I lie awake at night more often than I’d like to admit wondering if this is how it felt in 1933 at the end of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Did people just go about their normal days, doing the laundry, making lunch, and tying their kids’ shoes while the Nazis slowly tightened their grip? Did they worry about the authoritarian subversion of the government? What did they imagine when political parties were banned? Did they join in the assaults on Jews and gay people or did they simply look away? And on the day that their constitution was suspended, did they continue to make grocery lists?
I went to the Stop & Shop on Jan. 6 while some of my countrymen and women were invading the U.S. Capitol, assaulting the police, and attempting to subvert the presidential election. I think about that a lot. While Americans were trying to breach the Senate chamber and the vice president was hiding from them in an “undisclosed location,” I got in my car, drove to P’town, and shopped for groceries. We had to eat.
I’m embarrassed to say how frightened I am. It didn’t happen all at once. It crept up on me. One day I realized I had become afraid for the future. I worry that I’m being alarmist.
But then, shouldn’t I be alarmed? Shouldn’t we all be?
In fact, I’m alarmed because so many of us seem not to be. Sure, there have been some protests. But overall, we appear to have accommodated the shifts that have unfolded in our society in the past several years. Now, inexplicably, white men are victims. Gay people are pedophiles. Forced pregnancy is increasingly the new normal. Democrats are Communists who want to destroy America.
Do my compatriots ever wonder about the effect of treating as morally equivalent those fighting for equal rights for all people and those fighting for the establishment of a minoritarian and perhaps authoritarian Christian America? I do.
Since Donald Trump was elected, I have been repeatedly shocked by the ways some on the right are willing to manipulate the system to consolidate their power and disenfranchise others. After Jan. 6, I realized that shamelessness in pursuit of power has no bounds. No lie is too far-fetched in an ends-justifies-means environment.
I am afraid of my fellow citizens for whom facts no longer carry weight in the face of strong feelings. I hear over and over that, despite the facts, they simply cannot believe that Trump lost the 2020 election. They cannot believe that any non-Republican can win without cheating. The facts must be wrong. Democrats win only by cheating. People of color want to take away the rights of white people. Gay people groom and prey on children. They know it in their hearts.
As I watch the select committee hearings on Jan. 6, I understand that it was all much worse than I understood in 2021. This event was not an accident or an anomaly. Now I understand that many Americans, both ordinary and high-ranking, were willing to watch American democracy burn. Sure, the rabblerousing leaders scare me. But the people who really scare me are those willing to stand on the sidelines and let it all happen. The leaders are powerless without those willing to look away.
A few years ago, at Berlin’s Jewish museum, I watched a series of film clips, running in a loop, of interviews with ordinary Germans who lived or worked near concentration camps. They weren’t Nazis, and they held no official roles in party or government. They were farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, housewives. Shortly after the end of the war, they were asked about the camps.
“What could we do?” they said. Or “We didn’t know.” Or “That didn’t happen here.” These were ordinary people living their lives as a democratic government fell, the Nazis took over, the camps were built, and the murders began. They didn’t appear to be the ones who rose up in aggrieved, murderous rage. They may not have cared about morally purifying the nation and restoring the greatness of Germany. And yet it was all happening within sight, within smell. They found a way to accommodate.
I know that most Americans would never dream of invading the Capitol and have no desire to subvert democracy. But I worry about those with a nostalgia for an America in which power was closely held by a few and only reluctantly shared. I fear that they could have found a way to slip into new skins should things have gone even more wrong on Jan. 6. After all, what could they have done?
I recognize the fear I’m feeling. It’s the fear I lived with as a completely vulnerable 15-year-old gay kid in my rural high school. It’s the fear of powerlessness against daily petty humiliations. I lived in a state of vigilance and fear, working hard not to be noticed so that I could avoid the violence always looming at the edges of my existence.
I learned early that anyone around me, under the right circumstances, could turn on me and those who didn’t would just stand aside, not necessarily approving, but finding a way to accommodate the violence. It’s a life I thought I had left behind.