leah letter

Who goes Nazi? Media edition

It’s a great game to play with people
leah letter

Who goes Nazi? Media edition

It’s a great game to play with people

There’s an article I think about pretty much every day called “Who Goes Nazi?” It is by Dorothy Thompson, one of the few Western journalists to interview Hitler, and it was published in the August 1941 issue of Harper’s. It is the best article ever written, narrowly beating Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of M.I.A. and Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of Kurt and Courtney.

The article’s premise is very simple. Thompson imagines a dinner party attended by well-heeled guests. Then she tells us which ones she thinks are, or will become, Nazis. “Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality,” she writes. “It appeals to a certain type of mind.”

According to Thompson, the most successful Nazis are not overt in their Nazism. Subtle, ruthless, cerebral, and bitter people are more likely to “go Nazi.” “The frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success — they would all go Nazi in a crisis,” she writes. Other people go Nazi, she says, because they are really dumb, or will want to be close to power when the timing is convenient.

Thompson recommends that readers play this game at their next dinner party but it can really be played anywhere. Sometimes I like to look around my apartment and theorize which of my possessions would “go Nazi” (Whole 365-brand cereal, certain candles, my Keurig). Other times I do it while reading the news. There are many examples. People are going Nazi all the time these days.

Subtle, ruthless, cerebral, and bitter people are more likely to “go Nazi.”

Ross Douthat went Nazi over the weekend with a column titled, “Is There a Case for Le Pen?” Douthat, the Times' senior correspondent for opinions on Girls, wrote of the overtly racist French candidate for president: “Some argue that Le Pen has simply replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. But her attacks on Islamic fundamentalism and her defense of a strict public secularism have been echoed by many mainstream French politicians.” It highly amuses me when conservatives, always so logic-obsessed, trot out the junior-high level line of reasoning that if others are racist, the racism of an extremely racist person, say, poised to take power over a nation can be discounted or excused.

This type of forgiveness is a classic sign of a Nazi predilection. As Thompson describes one dinner guest: “Mr. G is a very intellectual young man who was an infant prodigy. He has been concerned with general ideas since the age of ten and has one of those minds that can scintillatingly rationalize everything… He will certainly be able, however, fully to explain and apologize for Nazism if it ever comes along.” This pretty much describes eight out of ten conservative columnists, but especially Ross Douthat.

Chris Cillizza went Nazi long before Trump was elected. Thompson might argue that the former Washington Post blogger, who now writes Trump fan fiction for CNN, was born with this frame of mind. She writes: “L is the strongest natural-born Nazi in this room… He has the brains of Neanderthal man, but he has an infallible instinct for power.” This description squares quite well with Cillizza’s recent work. Last week, in a column defending Ivanka Trump after she was booed by a German audience for supporting her father’s pitiful paid-leave policies, Cillizza, somehow channeling the voices of Ward Cleaver and John Mayer simultaneously, wrote: “It's important to remember that Ivanka is, first and foremost, her father's daughter. As such, she is going to defend him — as would almost every daughter in any situation in which her dad is under attack.”

Wha… at? When we remind ourselves that Cillizza has, since Trump became president, displayed a thinly veiled horniness for the first daughter, this sentence takes on a nauseating tinge. As Cillizza’s star has risen to that of the pundit class, his stupidity — expressed via Simpsons memes, use of outdated teen lingo, and gleeful participation in Trump hagiography — has become all the more apparent, along with his desire for attention. Regrettably, there’s nothing anyone can do to save him. Oh well.

The media, in our modern age, is unfortunately more instrumental in creating Nazis than deterring them.

Another Nazi-type Thompson describes is recognizable in more than one person. She writes of “a brilliant and embittered intellectual,” a “poor white-trash Southern boy” who in college “took all the scholastic honors but was never invited to join a fraternity.” This ambitious man has no problem achieving things, but he is never accepted by the elite.

Could this be J.D. Vance, the Yale-law educated author of the fervently acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy and the unofficial spokesperson for the poor whites of America? In January, Vance wrote in the Times (where he is a contributing opinion writer) that he was looking forward to the Trump administration: “On Jan. 20, the political side of my brain will breathe a sigh of relief at Mr. Obama’s departure. I will hope for better policy from the new administration, a health reform package closer to my ideological preferences, and a new approach to foreign policy.” But as Sarah Jones wrote last November in the New Republic, Vance is a disingenuous representative for those whom he is purported to speak: He is quick to blame the blight of his Rust Belt hometown on the behavior of the people who live there, rather than looking to the social programs that either failed them or didn’t exist in the first place. Vance believes that a return to populist, military-first Republicanism, rather than government aid programs, will help those who have fallen on hard times. He deviates from Thompson’s description in a crucial way, however — elites, especially liberal ones, adore him as the poor-white whisperer.

Thompson’s description could perhaps typify Michael Anton, the Trump administration national security official who wrote an essay comparing the prospect of a Hillary Clinton election to that of the fate of hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. The essay, written under a pseudonym and published last year in the Claremont Review of Books — a journal that requires all submissions be written by those who are at least 20 percent senile — was met with awe by conservatives; David Brooks included it in his year-end round-up of the best essays by white men. After Anton’s identity was unmasked, reporters in short order unearthed his other works, in which he defended the anti-Semitic, World War II-era America First Committee and said that diversity was “a source of weakness, tension, and disunion.” The Intercept also found Anton’s commenter account on Styleforum.net, where he made 40,000 posts since 2002. So, yeah, I would not be surprised if Anton was never asked to join a fraternity or went Nazi.

The media, in our modern age, is unfortunately more instrumental in creating Nazis than deterring them. We can see this in the preening profiles of the Trump-adjacent published in major magazines and newspapers; in the Times’ hiring of Bret Stephens; in the Times' asking readers to email them examples of nice things Trump has done for America; in the way certain publications seek to shed light on alt-right memes all the while getting trolled by those memes. Sunlight may be the great disinfectant, but a more proper aphorism for our time comes from Lenin (probably): “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” The more rope given to fascists by the media, the easier it will be for those fascists to tie the media up, stuff an apple in its mouth, and roast it on a spit for them to feast.

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Who goes Nazi? Media edition