Soundings June 18 - The Fearsome Power of Hate

I have been reflecting on the apparently limitless human propensity for hatred and cruelty, especially as so many illustrations have been under discussion in recent days. I want to share two examples that have been reported on news sites, and then discuss one that happened decades ago, but resonates in today’s political and social climate. Donald Trump was the architect of two of these, but they all remind, or should remind, friends of freedom of the dangers for self-governance and liberty of encouraging or celebrating hate.

Charles Blow offered the first instance in his June 7, 2018 New York Times column.[1] He reminded readers of Donald Trump’s decision almost 30 years ago to purchase a full-page advertisement in The Times following the rape and vicious attack on the “Central Park jogger” in April 1989. That ad embraced hatred and cruelty and called for the swift deaths of the five teenagers who were, it turned out, wrongly accused of that heinous crime. Trump has never acknowledged his perpetration of this outrage or apologized for his wildly erroneous accusations. Indeed, when the young men were exonerated by incontrovertible DNA evidence and a confession by the actual offender some 13 years following their wrongful convictions and imprisonment, and the City of New York paid a settlement for its manifest injustice several years thereafter, Trump wrote an opinion piece for the New York Daily-News suggesting that the City’s action was a “disgrace.”[2] He contended that the teens’ incarceration was somehow justifiable because “These men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”[3] This statement was worse than shameful. No one should be incarcerated for a crime they did not commit, nor tried and convicted without due process of law. Trump refused to acknowledge the injustice he not only had supported, but for which he had actively proselytized, and sought instead to suggest these young men had been deservedly imprisoned on the vague grounds that they were “imperfect.”

Indeed, Trump went still further to contend in his original advertisement following the crime that then New York Mayor Ed Koch was wrong, in the frenzied atmosphere following the attack, to call for the dignification of all individuals and for bending every effort to ensure reasoned application of relevant law, irrespective of the allegations in play:

Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. … Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.[4]

A second vignette arises from President Trump’s persistent habit of referring inexactly to immigrants by characterizing a small and vicious El Salvadoran gang of illegal migrants, MS-13, as “animals.”[5] The difficulty, of course, is that whatever the President’s precise wording may be, his supporters hear him arguing that “all immigrants are animals.” Beyond this thorny concern, it must be recalled that whatever their lawlessness, MS-13’s members are human beings and not animals, and that the vast share of immigrants (legal or not) do not commit crimes of any kind. In fact, the crime rate among immigrants is distinctly lower than that among native-born Americans. In short, this sort of rhetoric from Trump, most recently advanced in a rant in mid-May, is, at best, grotesquely misleading on all of these counts. At worst, it can encourage a broad-gauged hatred and loathing among many people against a largely innocent population. Indeed, the danger of this sort of vague over-heated rhetoric, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has noted, is both obvious and a repeated lesson of history:

No one wants to be put in a position of seeming to say anything good about gang members. Yet Trump’s strategy of dehumanization must be resisted across the board. We cannot shy away from what history teaches. Pronouncing whole categories of people as subhuman numbs a nation’s moral sense and, in extreme but, unfortunately, too many cases, becomes a rationale for collective cruelty.[6]

I encountered the third example of the implications of this penchant to dehumanize groups within a population or citizenry in Etty Hillesum’s journal and diaries. Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish intellectual from a middle-class family who volunteered to work at Westerbork, the Nazi “transit” camp in Amsterdam, when her brother and parents were imprisoned there. Ultimately, she joined her family as one of more than a thousand individuals sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Westerbork on September 7, 1943, where she died, at 29, on November 30 of that year. Her account of the Camp commandant “inspecting” the weekly freight train to the concentration camp on August 24, 1943, just two weeks prior to her own forced departure, is searing for its evocation of the contemptuous cruelty and hatred that underpinned this evil. Each train jammed roughly 1,000 people (men, women, children, babies, sick, healthy and the dying alike) into empty cars with their rucksacks, paper mats for the infirm and a single pot for hygiene:

On this cruel morning his face is almost iron-gray. It is a face that I am quite unable to read. Sometimes it seems to me that he has a long thin scar in which grimness mingles with joylessness and hypocrisy. And there is something else about him, halfway between a dapper hairdresser’s assistant and a stage door Johnny. But the grimness and the rigidly forced bearing predominate. With military step he walks along the line of freight cars, bulging now with people. He is inspecting his troops: the sick, infants in arms, young mothers and shaven-headed men. A few more ailing people are being brought up on stretchers. He makes an impatient gesture; they’re taking too long about it.[7]

The commandant was irritated and wished to send this train of misery on its way to Auschwitz-Birkenau where nearly all within it would be systematically murdered, many within minutes of their arrival. These were not humans in his view, but as Hitler often dehumanizingly argued concerning those he demonized, vermin. The horrific cruelty of Westerbork, let alone the concentration camps established by the Nazis is almost unfathomable, but none of it could have occurred or been sustained without the hatred and accompanying willingness to treat fellow human beings with immeasurable disdain, fueled by a vast effort to scapegoat and debase those it targeted.[8] Hitler likewise singled-out “communists” and those with disabilities, among others, for similar propagandistic hatemongering. 

            The lessons, for those wishing to protect and preserve freedom and self-governance, of these three accounts of the embrace of hatred are straightforward but crucial. First, human beings are capable of the most heinous of crimes when given leave to commit them, typically via concerted efforts to dehumanize those attacked. American history alone offers the examples of the nationally sanctioned genocide against Native Americans, the long-term enslavement and invidious treatment of African Americans and the internment during World War II of Japanese Americans. To these deep and almost unimaginable injustices, one might add the systematic mistreatment of women and many immigrant groups at various points in U.S. history. More generally, history teaches that democracy cannot check human cruelty and hatred once these have been released in a citizenry, usually in the name of fear. Paradoxically, only that population can discipline its own excesses.

Second, while it may seem obvious, it should be remarked that democratic leaders who mobilize via hatred and demand cruelty against specific groups are, by definition, engaging in anti-democratic behavior. We know from not only the extreme example of the Holocaust, but also from more recent “democratic” genocidal rampages against innocent people in Myanmar, the Balkans, Indonesia and Cambodia, that such rhetoric can unbridle horrors beyond comprehension and surely, often beyond the ken or control of those who encouraged them. Any democratic leader seeking to mobilize via hate runs the very high risk of “succeeding” too well in that Faustian bargain.

Finally, unlike any American president in modern history, Trump has systematically and publicly sought to demean, degrade and diminish specific groups within American society, including African Americans, the poor and immigrants, in order to mobilize and placate the fear and anger of what he sees as a specific group of supportive voters. In so doing, he is de facto testing the civic strength and resilience of the American citizenry writ large and of governmental institutions and democratic values aimed at ensuring the rule of law and the civil and human rights of all. Suffice it to say, history has shown repeatedly in our own and in other nations that none of these may simply be assumed to be secure in the face of a determined majority willing to follow the lead of an individual who successfully plays on that population’s fears and capacity for hatred and rationalization. Nevertheless, many Americans are indeed pushing back, and many are outraged at the assault on democratic values now afoot in the name of power and self-aggrandizement. The outcome of the current struggle over the very foundations of our nation’s governance, in the face of Trump’s relentless demagoguery, remains, as Dionne has pointed out, very much an open question.  A democratic and free society stands for nothing if it does not strive first and foremost to guarantee all of its residents their innate rights as human beings.


[1] Blow, Charles. “’I Want to Hate,’” The New York Times, June 6, 2018, Accessed, June 6, 2018.

[2] Trump, Donald. “Donald Trump: Central Park Five Settlement is a ‘Disgrace,’” The New York Daily News, June 21, 2014,  Accessed June 8, 2018.

[3] Trump, Donald. “Donald Trump: Central Park Five Settlement is a ‘Disgrace,’” The New York Daily News, June 21, 2014,  Accessed, June 8, 2018.

[4] Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Remember when Trump wanted to Execute Five Innocent Teenagers? He Still Says He Got it Right,” The Slatest, October 7, 2016, Accessed June 8, 2018.

[5] Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Trump calls some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in a Rant,” The New York Times, May 16, 2018,  Accessed, May 16, 2018.

[6] Dionne, E.J. “No one is an ‘Animal,’” The Washington Post, May 20, 2018, Accessed May 20, 2018.

[7] Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life: Letters from Westerbork, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p.352.

[8] Westerbork’s prisoners were sent disproportionately to Sobibor and, when that camp was destroyed following an attempted insurrection, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, for annihilation.