Deterrence By Narcissism

This week, we urge consideration of a timely and insightful commentary by historian Timothy Snyder, whose outstanding On Tyranny we featured in a previous post. Two salient excerpts below, with an image from Otto Dix.

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The Nazis claimed a monopoly on victimhood. Mein Kampf includes a lengthy pout about how Jews and other non-Germans made Hitler’s life as a young man in the Habsburg monarchy difficult. After stormtroopers attacked others in Germany in the early 1930s, they made a great fuss if one of their own was injured. The Horst Wessel Song, recalling a single Nazi who was killed, was on the lips of Germans who killed millions of people. The second world war was for the Nazis’ self-defense against “global Jewry”.

The idea that the powerful must be coddled arose in a setting that recalls the United States of today. The Habsburg monarchy of Hitler’s youth was a multinational country with democratic institutions and a free press. Some Germans, members of the dominant nationality, felt threatened because others could vote and publish. Hitler was an extreme example of this kind of sentiment. Today, some white Americans are similarly threatened by the presence of others in institutions they think of as their own. Among the targets of the accused pipe bomber were four women, five black people and two Jews. Just as (some) Germans were the only serious national problem within the Habsburg monarchy, so today are (some) white Americans the only serious threat to their own republic.

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Naturally, the president denies responsibility when people take him at his word and draw instead from the conspiracy thinking he himself spreads. Trump blames the press for attempts to murder members of the press. He seizes the occasion, as always, to present himself as the true victim. The facts hurt his feelings.

Trump and some of his supporters mount a strategy of deterrence by narcissism: if you note our debts to fascism, we will up the pitch of the whining. Thus Trump can base his rhetoric on the fascist idea of us and them, lead fascist chants at rallies, encourage his supporters to use violence, praise a politician who attacked a journalist, muse that Hillary Clinton should be assassinated, denigrate the intelligence of African Americans, associate migrants with criminality, run an antisemitic advertisement, spread the Nazi trope of Jews as “globalists”, and endorse the antisemitic idea that the Jewish financier George Soros is responsible for political opposition – but he and his followers will puff chests and swell sinuses if anyone points this out.

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