In the 1930s, as many Germans were swept into an antisemitic fervor by the Nazis, while others stood by and did nothing, the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer actively resisted Hitler’s genocide. In April 1943, the Gestapo arrested him. The authorities accused him of being a part of the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler. In April 1945, he was hanged by the Nazis, two weeks before WWII ended.
Few people have had a better view and a deeper understanding of the forces that caused so many unexceptional citizens to become cogs in the Nazi's death machine. At the end of 1942, Bonhoeffer dissected the causes of the Nazi rise to power in his essay “After Ten Years." In the piece, he reflected on the role of stupidity in enabling tyranny.
“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease.”
Bonhoeffer argues that evil is a quality that even its perpetrators recognize is immoral — even as they might excuse its use to advance a ‘worthy’ end. Stupidity has no such internal check. Evil has a purpose. Stupidity just is. He continues:
“Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.”
Anyone who has tried reason on a MAGA knows they reject facts and embrace comforting conspiracy theories. Some MAGAs — especially friends and family — may appear superficially accepting of a sensible argument. But as soon as they return to the internet, they are again down the Q rabbit hole.
Sometimes we discover that people we consider intelligent and may have advanced degrees are just as resistant to reality as the low-IQ, poorly-educated cultist. Bonhoeffer explains:
“There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.”
Stupidity is a quality that may correlate with IQ, but it is by no means a predictable relationship. Most of us have thought at some time, “How can (fill in the blank) be so fecking stupid?” Bonhoeffer elucidates the question.
“The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.”
Sadly, stupidity walks hand-in-hand with sociability. However, I suspect the truth is that intellectually self-sufficient people, regardless of whether they are sociable, are resistant to stupidity — while the stupid actively seek affirmation for their beliefs by hanging out with other stupid people.
Bonhoeffer goes on to describe the stupid person.
“The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”
One characteristic of MAGAs on social media is that they never express an original thought. Every argument they advance is someone else's. And almost invariably, they express themselves in memes. They also love chain emails disseminating complete bullshit — the more lurid, the better.
Left to their own devices, these stupid people would be irritating. But seduced by a charismatic leader, they coalesce into a destabilizing force eager to promote the cult. And avid to be tools of the autocrat.
“He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.
The autocrat is aware of this valuable and necessary asset.
“Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.”
Bonhoeffer then offered the cold comfort that, while there is an end to stupidity, it comes at a high cost. And unfortunately, there is no other way to achieve that end.
“Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person.”
In Germany’s case the “act of liberation” was the country's destruction as it lost WWII. Who knows what will cause the MAGAs to come to their senses? With luck, an energized Gen Z will push an aging reactionary mob to the sidelines. With no luck, it will be the civil war Trump and his dead-enders are fomenting.
Or the end could be decades away as the Republicans at the state and federal levels shred democratic norms like ballot access, streamlined registration, early and mail-in voting, ballot measures, and representative districts while armed Brown Shirts patrol polling stations — reducing America to a Soviet-style shithole.
On the last, although I like to be right, I would prefer circumstances to prove me guilty of hyperbole and just plain wrong. Fingers crossed.