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The Danger of ‘Cumulative Radicalization’

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It is astonishing and deeply sad to note that 19 children and two teachers were senselessly murdered by a crazed teen-aged loner in Uvalde, Texas, just days ago while a spate of police waited about for 78 minutes, reportedly afraid to intervene because the killer was armed with powerful weapons, and believing that he no longer was an active threat, despite shots occurring while they stood by.[1] Nevertheless, in the aftermath of this latest mass shooting, which followed hard on the heels of another race-inspired mass murder in Buffalo that killed 10, GOP senators promptly refused as a phalanx to entertain an effort to make such recurring nightmares less likely in the future.[2] Many of those nominal leaders unleashed a torrent of absurd lies, designed one can only suppose, at filling news time until grieving Americans move on. None of their “proposals” would make children or the nation safer, and if taken literally, the greatest share would turn the country, including its schools, into a heavily armed camp at war with itself. This posturing represents an effort to prevent any reasoned regulation of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, particularly. It must be emphasized, these weapons are not used to hunt deer, waterfowl or other wildlife.

    The fact that so many GOP officials and other party members are willing to countenance periodic mass shootings of innocents, including of children, to ignore the preferences of an overwhelming share of Americans on the question of gun regulation, and to lie absolutely and brazenly to citizens on these issues, has prompted me to reflect on the larger picture of what is happening to that Party and its so-called base as it descends into a brutish and cynical vortex of meaninglessness. Illustratively, Republican elected leaders and their most fervent followers now profess to believe the following lies, among others, as articles of faith:

  • The Big Lie that Donald Trump was elected in 2020 and the election was stolen from him by a never quite defined, but apparently shapeshifting and infinitely nefarious, group of exceptionally wily Democrats.
  • That all Democrats (and anyone who would regulate commerce for virtually any purpose or who is interested in seeking the health and well-being of the population) have become radical Socialists bent on undermining the nation’s way of life and its citizens’ freedom. As importantly, that group is not, in this view, to be met with competing ideas, but instead with fear, hatred and retribution and treated as enemies. Never mind that no such shift has occurred, and the claim is demagogic rhetoric.
  • That the attempted coup of January 6, 2021, was not planned and abetted by GOP elites, but instead by scheming Democrats involved in a conspiracy and that those who ransacked and desecrated the nation’s legislature and killed and maimed police and threatened to murder many more elected leaders, were “peaceable tourists.”
  • That amassing semi-automatic and automatic firearms in incalculable numbers, along with high-capacity magazines, is an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution, and that any adult should be able to carry those dangerous weapons anywhere and at any time; and when a mass shooting occurs, as happens recurringly and only in the United States with such frequency, the cause of those tragedies is never the fact of that easy ubiquity, but instead the fault lies with “woke” leaders who would dare to propose undermining sacred citizen rights and impairing individual liberty in an effort to prevent predictable carnage. Notably, even children are to be sacrificed at the altar of this lie.
  • That refugees, immigrants and minorities in our pluralistic society—with minorities increasingly defined as including women—are responsible for all that may make a share of white Christian males uncomfortable, anxious or concerned. These groups should, therefore, be “kept in their appropriate place” in the social hierarchy, and by whatever means necessary.

    This descent into a rigid oppressive ideology fueled by fear, hatred and conspiratorial mindlessness has reminded me of the work of the historian Hans Mommsen, who studied the beliefs underpinning the Nazi Holocaust. Mommsen argued that the complete eradication of the Jews, or the Final Solution that ultimately emerged as formal German policy, was not long planned. It emerged instead via a process of what he called cumulative radicalization.[3] I find disturbing parallels in the present case, because the GOP, as a Party, has insistently become more uncompromising and intransigently dogmatic in its views during the last decades. This has not occurred as the result of a grand synoptic plan, but rather in steps, as Mommsen and many others after him found was also the case for the Nazis, as broader conditions and circumstances have shifted.

    The Republican Party’s nominal leaders offer little today beyond lies and empty rhetoric aimed at inflaming hate, dissensus and anger and identifying scapegoats for conditions whose roots lay elsewhere. The deliberate falsehoods and amoral cynical public posturing of Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell and many other GOP leaders suggest their declining individual and collective ability to imagine one people and nation. Instead, they appear to be fueled by an overriding desire to divide our populace into warring factions to attain and maintain power. The danger of this orientation is already all too obvious, with these and other Republican officials and the institutional machinery of their party doing all they can daily to sow mistrust, breed contempt and declaim the bankruptcy of anyone who disagrees with whatever they may assert “reality” to be at any given time. Indeed, many GOP leaders today are casually willing to threaten national dissolution or bloodshed as a matter of daily discourse. In this, the Party and a large share of its officials are on a slippery slope to an amoral madness that already finds many of them embracing the contemptible in the name of abstract hatred.

    I have seen no more chilling historical example of where such a stance may lead than the words of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron; SS), responsible for the Final Solution, in a speech he made before a group of senior German officers in Posen on October 4, 1943. Himmler was keen to illuminate for his listeners the “justice” of the abomination he was then overseeing. His remarks stand as something of an apogee of surreally vacuous enmity meshed with evil rationalization:

I want to mention a very grave matter before you, in all frankness. We can talk about it amongst us, yet nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public. … I am referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred bodies lie together, when five hundred lie there, or when there lie a thousand. And … to have seen this through, and apart from a few exceptions of human weakness … to have remained decent, that has made us tough. It is a page of glory in our history that has never been written and is never to be written. … We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to destroy the people who wanted to destroy us. We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And our heart, our soul, our character have suffered no harm from it.[4]

    I am certainly not claiming that one can equate today’s GOP to the Nazi Party. What I am suggesting is that the constant lies, including self-lies, absolutism, conspiratorial claims-making and unbending conviction that any action may be justified in the name of the righteousness of the cause, increasingly defined as the simple accretion and assertion of power, now characteristic of the Republican Party, is eerily familiar in historic terms. The GOP should be called out for its rising radicalness and eagerness to disparage, demean and heap contempt on other Americans as somehow “less than” or enemies.

    Himmler’s assertion that murdering 6 million innocents was justifiable and that it did not result in the absolute degradation of its perpetrators was a monstrous lie. Not only did the Final Solution’s savage cruelty constitute an everlasting shame, but the lie on which it was predicated was itself manifestly evil. Nonetheless, millions of Germans and many others countenanced that lie, and thousands efficiently prosecuted it. The lie stands as testimony to humankind of the inherent dangers implicit in the sort of fantasy politics in which the GOP has elected to engage, in which its followers are demagogically persuaded to agree with whatever its leaders say, such as the arguments that citizens who do not follow the Party’s view of the world are destroying their way of life and must be stopped, that immigrant hordes are coming to get them, and so on. The symbol of this egregious immorality must be the Party’s insistent willingness to allow the continued slaughter of innocents, including children, in the name of its misanthropic absolutism concerning weapons. There can be no “justification” for this stance. The Party’s and gun industry’s shifting deceits and efforts to change the subject have made that fact patently clear. As the veteran journalist Dan Rather observed in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, that horror was perpetrated by, “a murderer, armed and abetted by all who think there is nothing wrong with troubled young people having access to weapons of war."[5]

    The Republican Party faithful’s unwillingness or inability to see reality, rather than demagogic constructs of it, and the clear desire of their leaders to feed them a continuous stream of lies to maintain their illusions, suggests a broken institution as well as a shattered and morally obtuse followership. The GOP needs what the ancient Greeks called an aporia, that is, to be confronted by a set of events or circumstances that will prompt a reexamination by a large share of the Party’s adherents, by its leaders or both to reflect on its current path of democratic destruction and to shift course. Failing that, and perhaps as the progenitor of that possibility, the majority of Americans must come, and soon, to understand the existential danger now afoot in their midst for what it is, and to do all they can via the ballot box and through action and voice to defeat it before it undermines their freedom and democratic way of life. The grotesquerie of Republican attempts to ignore the systematic murder of children is a potent evocation of the deeper cancerous process of cumulative radicalization in the GOP that must be arrested for that Party’s well-being and more importantly, for that of the nation.

References

[1] Collins, Keith, Albert Sun, Eleanor Lutz and Larry Buchanan. “78 Minutes,” The New York Times, May 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/05/28/us/school-shooting-timeline-uvalde-texas.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20220529&instance_id=62686&nl= todaysheadlines&regi_id=40087534 &segment_id=93674&user_id=0100ea161cc78533fc4fac5d8cf3a77c, Accessed May 28, 2022. 

[2] Franck, Thomas. “Senate GOP blocks domestic terror bill, as gun reform talks restart after Buffalo, Texas shootings,” May 26, 2022, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/26/senate-to-vote-on-domestic-terrorism-bill-amid-gun-control-talks-after-texas-shooting.html, Accessed May 26, 2022; McKinley, Jesse, Alex Traub and Troy Closson. “10 people are killed and 3 are wounded in a mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store,” The New York Times, May 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/14/nyregion/buffalo-shooting, Accessed May 26, 2022. 

[3] Zimmerman, Moshe. “Mommsen, Hans (1930-2015) A History of Cumulative Radicalization,” The International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem Studies, 44(1), 2016, https://www.yadvashem.org/research/about/studies/44-1/zimmermann.html, Accessed May 26, 2022.  

[4] Himmler, Heinrich, in Rees, Laurence. How Mankind Committed the Ultimate Infamy at Auschwitz: A New History. New York: Public Affairs (Perseus Books Group), 2005, pp. 174-175. For the complete text of Himmler’s remarks and a slightly different translation, please see: Yad Vashem Shoah Resource Center, “From a Speech by Himmler Before Senior SS Officers in Poznan, October 4, 1943,” https://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%204029.pdf, Accessed May 27, 2022.

[5] Rather, Dan and Elliott Kirschner. “Change is Possible with Toil and Perseverance,” Steady, May 29, 2022, https://steady.substack.com/p/change-is-possible?utm_source=email&s=r, Accessed May 29, 2022. 

Publication Date

May 31, 2022

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