Americans like to think of the military defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of death camps as their answer to the most murderous outbreak of anti-Semitism in history. It has become part of our national lore: American soldiers escorting German locals to visit Buchenwald, forcing them to see the faces of those killed with their complicity.
Americans predictably forget that their initial response to attacks on Jews in Germany during the 1930s was utterly shameful. Horrific persecution was broadly reported in American media. Yet our country passed up opportunity after opportunity to accept Jewish refugees, including children. President Roosevelt said it was “not a governmental affair.” Cultural leaders such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh normalized anti-Semitic ideas and language.
Yet after the war no one ever forced Americans to walk past the faces of those who needlessly died with their complicity.
“Away from the battlefield,” said Eli Wiesel, “the judgment of history will be harsh. How many victims, Jews and non-Jews, could have been saved had we changed our immigration laws, opened our gates more widely, protested more forcefully? We did not. Why not?”
It is not my purpose to indict the dead. It is only to point out how close to the cultural surface prejudice has been and remains. It is not foreign to human nature; it is a disturbing facet of that nature. Religious people might say that human beings are fallen — inherently prone to selfishness and sin. Science reveals Homo sapiens as creatures programmed to serve our family and tribe, predisposed to dehumanize out-groups and prone to follow the crowd even when we know it is wrong.
The knowledge that men and women can be led to commit, enable and ignore great evil should underlie any realistic approach to governing. Certainly any conservative approach to governing. “Civilization is hideously fragile,” said C.P. Snow, “there’s not much between us and the Horrors underneath. Just about a coat of varnish.”
These are the ultimate stakes of the political enterprise. I am talking about something in a different category from tax cuts and regulatory reform. Do political figures recognize the fragility of decency and humanity and guard them from fracture? Or do they shatter them for their own purposes by demonizing some group or faith? The cascade of consequences following this kind of act is more rapid than it has ever been before, due to the speed and amplification of modern technology. Many find permission for their worst instincts and corroboration for pernicious conspiracy theories. Some advocating more overt hatred emerge from under their digital rocks and are granted new visibility. A few of the unstable are given a cause that carries them into violence.
At the same time, and not coincidentally, the big business of partisanship — cable networks and hosts, radio personalities, talking heads and conspiratorial websites — manage to profit from the escalation of contempt. They are the culture war profiteers.
We see this dynamic at work when Hispanics are routinely reduced to caricatures of gang bangers and rapists, intent on invading the country (with Democratic support); when refugees are identified as a dangerous fifth column, motivated by an inherently violent faith; when young African-American men are regularly accused of disloyalty for acts of protest; and, yes, when politicians and commentators talk about “globalists,” and the “[George] Soros-occupied State Department” and are clearly going after the Jews.
Much of this can be traced to white supremacy, or its close cousin, white grievance. But why anti-Semitism? Why did the Charlottesville alt-right protesters defend Confederate monuments by chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”? I am not sure. Anti-Semitism seems to have deep theological roots, in the distortion of Christianity as a blessing for hatred. It bubbles up on the right and left, among European right-wingers and academic “anti-Zionists,” from Republican legislators, from followers of Louis Farrakhan and from the leader of the British Labour Party. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in America from 2016 to 2017. Can there be any other reason for this spike than the general legitimation of dehumanization in American politics?
This is what makes Republicans who are complicit — those who are bystanders and enablers — so difficult to understand or forgive. Many regard themselves as opponents of prejudice and especially as philosemites. But how can they accept political leadership that expands the acceptable range of hatred? How can they condemn the fire in our public life when they follow a political pyromaniac? Or perhaps they assume that history will again look the other way.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.