Unmentionable lessons of the midterm aftermath.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 28 2006 6:29 PM

The N-Word

Unmentionable lessons of the midterm aftermath.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Warning: This article contains the word Nazi.

There's been something weird about the denouement of the midterm elections, starting with the pronounced absence of Democratic triumphalism. The prevailing mood has been stunned relief rather than glee, and nobody seems eager to delve too deeply into what exactly it was about George W. Bush that the voters so roundly rejected. Put another way, what were the sins included under the shorthand summary for the president's failures, "Iraq"?

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For some reason, I keep thinking about an observation Eleanor Roosevelt made in an unpublished interview conducted in May of 1940, as the German Wehrmacht swept across France. She expressed dismay that a "great many Americans" would look with favor on a Hitler victory in Europe and be greatly attracted to fascism. Why? "Simply because we are a people who tend to admire things that work," she said. So, were the voters last month protesting Bush's policies—or were they complaining that he had not made those policies work? If Operation Iraqi Freedom had not been such an unqualified catastrophe, how long would the public have assented to the programs that accompanied the "war on terror": the legalization of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, the unauthorized surveillance of law-abiding Americans, the unilateral exercise of executive power, and the Bush team's avowed prerogative to "create our own reality"?

Mrs. Roosevelt's example notwithstanding, polite discussion of that question does not contain any derivative of the words fascism, propaganda, or dictatorship. God forbid Nazi or Hitler. The extent to which it is verboten to bring up Nazi Germany has now become a jape. "Can't pols just have little Post-its on their microphones reminding them not to compare anything to the Nazis?" Maureen Dowd wrote in the Times recently, after yet another off-message senator was taken to the woodshed. The ban applies equally to the arena of intellectual debate, such that even the wild and woolly Internet has a Godwin's Law to describe the cred-killing effect of dropping the N-bomb. So, even though it is a truism that we learn by analogy, even though the Bush administration unapologetically practices the reality-eschewing art of propaganda—with procured "journalists," its own "news" pipeline at Fox, leader-centric ("war president") stagecraft, the classic Big Lie MO of, say, draft avoiders smearing war heroes as unpatriotic—we are not permitted to draw any comparisons to the über-propagandists of the previous century. That prohibition is reiterated in the coy caution with which I introduce the topic here.

The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the Jews, we ignore the Holocaust's more universal hallmark: the banal ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third Reich Germany to today's America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that the United States government is a death machine. It's that it provides a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable, justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.

In America, the word fascism itself has something of the quality of a joke—with its vague, '60s sense of meaning "anything we don't like." But because I've been reading Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler; Richard Rubinstein's explanation of the Holocaust, The Cunning of History; and various studies of the Third Reich for a book in progress, I've acquired a vivid picture of the real thing. (Before I continue, please insert here whatever disclaimers it takes to stop yourself from listing the ways in which we are not like Nazi Germany.)

The most literal shock of recognition was the repulsively callous arrogance of the term "shock and awe." (The Iraqi people were supposed to pause and be impressed by our bombs before being incinerated/liberated by them?) Airstrikes as propaganda had been the invention of the German Luftwaffe, whose signature work, the terror-bombing Blitz of England, did not awe the British people into submission, either. Then there were subtler reverberations. When Bush's brain trust pushed through its executive-enhancing stratagems, I happened to be reading about brilliant German legal theoretician Carl Schmitt, who codified Hitler's führerprincip into law. (In the Balkans of cyberspace, I discovered, lurked an excellent article by Alan Wolfe detailing how Schmitt's theories also predicted the salt-the-ground political tactics of the Karl Rove conservatives.) When the administration established a class of nonpersons known as the "unlawful enemy combatant," I flashed on how the Nazis legalized their treatment of the Jews simply by rendering them stateless. And then in 2004, the Republicans threatened to override Senate rules and abolish the filibuster in order to thwart the Democrats' stand against Bush's most extremist nominees for federal judgeships. This "nuclear option" (so named by Trent Lott in acknowledgment of his party's willingness to destroy the Congress in order to save the country) struck me as a functional analog of the Enabling Act of 1933, which consolidated the German government under Chancellor Hitler and effectively dissolved the Reichstag as a parliamentary body.

Alas, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd made the same connection. When he cited the Enabling Act to admonish his colleagues across the aisle, they hit back with indignation and ridicule and, for good measure, jeered him for having joined the filibuster (led by Lott's hero Strom Thurmond) against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that ultimately averted A-bomb proved to be minor compared with the more precise reiteration of the Enabling Act to come. The official name of that 1933 National Socialist masterstroke was the "Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich," and the distress warranting its transfer of dictatorial power to Hitler was the state crisis provoked by the Reichstag fire the month before. And so it was under the open-ended emergency created by 9/11 that Bush's Military Commissions Act, passed in September, gave the president authority to designate anyone he so deemed, citizen or no, an 'unlawful enemy combatant' and, habeas corpus having been nullified, send noncitizens away indefinitely. *

In an interview on MSNBC the day the bill was signed, Jonathan Turley, constitutional law professor at George Washington University, declared the date one of the most infamous in the history of the republic, and amazed at the "national yawn" greeting this "huge sea change for our democracy." Where was the public consternation about this reversal of our founding principles? That interested me more than the brazen coup of the administration—which Carl Schmitt might argue was a categorical imperative. Why had the decent people of the country mounted no serious protest even against something as on-its-face objectionable as the bill's sanction of torture?

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a recent speech to an American audience, summarized (in a different context) the formula by which social evil gains mass acceptance: vilification of an enemy (file under  fear-mongering) and habituation to incremental barbarities. Evidence of America's proficiency at this dual process is no more distant than the era of Southern apartheid, even if our own state-sponsored racism was a psycho-sociopolitical genocidal purgatory as opposed to a final solution. While we may prefer to believe that the Good German institutions capitulated to Hitler under the black boot of the SS, current scholarship confirms that Nazification, like segregation in America, was largely voluntary, even in the free press.

The Bush-era fourth estate has come up short not only against the Big Lie of "fair and balanced" news but also against its equally cunning cousin: the Small Inaccuracy used to repudiate the damaging larger truth. CBS crumbled under the administration's mau-mauers over Memogate, while Newsweek managed to withstand the hazing it took for its Koran-in-the-toilet item—which, like the substance of Dan Rather's offending report on Bush's National Guard career, was not only accurate; it was old news. But why didn't the national media go on the offensive and re-educate the government, and the public, about the inevitable if regrettable price of a free press? Mistakes will be made in the proverbial first draft of history, and holding reporters to a standard of perfection would inhibit them from performing the vigilance crucial to our democratic system. The media had become so habituated to the paralysis of self-censorship that it took a fake newsman to diagnose their Stockholm syndrome, and when Stephen Colbert acidly chided the journalists along with the president at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, the audience was not amused.

The ways our free press has served the powers it was supposed to afflict range from the belabored (Judith Miller's WMD "scoops" in the Times), to the grandiose (Tom Friedman's op-ed manifestos for a new political species: the pro-war-if-it-works liberal), to the perverse (Christopher Hitchens's flogging, in Slate, of a left-wing fifth column so much worse than the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton complex). My favorite editorial pledge of allegiance was a syndicated column by Kathleen Parker welcoming the ministrations of Bush's domestic spies because, hey, she wasn't conducting any phone business more controversial than making appointments to get her highlights done.

We have become such "good Americans" that we no longer have the moral imagination to picture what it might be like to be in a bureaucratic category that voids our human rights, be it "enemy combatant" or "illegal immigrant." Thus, in the week before the election, hardly a ripple answered the latest decree from the Bush administration: Detainees held in CIA prisons were forbidden from telling their lawyers what methods of interrogation were used on them, presumably so they wouldn't give away any of the top-secret torture methods that we don't use. Cautiously, I look back on that as the crystallizing moment of Bushworld: tautological as a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, absurd as a Marx Brothers movie, and scary as a Kafka novel.

So, is there a new, post-election normal? A recent Google search turned up some impressive, learned commentary comparing the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to the Enabling Act of 1933. A reader congratulated one of the legal scholars, human rights lawyer Scott Horton, for daring to defy Godwin's Law. Perhaps (to switch totalitarian metaphors) we are in the midst of a little intellectual Prague Spring.

Of course, that democratic interlude met a swift and terrible end. If the midterm election was a referendum on nothing more than Bush's competence, then the message the Republicans have gotten is: Next time, make it work.

Correction, Nov. 29, 2006: This piece originally claimed, incorrectly, that the Military Commissions Act strips U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens of habeas corpus rights. In fact, the provisions of the act relating to habeas corpus only apply to noncitizens. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution and a young-adult history of the movement, A Dream of Freedom.