Ursula’s father was a caring, diligent man who worked hard to support his family. His small business gave them a comfortable life and a respected position in their small, close-knit country town. When the financial crisis devastated the country and destroyed his business, his relationships with leading community figures helped him find work to keep his family afloat. Those same community connections would rescue the family when Ursula’s father died suddenly from a kidney disease. She would find a place and a purpose in the political party that played such a key role in her family’s protection. In her late teens, that party would become her passion.
That political party was the Nazis. Ursula Mahlendorf’s father joined the SS in the early 1930’s, enjoying the protection and patronage of a rising local political force. When he died, she joined the Hitler Youth, becoming a dedicated young servant of the Nazi regime.
Her older brother had managed to avoid politics and military service until ’45 based on his valuable agricultural skills. When he was finally drafted in the late months of the war, he chose to join the SS in order to be part of the country’s most elite remaining army units.
Ursula and most of her family narrowly escaped the ruthless, wholly justified vengeance doled out by the Red Army, eventually finding their way to the West. There, over a long period of time, she came to see her experience and her collaboration in a very different light. She would write a memoir that opens a rare glimpse into the mindset of Hitler’s most committed followers, painting a haunting picture of the “ordinary” people whose simple political choices unleashed hell on Earth.
Was Ursula Mahlendorf a bad person? What about her father, who made the decision as an adult to join the SS? What about her brother? What did they do to deserve to have their homes bombed, their lives ruined, their community torn apart and eventually handed over to others? The answer is complicated, simultaneously both “nothing” and “everything.”
Many of us are puzzled, disappointed, even enraged by the willingness of people we once loved and respected to embrace Trump. Unlike any political choice we’ve faced in living memory, voting for Republicans now repudiates every standard of civility and decency in public life. Yet we know otherwise decent people who are supporting this disaster, cheering it on, and contributing their political capital toward patently evil ends. This inspires some troubling questions.
What does it mean to be good or bad in a political context, where every choice is a compromise? What will it take to once again share a political order with the people who unleashed his horror? What attitude toward public and personal morality will help us defeat this Fascist threat and build a more stable, just political order?
Americans today aren’t used to thinking about the problem of morality in politics. Across generations of relative calm enforced by Cold War pressures, we came to think of politics as a largely administrative matter. Those who took politics too seriously were marginalized. Under the external threat of global Communism, order was more important than justice or progress. Where order is a central imperative, civility is the guiding moral value. No one lost friends over mere politics.
That stable and stifling order has collapsed. There is no going back. We will build a new political order, whether we like it or not.
Out of chaos comes opportunity. Failure of a political system opens once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for progress or degradation. An opportunity to achieve our best is also an opportunity to express our worst. As we build a new political order over the ruins of the old, it would be wise to develop a more adult perspective on political morality.
It is easy to identify the moral horrors of the Trump Administration and its followers. Even for a corrupt politician, Trump is an unusually malicious figure, a malignant troll in every aspect of life. There are serial killers sitting on death row who display more redeeming personal qualities.
He has built a patently mythical persona and lied in the most blatant manner to protect that story. He’s a friend and party-buddy of Jeffrey Epstein whose been accused of rape and sexual harassment by dozens of women. He cheated at business, marriage, every possible personal relationship, and finally at politics, covering his tracks by concealing records, even paying blackmail to protect those lies.
His administration has embraced policies of deliberate cruelty, even when that cruelty is otherwise counterproductive. Child separation imposed on asylum applicants serves no purpose beyond imposing terror. Blocking refugee resettlement and curbing immigration are detrimental to every national interest, harming the struggling communities who would otherwise benefit from an influx of new migrants. From rolling back spousal abuse protections to thwarting efforts to fight global warming, it’s hard to find an issue of human moral interest where this Administration hasn’t pursued maximum malice.
The Republican Party today is the American expression of Fascism in the same manner that the Nazis embodied Fascism for Germans. Donald Trump is what Hitler looks like in a contemporary American context. Where the German Hitler was a wounded, decorated war veteran who dedicated his life to a noxious political ideal, the American Hitler is a cruel, debauched mobster, greedy, unloved by anyone who knows him, who has cheated his way past any obligation to the greater good, lacking any visible expression or empathy or self-knowledge. Trump is what Americans are at their worst, and it’s not a pretty picture.
We will careen from crisis to crisis, degrading the progress built up over decades and centuries, until the Republican Party is destroyed and its hold on power broken. What does that mean for the people promoting and supporting Fascism? How do we preserve our humanity while winning a battle against an inhumane system?
Present-day Republicans can comfortably fit into three categories: bigots, religious cultists and grifters. A few very special figures, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., manage to check off all three boxes. What the bigots and cultists have in common is an attachment to an older, white supremacist order, and a sense of paralyzing fear. The bigots are afraid of non-whites while the cultists are terrified of women.
Hovering over them are the grifters, exploiting the cowardice of terrified white people to reap profit. Preacher/entertainers like Paula White and Jay Sekulow are rolling in the lucre. But ordinary wealthy white people, doctors, hedge fund managers, and the guy who owns the restaurant down at the corner are right next to them at the trough, seizing their chance to benefit from public services without paying their share.
The overwhelming majority of Trumpists are morally unremarkable people possessing just enough of one of those three traits to numb their conscience. Many of these “ordinary Nazis” are people we once loved and respected, people who care for their friends and family with empathy and compassion that anyone would admire. Are they monsters? What Ursula Mahlendorf’s father a monster? Her brother? What are the moral implications for otherwise decent people of embracing public evil?
By any objective standard, the GOP now is a remarkably repugnant political movement. But keep this strange fact in mind. Based on someone’s zip code, gender, education level, race and income, you can predict whether they’re a Trump supporter with a very high degree of accuracy. Is there some moral quality in a zip code, or in a racial background?
The rise of American Fascism, supported by the same kinds of “nice people” who backed the Nazis, should open our eyes to some stark realities. The system we live in predicts our political choices far more reliably than any individual factors. We tend to reason collectively, socially, based on the choices that keep us aligned with our community, regardless of objective facts. We cannot count on personal morality to carry much weight in a political context. Very few people, Democrat or Republican, would hide Anne Frank in their attic.
There are some nice, decent, loving people spreading Fascism in our country. If we want to replace the menace they’ve unleashed with something that will, in fact, be more humane, we cannot take the shortcut of pretending they are monsters. We will have to fight them relentlessly, and perhaps even violently, while seeing their humanity.
Even when our political opponents have embraced the darkest of public horrors, there are dangers in abandoning empathy. That does not for a moment suggest we shrink from a fight. It means that to produce a more just and successful political order we must maintain this confrontation, even to the most extreme outcomes, while bearing the burden of human empathy. This isn’t easy.
Humility plays a part in sustaining humane values. I live in the state of Illinois, where my state’s Democratic leadership have universally taken a “courageous” stand against the Fascist mob boss in control of the White House. But how much courage does this stance really demonstrate? How much personal moral fortitude does it take to oppose the leader of your opposing party?
While Trump undermines democracy from Washington, our state government is controlled down to the smallest detail by Mike Madigan, a straight-up gangster who operates above the law, enabled by a complex mafia-style political machine. Like Trump, Madigan’s friends, family and lieutenants live one step ahead of the FBI. Those who fall behind in that race against justice form a small, rotating, but fairly stable percentage of the state’s inmate population.
No one here in Illinois has the temerity to deny this reality. Mention the Madigan problem to a Democratic politician and they’ll likely acknowledge it. Then they’ll explain why they can’t do anything about it. “Pragmatism” requires them to make compromises with this criminal machine in order to serve the larger good. More or less the mirror image of what leading Republicans say privately about Trump. All the supposed courage Democrats display in confronting Trump melts into a “reasonable compromise” when it comes time to do something hard, something that would place their personal ambitions at risk.
To become a successful Democratic politician in Illinois means making peace with a rapacious, corrupt regime that diverts a substantial percentage of any worthy endeavor toward naked personal plunder. Under Madigan’s leadership, the state has been hemorrhaging population, while lagging behind its potential on every metric. A state that should be bluer and more progressive than California sits mired in ineptitude and graft. Not one of these “courageous” Democratic leaders has called for Madigan to be subject to the same scrutiny they’ve directed toward Donald Trump.
To be fair, Madigan isn’t remotely as foul as Trump. He’s a pretty affable guy with a nice family. He isn’t ripping babies from their mothers or forcing refugees back into war zones to be killed. He is, however, a blocking vote against any reform which fails to carve out a benefit for him or his machine. He runs a criminal organization that stands as a tollbooth between the public interest and any effective public policy. If he needed to lock immigrant children in cages to keep his machine rolling, he wouldn’t pause long enough for a qualm to form. And not one of these courageous Democratic leadership figures have the courage to oppose him.
A bad system will produce harmful outcomes from the best efforts of good people. In Illinois, Mike Madigan has constructed a malignant political system. Democrats who congratulate themselves for opposing Trump serve that corrupt system with smiles on their faces. Talk all you want about the moral rot of Trump’s supporters, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We all ration our political boldness.
We should be careful making sweeping moral judgements on political matters. At the same time, we have to make moral judgments on political matters in order for our system to survive. We can only navigate this maze with an adult appreciation for complexity and a powerful sense of humility.
After moving from Texas to the Chicago suburbs, my first pastor in our new church home was a refugee from Alabama. Literally. The United Methodist Church moved him out of northern Alabama in the early 60’s because the Klan was threatening to kill him for offering communion to black people.
Anger he felt at the injustices around him were tempered by lessons in empathy he learned from the moral and spiritual pioneers of the civil rights movement. Joining his black brethren in public marches, he saw something in the faces of those white people as they screamed and threatened him. He saw their poverty. He saw their pain. He saw their fear.
Inspired by an ancient and largely forgotten Christian ethic sharing more in common with our Buddhist and Jewish brethren than with modern Evangelicalism, Pastor Cross didn’t see a mob. He saw individuals, faces filled with the hopelessness of broken and damaged people.
Here’s the vital turn. He still fought them. He still challenged them relentlessly. Had peaceful protest failed, he would have fought them by any means necessary with all the passion and fury he brought to his everyday work, to ensure a just outcome. All of this he would have done without losing a sense of love, humility and humanity. There is power in seeing people for what they are, vulnerable, flawed and broken, and waging a fight without reducing an enemy to a hated other.
When we understand the power of a system to make good people embrace bad politics, we can begin to see the power of a healthy system to wring just outcomes from nasty, obnoxious people. We will need this understanding for the fight ahead.
General George Patton played a vital role in defeating the Nazis, but on a personal level he would have been completely comfortable in the Wehrmacht, perhaps even the SS. His remarkable effectiveness owed in part to his admiration of the Germans. He studied and adopted their tactics and embraced their values to a degree that made him dangerous at times to the war effort, and later the peace. Patton was more deeply anti-Semitic than many German generals, describing Jews as “lower than animals.” After the war his Nazi sympathies began to emerge more clearly, as he took a public position in opposition to de-Nazification.
By contrast, German General Erwin Rommel was a pretty decent guy, well-admired by all who knew him, a loving husband and father. He held no known antipathy toward the Jews and hated Hitler far more than Patton did. Rommel was arrested and forced to commit suicide after his scheme to assassinate the Fuhrer was exposed.
Why did Patton find himself liberating Nazi death camps where Rommel had fought to keep them open? It was a good system, not good personal moral qualities, that made George Patton a force for Democracy rather than Fascism. If your political system needs masses of good people in order to survive, it will probably fail. In a life or death battle against a malignant political system, hesitate to neutralize a nice person like Erwin Rommel or Robert E. Lee and those “nice” people will wreak havoc. Good systems are better than good people.
We can learn a lot about defeating evil by the outcomes of World War II in the east and west of Europe. Having been on the receiving end of German atrocities, the Red Army took a very personal approach to ridding the world of Nazis, taking relatively few prisoners. De-Nazification under the Soviets consisted mostly of suspects being taken out back and shot.
Allied-controlled areas adopted a different approach, based on implementing a system of due process rather than meting out ad hoc retribution. At its peak, there were more than 6 million Nazi Party members in Germany. Allied tribunals executed a few hundred of them. De-Nazification in the west was a system based on rules, carried out with a modicum of due process, emphasizing humane values.
Former Nazi Party members were first banned from government. Once their actions could be vetted, some were gradually evaluated for re-entry into public life. The program would be ended by the German government in 1951, but a pattern was set. Anyone with a Nazi past would be forced to publicly repudiate the party or work hard to keep that past hidden. A new political system was installed which would eschew vendettas but tolerate no open support for the Nazis.
De-Nazification in the west was ponderous, halting and bureaucratic, while the Soviets doled out “justice” in a manner consistent with their prior treatment by the Germans. Which approach was more successful? Today, if you want to find Nazi sympathizers in Germany the best place to look is in the former Soviet-controlled East. Meanwhile Fascist parties are solidly in control of former Warsaw Pact allies Hungary and Poland. Eradicating bad people is not as effective as replacing a bad system.
Whether we win or lose in November, the fight to defeat American Fascism will enter a more urgent, more personal, and perhaps violent phase. What are we supposed to do with the Fascist down the street, or across the table?
Attack the power of this regime and its supporters in every form. Strip them of access to platforms, media or any form of authority. Destroy their commercial and economic influence and block their access to markets. If the time comes, fight them in the streets or on a battlefield.
Prepare to maintain this fight for decades, relentlessly, to snuff out every remnant of white supremacist power in our country. But if you want something humane, something better, to emerge from our efforts and our sacrifice, don’t pretend they are monsters. Don’t fool yourself into believing that you could never have been in their shoes. If we pretend that we possess some innate superiority, based on our tribal or partisan affiliations, we’ll make the same mistakes all over again, placing too much trust on good people and investing too little energy in building a good system.
It is possible to carry out a clear-eyed campaign of resistance and reconstruction, with an unwavering commitment to justice, without abandoning humane values. Righteous zealots wreak havoc, regardless of the loftiness of their professed ideas. Do whatever it takes to regain control of this political system, by any means necessary. But if you want to see some form of justice and humanity emerge from the aftermath, don’t pretend that your opponents are some undifferentiated mass of evil. They’re just people. Given time, people conform to the system around them.