This piece appeared in newspapers in early September, 2022.
Three years ago here, I described how a friend of mine, who was a Holocaust survivor, saw humanity:
“There are three kinds of people. There are those who will do evil no matter what the state of the world around them. And there are those who will do good, no matter what. But both of those groups are small. The great majority of people belong to a third group: they will do good when that’s how the people around them are acting, and they’ll do evil when the winds of evil are blowing strongly around them.”
I’ve wondered, what goes on with people blown by “the winds of evil”? How much of it is, “I don’t care if it’s evil. My running with the crowd will protect me from consequences”? And how much, “It must be OK, since the rest of my crowd is going along”?
My study of the rise of the Nazis seemed to reveal some of both.
- The Nazi brown-shirts who acted like thugs, beating people up, seemed in the grip of the amoral idea that “right makes right.” The rise of Evil gave them the opportunity to express their destructive passions.
- But, somehow, average German supporters of Hitler could witness to such evils yet buy the propaganda that spoke about “purity” and “cleansing.” They saw their Fuerhrer not only as not “evil,” but as tantamount to a god, and the Nazi movement as something glorious and good.
Clearly, there must be some sort of problem in people’s relationship with the Good-Evil dimension, when people who do care about the Good nonetheless embrace the Evil.
Sometimes, differentiating Good from Evil requires acquiring good knowledge:
- The Russian people, for example, are not in a good position to judge their dictator’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
- Many Americans, similarly, were deceived into believing that Saddam Hussein had responsibility for the attacks of 9/11, and thus into supporting an unjustified American invasion.
But when it comes to “good people” supporting evil (“when the winds of evil are blowing strongly around them”), often no special knowledge or understanding should be required for people to understand what’s happening. (Like when vulnerable people are getting beat up in the streets, or when men are being mutilated and lynched, or when officials rip young children away from their parents.)
My studies of historical episodes, when apparently “good people” have been swept up in such things, have brought me to consider how liberal and conservative subcultures have opposite sets of strengths and weaknesses.
A strength of the liberal world is that it encourages individuality and independent thinking. But when the liberal world errs, it errs in the direction of giving authority too little power over individual conduct. (It might, for example, foster policies that end up increasing the percentage of babies born to single women.)
And trying to organize Democrats, it is often said, is “like herding cats.”
The conservative world, by contrast, moves as a unit because they are so strong on the virtues that foster group cohesion – like loyalty and obedience. Republicans, it is often said, “Get in line” behind their leaders (while Democrats habitually snipe at theirs). If I were a wartime leader (like FDR in WWII), it would be the conservatives, with their “rally round the flag” form of patriotism and sense of “duty,” upon whom I would know I could most rely.
But, like the liberal world, the conservative world also has a vulnerability to Evil that is the counterpart of their virtues.
- That tendency to generate group-cohesion can serve Evil if the whole group is caught up in destructive passions (like a lynch mob).
- But history suggests the bigger danger is that its tendency to defer to Authority will prove destructive if an evil leader manages to gain their allegiance.
While the liberal world can err in failing to protect necessary aspects of cultural coherence, the conservative world – with its tendency to uniformity – can, when it is seduced, deliver a whole block of people to move together in whatever direction “the winds of Evil” are blowing.
Authoritarianism is the vulnerability of the political right. As I wrote recently in a piece titled “Democracy vs. Fascism,” “Fascism presents not as a bunch of individual lives, but a mass mobilized as a fist.”
The question remains: how does it work psychologically?
The conservative political culture, which can be a great asset for the Good when the authority to which it is loyal works for the Good, seems vulnerable to mistaking the Evil for the Good. So the rapturous German crowds in Nuremberg in the 1930s followed their Fuehrer on a path that led – within a decade — to their nation reduced to rubble. It seems that people in such political cultures are too ready to surrender too much of their autonomous judgment to the Authority.
We can see that in America today, where people give their loyal devotion to an extraordinarily destructive leader, to the point where they believe things he says whose falsehood could hardly be more obvious— except to people who’d surrendered to the authority the power to construct their reality.
In tragic drama, it is often the hero’s strengths that become the means of his undoing. We can see that same tragedy being enacted today in Conservative America.