Intentionally Nasty

April 13, 2024 Josef Göbbels Culture Wars Propaganda Donald Trump

Coventry Cathedral in ruins. (Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH(N) 600/279/1)Coventry Cathedral in ruins. (Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH(N) 600/279/1)

Following the destruction of Coventry by German bombers in 1940, Josef Göbbels reportedly started to use the term coventrieren to refer to bombing campaigns in other places.

Göbbels, of course, was the Reich’s chief propagandist, a die-hard Nazi and pioneer in his use—and abuse—of words for political aims. In equal parts cruel and gloating, coventrieren was precisely how this man played to the worst instincts of his audience, steamrolling any misgivings.

What strikes me about this particular example was the undeniable nastiness: I have a hard time believing that someone who weaponizes a war crime can credibly think of himself as the good guy”, just like SS troops wearing skulls on their caps can’t possibly have believed they were doing good.

Instead, these examples demonstrate how the nazis didn’t care for anything beyond their immediate aims, let alone for the hundreds or thousands who died in Coventry: Göbbels cared about an effective message, about cold-bloodily leveraging one gruesome story to bring about the next.

To bring this back to the present moment: Much has been said about culture war discourse, but a marked quality of it is just how intentionally nasty is it.

This is a lasting legacy of Donald Trump, no matter if he is re-elected or not. Trump made the unsayable sayable, he normalized a nasty, vindictive discourse that previously only existed in the tabloid headlines. Now we now find it everywhere: Debate is about slamming your political opponent, it’s about owning” the rival, ridiculing their intelligence, and it’s become entirely normal to dehumanize people and minorities to acquire political gain.

It’s a discourse that wouldn’t be allowed on a playground, and yet it’s slowly enveloping us all, one broken taboo at a time.

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