucifixion, saying, “His blood is on us and on our children.” (Matthew 27: 15-26)  The horribly sanctified justification for Christian oppression of Jews as “Christ killers” down through the ages.  Never mind that the Jews were an occupied people, that Rome’s Pilate ruled over them with an iron fist and had crucified numerous would-be Jewish liberators, like Jesus. (See “Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of The Passion,” www.bc.edu, May 2, 2003)

Hitler’s vitriolic anti-Semitism also came from another source:  from 16th-century Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther.  Hitler is reported to have “openly admired” Luther and considered him “a brilliant reformer.” (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” Ibid)

Adolf Hitler’s “master race” was similar to Martin Luther’s master faith.  Luther believed in “the priesthood of all believers,” which has an inclusive-sounding appeal.  But he merely substituted the authority of The Bible for that of The Roman Catholic Church: salvation was about “justification by faith” in Jesus Christ alone.  This Reformation doctrine — which liberated people from dependency on the Catholic Church for their salvation — excluded the Jews, whom Luther judged to be a divinely despised, not “Chosen,” people, and beyond redemption.

Martin Luther’s vitriolic hatred of the Jews is spelled out in his book,  The Jews and Their Lies.  His advice: “set fire to their synagogues or schools,” raze and destroy “their houses,” take away “all their prayer books and Talmudic writings,” forbid their rabbis “to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb,” abolish safe travel on the highways “completely for the Jews,” and prohibit them from engaging in usury by taking “all cash and treasure of silver and gold . . . from them . . . In brief,” Luther says, “dear princes and lords who have Jews under your rule, if my counsel does not please you, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable devilish burden of the Jews.”  Luther calls for practicing “sharp mercy” toward the Jews, “to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames.” (“Quotes from Martin Luther ‘On Jews and their Lies,’ Part Two,” www.awitness.org)  Luther’s “sharp mercy” is assumed to have helped inspire “the glowing flames” of Hitler and Nazi Germany’s death chambers and ovens.

It can’t happen here.  People in Germany believed it couldn’t happen there.  An assessment of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany states, “Ex-chancellor Franz von Papen, backed by prominent German businessmen and the conservative German National People’s Party (DNVP), convinced [President] Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, with the understanding that von Papen as vice-chancellor and other non-Nazis in key government positions would contain Hitler’s more brutal tendencies. (”Adolf Hitler is named chancellor of Germany,” www.history.com)  Similar assurances have come from certain journalists and politicians, who have cited the constitutional safeguards and political influences that will keep an impulsive, narcissistic Donald Trump in check.

A warning is provided by Professor Kleg.  He writes that racism and anti-Semitism did not end with the defeat of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  “One would be remiss to forget that in 1922 there were fewer than one hundred members of what was to become the ruling party of Germany within eleven years.”  Whereas, “in the United States alone there are over three hundred hate groups that support or embrace the same beliefs that spawned German National Socialism.” (“Anti-Semitism: Background to the Holocaust,” Ibid)

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers an updated warning, reporting that “the number of hate groups operating in the country in 2016 remained at nearly historic highs, rising from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year.”  And “in the immediate aftermath of Election Day, a wave of hate crimes and lesser hate incidents swept the country.” (‘THE YEAR IN HATE AND EXTREMISM,’ SPLC, 2017 Spring Issue, Feb. 15, 2017)

Professor Robert Gellately offers another history lesson.   He describes the normalization of fascism under Hitler’s rule, writing, “They began with small violations of the rights of Jews and other minorities, and then ratcheted up their racism and persecution only when they saw implied consent from the German people.”  Then these instructive words from Gellately:  “Many Germans disapproved of Hitler’s fascism and brutality at first.  But, after the long economic depression following the First World War, the German people allowed the thriving economy and return to law and order under Hitler to mute their criticism. (Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1933, Oxford University Press, 2001; “Robert Gellately,” Faculty Profile, Florida State University, fsu.edu/profiles/gellately)

Independent researcher Gregory Paul cites historian Klaus Scholder explanation for Germany’s fragile democracy, which has implications for those who take American’s democracy for granted.  Scholder “explains that Germany lacked a deep democratic tradition, and would have had difficulty in forming one because German society was thoroughly divided into opposing Protestant [40 million members] and Catholic [20 million] blocs.”  The “competition, fear and prejudice” between “Protestants and
Catholics . . . erected an almost insurmountable barrier to the formation of [a] broad democratic center.  And it favored the rise of Hitler, since ultimately both churches courted his favor.”  Paul writes that “Christians had the power to protect the lives and well-being of others and the potential to confound Hitler and his minions.  Had they wished to, they need only have applied it.” (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” Ibid; Klaus Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, Vol. 1, Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1979 [English version, 1988)

Like Germany, American democracy is being undermined by partisan and sectarian divides.  With the election of America’s first black president, Barack Hussein Obama, the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats increased dramatically.  Republican politicians – and their supporters – freely vented their racism as the “loyal opposition” party.  And Obama’s re-election merely served to sharpen America’s partisan political divide – with the bi-partisan center shrinking even more.

A capricious Donald Trump tapped into America’s ingrained white supremacy.  He exhibited his own brand of racial purity as the leader of the Birther Movement, charging that President Obama was not born in the United States and could well be a Muslim.  This preposterous charge proved effective.  The racist appeal of the Birther claim and the equally racist appeal of portraying himself as “the law and order candidate” helped propel Trump to the top of America democracy’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic, legal and religious power.  (For an informative account of how racism, more than economics, contributed to Trump’s presidential victory, see “Top Democrats Are Wrong: Trump Supporters Were More Motivated by Racism Than Economic Issues,” By Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, April 6, 2017)

There is also the sectarian divide.  In 1933, the Nazi government and the Vatican signed a Concordat, an agreement that guaranteed “freedom of profession and public practice of the Catholic religion.”  In return, Catholic bishops pledged “loyalty to the German Reich and to the State,” and would require their clergy “to honor” the same pledge.  Also, in exchange for “preserving the rights and privileges of the Catholic Church . . . the Holy See will enact regulations to exclude the clergy and members of religious orders from membership in political parties and from working on their behalf.” (“Reichskonkordat (1933): Full text,” Ratified Sept. 10, 1933, www.concordatwatch.eu)  The Concordat served to reinforce the separation already existing between Catholic and Protestant Germans, further negating any solidarity between them to challenge Nazi Germany’s brutal oppressive policies.

Not that Hitler favored Catholic Germans over the Protestants.  The Nazi Party Platform statement promoted “positive Christianity,” which “demand[ed] the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence on conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. “  The “moral sentiments of the Germanic race” include “combat[ing] the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.” (“The German Churches and the Nazi State,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org)  Here freedom of religious practice is given in exchange for loyalty to the State, and the State determines “the common good.”

Certain Protestants and Catholics opposed the Nazis racial ideology and sought to protect the Jews.  Some sacrificed their lives doing so.  As cited, “the most famous members of the Confessing Church were the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his role in the conspiracy to overthrow the regime, and Pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent seven years in concentration camps for his criticisms of Hitler.”  But, “even in the Confessing Church, most church leaders were primarily concerned with blocking state and federal interference in church affairs.”  And “throughout this period there was virtually no public opposition to antisemitism or any readiness by church leaders to publicly oppose the regime on the issues of antisemitism and state-sanctioned violence against the Jews.” (Ibid)

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pastor Martin Niemoller are rightly revered Christians.  Their cherished names are spoken in the classrooms of U.S. theological seminaries and in countless pulpits.  Unfortunately, their integrity and courage and sacrifice serve another purpose.  Vicarious identification with them allows many Christians to turn their risky model into a monument and worship it.  Such vicarious identification also allows Christian apologists to gloss over the authoritarian tendencies inherent in Christianity’s assumed exceptionalism as the one true/pure religion that accommodated and abetted Hitler and the Nazi regime – and aided the “democratic” regime of President George W. Bush, and now that of President Trump.

Like Hitler’s manipulation of German Christians, President Donald Trump is dividing and conquering American Christians by exploiting their differences.  He received the support of a significant majority of evangelical Christians and Catholics by promising to appoint a pro-life Supreme Court justice, which, as president, he has done.  In front of his evangelical advisory board and other applauding faith leaders, Trump also issued an executive order on religious liberty, the reported “centerpiece” of which “is a pledge to allow clergy and houses of worship to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.” (“Trump’s Order on Religious Liberty Pleases Some, but Lets Down Conservatives,” By Laurie Goodstein and Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, May 5, 2017)

President Trump’s executive order, allowing clergy to endorse political candidates from the pulpit, may seem to be the opposite of Hitler’s Concordat requiring Catholic Churches to stay out of the affairs of the State.  But the executive order is actually similar to the Concordat: Hitler required the loyalty of  Christians, and Trump is rewarding the loyalty of Christians.

President Trump, however, did not go far enough.  To the dismay of many evangelical Christians and Catholics, his executive order did not include a religious liberty clause that would allow them to legally discriminate against LGBTQ persons.  But there is still hope.  Trump held that discriminatory carrot in front of conservative Christians throughout the presidential campaign by selecting Mike Pence as his vice-presidential running mate, and Pence has a proven anti-LGBTQ track record as governor of Indiana.

President Trump has wooed a large conservative Christian voter block.  In the process he has effectively prevented moderate and liberal Christians and their more conservative counterparts from joining in common cause against his authoritarian policies.

It can’t happen here.  Compare the words of Adolph Hitler and Donald Trump.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler said,

With satanic joy in his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people.

With every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate.  Just as he himself systematically ruins women and girls, he does not shrink from pulling down the blood barriers for others, even on a large scale.  It was and it is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization, throwing it down from its cultural and political height, and himself rising to be its master.  (Adolf Hitler: Excerpts from Mein Kampf, www.jewishvirtual library.org)

Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign this way:

Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best.  . . . They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. (sic)  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  . . . It’s coming from more than Mexico.  It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably from the Middle East.  But we don’t know because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening.  And it’s got to stop fast.  Islamic terrorism is eating up large portions of the Middle East.  . . .  I would build a great, great wall on our Southern border.  And I would have Mexico pay for the wall.  . . .

Sadly, the American dream is dead.  But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again. (Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” Time Staff, Time.com, June 16, 2015)

Similar racist ideologies.  The one is about satanic Jews “destroy[ing] the racial foundations” of “the hated white race.”  The other is about a foreign and criminal element destroying the national foundations of “the American dream” – with “making America great again” translated to mean restoring America’s Euro-white Christian foundations.

President Trump is now restoring “the [white] American Dream.”  He has hired more immigration police, who are carrying out his promised mass deportations of undocumented Mexicans and other persons – this indiscriminate and cruel policy tearing immigrant families apart.  Trump is keeping his campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” and to “kill their family members” – by giving the Pentagon authority to use military power as its sees fit, which has resulted in an increase in the deaths of civilians in Syria and Iraq and Yemen. (See “ ‘A Lot more civilians are dying,’ “ By Tim Hume, Vice News, Mar. 30, 2017)

But President Trump is not an American authoritarian anomaly.   President George W. Bush outdid Trump by professing Christ as his savior, which not only helped him to be elected president.  His falsely-based, horrific, destructive invasion and occupation of Iraq was supported by an overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians.  Their own authoritarian belief in Christ as the savior of the world led them to enthusiastically assume that, in the wake of their “Christian brother-in-Christ’s” pre-emptive invasion of defenseless Iraq, they could extend the “Kingdom of God” by converting Iraq’s vulnerable Muslims to Christ – thus fulfilling Jesus’ recorded commandment to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28: 19-20)

President Trump, while extremely unstable and devoid of empathy, is not an authoritarian aberration.  Journalist Glenn Greenwald exposes this media-made myth in his article, “Trump’s Support of Despots Is Central to the U.S. Tradition, Not a Deviation from It.”  Greenwald writes, “U.S. devotion to the world’s worst dictators did not end, or even recede, upon the end of the Cold War.  Both the Bush and the Obama administrations continually armed, funded, supported, and praised the world’s worst dictators.”  Greenwald continues, “Despite these decades of flagrant pro-dictatorship policies, the U.S. media and leading political officials have spent months manufacturing and disseminating a propagandistic fairy tale that casts Donald Trump’s embrace of dictators as some sort of new aberrational departure from the noble American tradition.”  Greenwald states that what angers Trump’s critics “is that he’s denying them the ability to maintain the myths they desperately tell themselves about their own country.”  The myths.  “Being able to claim that the U.S. is devoted to spreading freedom and democracy in the world  . . . in order to justify their position as global arbiters of the behavior of other countries.  Once that veneer is removed,” Greenwald concludes, “what they are defending is nothing more than the illegitimate and arbitrary exercise of imperial power.” (The Intercept, May 2, 2017)

Recognizing President Trump’s authoritarianism as made in America is not to minimize the dangerous extent to which he is normalizing authoritarian tendencies of Americans.  His put down of “political correctness” is a slick winking encouragement to supporters to act out against designated enemies.  Thus the dramatic rise in hate crimes against Muslims and immigrants and Jews.  He attacks the very institutions that are charged with scrutinizing a president’s behavior and providing checks and balances that hold a president accountable.  He repeatedly tells his audiences that “the media are “fake news” and “the enemy of the American people” — an obvious attempt to neutralize any examination, questioning or challenging of his policies, which defensive behavior reveals his anti-introspective tendencies.  He has no respect for the Constitution’s separation of powers: seen in his reacting to federal judge James Robart’s ruling against his anti-Muslim travel ban, referring to him as “a so-called judge,” and repeatedly continued tweeting disparaging comments about the judge’s decision. (“Trump attacks another federal judge,” By Eugene Scott and Allie Malloy, CNNPolitics.com, Feb. 5, 2017)

President Trumps’ latest, alleged, authoritarian act was to demand loyalty from FBI director James Comey, whose position is traditionally independent of presidential or other political pressure.  Trump is reported to have ask Comey to stop the FBI’s investigation into his National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia and Russia’s possible role in influencing the 2016 presidential campaign.  To Trump, loyalty means submission to his wishes; and Comey’s disobedience is assumed to have led to his firing.

Here, President Trump’s authoritarianism is especially seen in whom he repeatedly says he confers with for advice.  As The New York Times reports, the White House said that Trump fired FBI director James Comey because of his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail conduct.  “But the president undercut that argument a day later, telling NBC news, ‘When I decided to just do it, I said to myself – you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ” (“Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Relieved Pressure From Inquiry,” by Matt Apuzzo, Maggie Haberman and Matthew Rosenberg, May 20, 2017) Trump agreed with himself, and fired Comey.

President Trump continues to demonstrate that he is emotionally unable to participate as a member of a democratic society, never mind lead it.  Transparency, accountability, the recognition and guidance of other authorities, these democratic traits are not part of Trump’s character.  His belittling of people with differing views, authoritarian-like threats to kill adversaries, demand for submission to his dictates, anti-introspective tendencies, stereotyping of whole groups of people as inferior, and projection of his own aggressive tendencies on to other groups are plain to see.  (For a classic study of authoritarianism in the aftermath of Nazi Germany, see The Authoritarian Personality, By Adorno et al, W. W. Norton & Company, Nov. 1, 1993 (first published in 1950)

Fortunately, certain reporters, journalists and editors in mainstream and alternative media are holding President Trump and his administration accountable.  As are federal judges, who, thus far, have continued to rule against his ban on Muslims entering the country.  Even the head of the FBI has said No! to his authoritarianism.

But where are the faith leaders and their congregations?  Numerous individual congregations are providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants caught up in President Trump’s xenophobic racist and ethnic hatred.  But where are the public statements of mainline liberal and moderate Christian leaders?  Are they like most German Christians, who provided “virtually no public opposition” to the Nazi regime’s “state-sanctioned violence against the Jews?”

The morality and humanity of The Golden Rule demand that American clergy practice the very freedom offered by Trump’s executive order on religious liberty.  Thanks to Trump, that order allows clergy to endorse political leaders from their pulpit.  Clergy can now not only commend political power, but confront political power with reality and moral truth.

 

 

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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