(What) Are We Learning from the Past?

Last night (July 25, 2016) opened a new week of politics with a notably more positive and hopeful tone - and our TV screens were filled with a wonderfully more diverse crowd than last week. This energetic diversity is the America I live in much of the time, and the vision I long to see spread across our entire nation in the future. Trump's rhetoric of negativity and hate will not go away just because our TV screens are filled with something better this week. Donald Trump continues his racist, sexist and xenophobic rant in his twitter feed today, in response to last night's hope-filled convention: "Crooked Hilary"..."Pocahontas"..."If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future!" As a long-time progressive, I am all about that future. But in our rush to embrace a more hopeful vision, we need to remain vigilant as Trump and his supporters will no doubt grow ever more strident between now and November. (What) are we learning from the past?

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesehttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/06/opinion/elie-wiesel-the-very-conscience-of-the-world.htmll, who died earlier this month, was known for his passionate pleas that as nations and as people we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, lest we repeat them. Wiesel's words were powerful, but only a little over 75 years after Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass - few Americans, especially those outside the Jewish community, knew or remembered what that was, or how it might still be relevant today. (Look it up if you're wondering, too.) I don't make comparisons to the Holocaust lightly, but I'm currently immersed in a period of history that feels eerily similar to the emergence of hate speech, violence, and demagoguery that we have been witnessing this election cycle. Others have made this comparison by now, but I don't take it lightly. Is it a fair analogy?

My research this summer, for a book on the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and his Viennese circle's thoughts on religion, has brought me close again in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust - and also the slow build-up toward Hitler's accession to power in 1933. Although I myself was raised as an Episcopalian and currently serve as an ordained Episcopal priest, my hometown had a large Jewish community. I had friends whose grandparents still bore tattooed numbers on their arms.
The Holocaust, then, has never been abstract to me.

I've been perpetually drawn to study Freud and his circle because the history of psychoanalysis is a place where one can try to make sense of the irrational - both personally and in social and political movements. And it's also a place haunted by religion as a much-contested theme. The rise of overt anti-Semitism and the fusion of church and state in turn-of-the-century Austria, together with Freud's adamant embrace of his Jewish heritage while utterly rejecting religious belief, make for fascinating but also disturbing research.

So, here's the thing. Being immersed in the history of Austria and Germany between the world wars, I watch the nightly news in what feels like a kind of time warp. Now is beginning to feel a lot like then. And as a psychologist of religion, I see how religious hate is implicated in our time as it was in the run-up to World War II (with roots going back centuries.) At the end of World War I, the Germans and their allies were punished by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They had lost over 3 million soldiers during the war, and at the end of the war the people were impoverished by a destroyed economy, literally starving, and further ravaged by Spanish flu that swept the continent in 1918. There was a profound, global economic depression. The imperial aggressors - especially the ordinary people who were neither politicians nor military leaders, but simply ground up by the consequences of war - found it easy to view themselves as victims, and Hitler's rhetoric of nationalism and making Germany a great imperial power filled a vacuum that felt irresistible. People blamed the more liberal democratic government - the Weimar Republic - along with Jews, Socialists and Communists, for collaborating with the Allied Powers and betraying the German cause.

Whipped up by Hitler's charismatic racial rhetoric, people's previously more private anti-Semitic words and deeds found permission to be released as hate speech and overt violence. Hitler's bizarre blend of pseudo-Christianity and Volkskultur (with Wagnerian opera as its grand art form) invoked a shared cultural narcissism on a massive scale. Gradually a consensus grew and it seemed less and less shocking (all the while rationalized by the scientists, the lawyers, the anthropologists, and Hitler's brand of psychologists) to purify the Aryan nation by gathering together, then deporting, and then killing, all Jews, along with the also long-hated Roma ("Gypsies"), homosexuals, persons with disabilities, Marxists and resistance fighters. For the Jewish upper class professionals and intellectuals, it seemed impossible to comprehend. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, as the heat was turned up, all too few - including Freud himself - realized the extremity of the inferno beneath their cultured feet. Some, like Freud - often with the help of outsiders - escaped with their lives. Six million - 2/3 of the population of European Jews as of the start of the war - were murdered.

Consider the parallels today. During the Vietnam War and subsequent wars in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Americans have sent millions of young family members overseas. While not rising nearly to the numbers lost during the two world wars, poor and working class families (especially since the end of the draft) have sent their loved ones and received back a disproportionate number of flag-draped coffins, and wounded warriors. Countless families cope with the invisible wounds of PTSD and "moral injury" (that is, young men and women who saw atrocities and were commanded to commit them, pitting their sense of honor and duty against their own deepest moral values). We have lived economically through a "great recession" and job loss, and the widening gap between rich and poor, have been resounding complaints in the current presidential campaign on both the right and the left. Many around the globe consider us, like the empires of the 20th century, to be the modern imperial aggressors - yet conservative political rhetoric, especially beginning with President George W. Bush's speech after 9/11, frames us as the innocent victims hated by the forces of evil in the middle east. Our common public discourse glorifies war and warriors; while at home, oppressed groups including both persons of color and women, have fought for their rights, eroding white middle-class American (especially white men's) sense of comfortable, invisibly maintained supremacy. So in America today, many who view themselves as ordinary people who are neither politicians nor military leaders - nor Wall Street financiers - feel ground up by global political, economic, and military trends far beyond their personal control. It is easy for middle Americans to view themselves as victims, and Donald Trump's rhetoric of nationalism and "making America great again" is filling a vacuum that feels irresistible. Trump's growing number of followers blame the liberal democratic government, Wall Street (which, again, invokes the specter of anti-Semitism against Jewish financiers), and immigrants, for taking away their jobs and destroying the comfortable white middle-class America, the myth of apple pie and picket fences and Yankee Doodle Dandy they thought they could rely on.

Whipped up by Trump's charismatic racist, Islamophobic, and yes - anti-Semitic - propaganda, people's previously more private racist words and deeds have been finding permission to be released as hate speech and overt violence. The chilling spectre last week's crowds of jubilant Republican convention-goers chanting "Lock her up! Lock her up!" and even "Hang that bitch!"https://www.facebook.com/thenewrepublic/posts/10153553093736536 at a recent rally in Raleigh, have transformed a traditional democratic process into a witch trial.

And what about those of us NPR-listening, latte sipping, multiply degreed professionals and media pundits, and liberal religious believers who do not see themselves or their open-minded beliefs represented by the more vocal conservative religionists and fundamentalists across multiple traditions? We who would have hung out in the coffee houses with Freud and Mahler and Klimt and Buber and Wittgenstein and the Social Democrats (or would have liked to!)? The expressions of surprise at every step of Trump's rise say it all. For us, too, all of this seemed impossible to comprehend, and yet we are witnessing rallies and conventions that look and sound like lynch mobs. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, how high will the heat be turned up beneath our feet? And will we notice while it's happening?

Rather than heeding Elie Wiesel's plea to remember, it seems that with the rise of right-wing nationalism - both here and in Europe - we are re-enacting the trauma of the 20th century rather than thoughtfully remembering it. Freud would have called this the "return of the repressed." The "uncanny," as he called it - what is frightening, nightmarish - is in psychological terms the horror we have always already known about but banished from our minds because our own most destructive wishes are intolerable for us to acknowledge. Freud's prescient 1922 book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, written between the wars, should be on every American's reading list now. In it, he shows how individuals with a sense of longing for a protective father all too readily surrender their own capacity for reason when presented with a charismatic leader who is willing to think and act on their behalf.

If psychoanalysis is the "talking cure" for individuals who find themselves acting irrationally against their own best interests, what "talking cure" will we find to help us resist the blind repetition of the horrors of right-wing nationalism/irrationalism in the America and Europe of today? And what religious language(s) will we draw from the highest and best of our multiple religious traditions, to resist violence, and to restore justice the rule of love of the neighbor, the stranger, and the sojourner? In the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), "The Holy One has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what is required of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?"

Pamela Cooper-White is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY. She was the 2013-14 Fulbright-Freud Scholarof Psychoanalysis at the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna, Austria and the University of Vienna, and is the author of 6 books http://www.amazon.com/Pamela-Cooper-White/e/B001JSAOCG/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1469544482&sr=8-1-fkmr0. Her forthcoming book, "Old and Dirty Gods: Freud's Circle and Religion from Habsburg Vienna to the Holocaust" will be published by Routledge Press in 2017.