George Packer: Is America undergoing a political realignment?
In the days before this past weekend of horror, I read a book called The Language of the Third Reich by the German scholar Victor Klemperer. Klemperer, a Jew who was married to a non-Jew, survived the entire Nazi reign in Dresden. His diary of those 12 years, published posthumously in the 1990s, recorded daily life under the Third Reich so scrupulously, so objectively, with such attention to ordinary detail, that the reader lives through the almost too-familiar story of Germany’s descent into barbarism as if each step were as shocking, unbelievable, and yet inexorable as it was to him.
Klemperer was a literary historian, and to preserve his mental balance under Nazi rule he used his diary to continue doing the academic work from which, as a Jew, he was officially banned: He studied the language of the Third Reich. He recorded how, after Hitler took power, certain words in various forms—Volk, fanatisch—soon became ubiquitous in public and in private; how religious terms imbued the ruling ideology; how euphemisms such as evacuation and concentration camp were coined to make massive crimes sound bureaucratically legitimate; how the German language grew impoverished and uniform; how Nazi language became a total system outside of which Germans could no longer think, and which did the thinking for them, to the bitter end.
Klemperer’s diary is the work for which he became famous, but he intended it only as raw material for a book he wrote right after the war. The Language of the Third Reich is little known compared with the diary, but it deserves a place on the shelf of essential books on totalitarianism. In a chapter on fascist rhetoric, Klemperer wrote:
“But a speech was not only more important than it had been previously, it was also, of necessity, different in nature. In addressing itself to everyone rather than just select representatives of the people it had to make itself comprehensible to everyone and thus become more populist. Populist [volkstumlich] means more concrete: the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be. And it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it.”
Klemperer seems to be describing Trump’s speeches—the raw rhetoric that incited a crowd in North Carolina to chant “Send her back!” and a woman in Florida to shout “Shoot them!” After the El Paso killings, the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a native of the city, called Trump’s demonizing language “reminiscent of something that you might hear in the Third Reich, not something that you expect in the United States of America.” In a period in America when mass killings and hateful presidential rhetoric are both at all-time highs, it’s a forgivable analogy. But Trump’s populism—the politics of championing the common people against their supposed enemies, evoking strong emotions in demotic language—is American. That’s why it’s been successful, and consistently underestimated by Trump’s opponents.