We all know Orwell as an expert on failed governments, and I just happened upon his review of Mein Kampf from 1940—so, before it was clear he was the worst person in the world.
The review is short, but the last part of it has a few sentences that perfectly capture what I think we’re facing right now in the United States.
Also he (Hitler) has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.
This is a wonderful capture of what I’ve been talking about in my recent posts about struggle and meaning.
The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.
He’s saying that we need this fight against some kind of enemy. That we are the happiest when we have such a battle to fight. I think he’s correct, and that people start to come apart when no such struggle exists.
Notice that he’s blaming human nature, not left or right.
Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism.
This is brilliant. He’s obviously not promoting Facism or Nazism. He is in fact our most famous critic against extreme governments. He’s saying they resonate more with humanity, and that we’d be well-served to keep this fresh in mind. That’s a powerful and devastating lesson—one that we evidently have to learn every generation or two.
But it gets better, and takes us right into 2016, 2020, and the attack on our Capitol building.
All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
This feels quite like the mentality of those mobbing Capitol buildings calling for revolution.
Better an end with horror than a horror without end.
Hitler said that—as a call to arms—presumably against the continued disgrace of the Germans after World War I.
And he proposed going all-in on conflict, to get back the pride of the people. His people.
Yeah, sounds pretty damn familiar.
You might think I’m saying that Trump is Hitler, and that supporting him is no different than supporting the Nazis. No, that’s not it. That’s throwing poop at people. Name-calling. It’s not learning the lesson Orwell was trying to teach here.
The lesson is in the last line of the review.
Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
That’s it. That’s the lesson. There is a deep emotional need for pride, and for struggle that makes one feel as if they have earned that pride. Take either of those away from a people and they will become dangerous.
In general, not in all cases.
That’s what’s happening to the demographic supporting Trump. Older, White, less educated, and feeling disenfranchised. That’s the weakness. That’s our vulnerability.
If we fix that we close the opening not just for Hitler and Trump, but for their subsequent incarnations as well.
Hitler was a failed architect and a failed artist. He tried to get into respectable fields and got rejected. Trump is a failed reality TV star famous for being a horrible person. The people following them aren’t especially weak or evil. It’s the combination of failed, weak men with a population that lacks pride that does the damage.
Our lesson cannot be that Trump supporters are bad, or that Hitler was bad, and to watch out for them. The lesson has to be that a weak strongman playing off a population’s desire for pride is a dangerous pattern that repeats.
We must watch for this pattern constantly, and be ready to take early action when it inevitably surfaces.
- This is why calling those caught in this spell “deplorables” is not just unproductive; it’s counter-productive. It’s yet another attack on the pride of your target audience, which drives them even further into the arms of the authoritarian.