Shortly after Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016, a smartly drawn comic started making the rounds on social media, purporting to explain philosopher Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance”. According to this, an ideologically tolerant society must, paradoxically, be intolerant of those who would end its tolerance of ideological difference. The example of those intolerants who the tolerant must not tolerate was, of course, Nazis, and if I remember correctly, the comic ended with an illustrated Hitler getting an illustrated boot in his illustrated ass. Not Today, Hitler.
At the same time, many on social media were expressing passionate endorsement of those who, IRL, were publicly punching people like neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in the face. Spencer, who had been filmed celebrating Trump’s election by gleefully seig heiling his new führer with a few friends, was sucker punched a couple times while being interviewed on the street. And there was much rejoicing.
Appearing some time later, the Popper comic gave a veneer of intellectual legitimacy to these attacks, and the rejoicing over them. More deeply, it rationalized a widespread fear on the Left that Trump’s victory meant American democracy stood in grave peril from literal Nazis. Indeed, Yale professor Timothy Snyder, an expert on the rise of fascism in early 20th Century Europe, declared the American Republic of 2017 to be in its final year of life. In one lecture, he suggested to his students that if they really cared about their country, they should ditch class and head into the streets to fight the brownshirts they would shortly find there.
Across the Left, the deep fear of an imminent fascist takeover seemed to not only authorize but demand a robust show of righteous intolerance, simply to keep the really intolerant people – certain to appear at any moment – from taking control and shutting the Open Society down. Wasn’t the MAGA hat virtually equivalent to the swastika? This keen foreknowledge amounted to a sort of time machine, which would at last allow defenders of the Open Society to go back and strangle Baby Hitler in the crib, metaphorically speaking.
Thinking back now, it always was a stupid comic, requiring the reader overlook centuries of tolerance for ideological heterodoxy, and even extremism, in the United States, enshrined in a Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression that had not resulted in the triumph of Right-wing ideological conformity, but a steady lessening of it.
The ACLU had, for example, famously defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977. A community where, at the time, “one out of every six Jewish residents had survived the Holocaust or was directly related to a survivor.” Still, neo-Nazis didn’t take over Skokie, or normalize themselves there. More generally, the culture continued to liberalize, year after year.
In 2016 it was supposed to be different. The tolerance which had been foundational to the success of American society, and valued especially by liberals as the pre-condition of necessary social progress, had become a luxury we could no longer afford.
Given the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and his reelection four years later, this sudden reversion to looming white supremacy seemed counter-intuitive. Ironically, rather than breaking the glass ceiling for black Americans seeking the highest political office, Obama’s two successful presidential runs were said to have engendered a resurgence of bigotry long-frustrated by the “browning of America.” It was this “whitelash” (along, of course, with sexism and “Russian interference”), Van Jones explained on CNN, that had resulted in the election of Donald Trump, in spite of the wide margins of victory given to Clinton by every pre-election poll.
Though people wouldn’t admit it to pollsters, once in the privacy of the voting booth, white Americans had voted their secret, racist (sexist and hacked), hearts. Now, “emboldened” by the shocking power of their collective bigotry, egged on by Trump’s re-normalization of racist and xenophobic dog-whistling, American fascism was poised to party like it was 1929. For the American Left, the election of the Dog Whistler signaled that the old, sacred, tolerance had to be abandoned in favor of a new, righteous, intolerance. The City on a Hill – which is to say, the liberal Open Society which exemplified tolerance of heterodox political opinion and speech for the rest of the world – had to be destroyed in order to be saved.
Prescience, Paranoia or Projection?
Given the great size and political diversity of America, with large states such as California entirely in the hands of the opposition party, this prediction of doom never really made much sense. But then, it was geared toward a culture with no interest in distinguishing between its worst fears and the literal end of the world. A culture that validated the old activist aphorism which held that the personal is political, but in a new and insane way.
A culture which now insists on calling a riot by perhaps a thousand delusional dopes an “armed insurrection” and a “coup”, as if the poor security planning that allowed rioters to temporarily breach the Capitol somehow rendered them potentially able to seize actual power. A culture which likewise regards AOC’s mistaken notion that she was about to be killed by the Capitol police officer come to protect her, not as a misapprehension in the mind of someone in a state of fear, but rather a sort of revelation of the real meaning of the event. A culture in which the exhortation to “believe women” does not actually endorse their unique capacities as objective witnesses, but rather asserts the unquestionable epistemological supremacy of their lived experience.
A culture, in sum, that regards any refusal to credit its fearful imaginings as a tacit endorsement of those imaginings, or at the very least a privileged and callous indifference to them. A culture where self-righteous, black and white, propaganda is embraced as scripture by a toxic religious mentality of shame, fear and authoritarian ecstasy. A culture hell bent on redefining words as their opposites, or as nothing at all beyond opportunities to assert power and signal obedience. Science, love, man, woman, unity, truth… the list goes on ad infinitum, because when politics has become religion and religion politics, there is no language, and no form of knowledge, that stands outside it.
The events of Jan 6, and the relentless propaganda around them, have rendered it more difficult to point out that the Nazi destruction of tolerance didn’t happen, despite four years of Trump and the warnings that American democracy was all but dead circa 2017. Not only did ideologically intolerant Nazis fail to make it even slightly inconvenient to differ from them, no recognizable attempt in that direction ever appeared. Should be a moment of victory, but I have some rather bad news: As Barack Obama promised back in 2008: You are the people you’ve been waiting for… just not in a good way.