Last week a group of people I know got in a not-so-friendly discussion about whether Hitler should be viewed as human or demonic.
One side took the position that it’s possible to so overly demonize Adolf Hitler that we forget he did not have supernatural powers but human traits, weaknesses and sins. They said humans have the capacity to be like Hitler and should be on guard against it.
The other side took the position that Hitler was uniquely evil, and that he must be dehumanized and set apart as demonic. Indeed, that not to do so was itself possibly demonic or a way of excusing his behavior. This side thought the “Hitler was human” side was suggesting that Hitler’s condemners were being too hard on him.
I was thinking of that discussion along with a popular tweet that I’ve seen floating around during the Trump presidency. Here is a version put forth recently by Matthew Miller, former spokesman for Obama Attorney General Eric Holder and now at MSNBC:
The assumption is clear: you’re either on the good side, fighting Trump, or you’re a Nazi.
Certainly if you believe the rhetoric of the Resistance—be they professional activists, mainstream journalists, or NeverTrump Republicans—this is reasonable. According to these people, Donald Trump is literally bringing about a return of the Reich.
Their case is that he has called for the curbing of press freedoms and potential punishment for flag burning.
His focus on immigration, these critics say, is racist or at least has the potential to whip up anger and resentment against people who look different. His policies on border control cause hatred against Muslims, a minority religious group, they say.
Like Hitler, these critics say, Trump is narcissistic, interested in power, and unaware of his own faults. Some of his supporters, they say, are violent and racist and his denouncements of them aren’t strong enough to disempower them.
But going back to Miller’s tweet, is the side fighting Trump being sure to avoid the despotism of the Nazis?
Well, earlier this week the Washington Post ran a harangue against the First Amendment, on the grounds it was a luxury society can not afford. The Skidmore professor’s logic was that civil liberties had to be abrogated because Donald Trump was president:
It was one thing to defend the American Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1977, when the liberal establishment and mainstream media were still intact and American Nazi Party was a marginal fringe group. The group was offensive, but neither its actions nor its ideas posed a threat to the political or social order, which was stable. The situation is different today, with an erratic President Trump in the White House, elites in disarray and white nationalism on the rise.
That piece arrived just a few days after the New York Times ran an op-ed calling on the American Civil Liberties Union to stop fighting for free speech.
And the ACLU has, in fact, been backing off of free speech cases involving conservatives at Berkeley and other liberal enclaves.
Elsewhere in the First Amendment—the first freedom mentioned, in fact—is religious liberty. The left’s work against religious liberty protections is well documented, from Supreme Court rulings to corporate bullying against state legislatures.
The left has also called for limits on Second Amendment freedoms, which the Founders envisioned as a bulwark against the state. These calls have come from high profile politicians and major media.
In general there are fringe groups on the left advocating the killing of police, a political movement that has been acted on throughout the country in recent years. There is the violent toppling of historical markers, riots in cities across the country, and even a mass assassination attempt against Republican leadership in June.
Far too many people on both left and right want to believe that the other side is uniquely capable of evil, but the fact of life is that all humans have human nature. And the thing about human nature is that it does not change. Our Constitution was written in mind of that reality.
In Federalist 10, James Madison wrote on how the nature of man makes a functioning government important:
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
In Federalist 51 he wrote:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The Founders knew that men were capable of great vice. Many of them were proving that each day, as ordinary and extraordinary sinners, from adulterers to slaveholders. They also knew that man was capable of great virtue.
Americans should not be fooled into thinking that their faction is pure and holy and the opposing one is evil. It’s not that simple. We all behave defensively and try to justify wrongdoing. It’s human nature to do so. We should encourage each other to maintain principles of civil conduct.
But first we must be humble enough to recognize the capacity for evil in our own natures.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke to this divide in his “Gulag Archipelago” when he wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We don’t want to hear it about ourselves, but it’s actually liberating to realize that we all have the same nature. If we’re all sinful human beings, and we are, it is much more difficult to hate our fellow man. Let’s instead view each other with love and compassion, and seek to help those who are on the wrong path.