In the closing scene of Stanley Kramer’s great film Judgment at Nuremberg, Presiding Justice Spencer Haywood visits the convicted defendant Dr. Ernst Janning in his cell. Janning, a once- esteemed magistrate who sided with the Nazis, asks Haywood to believe that “I never knew that it would come to this.” Judge Haywood replies, “Herr Janning, it came to this the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
This exchange came to mind while watching the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. The issue at hand was not convicting an innocent man but acquitting a guilty one. It’s possible that some of the 43 senators who voted for acquittal did so because they sincerely believed the Constitution limits impeachment to presidents still in office. And some may have dismissed the trial as the latest in an ongoing effort by Democrats to discredit Trump in what the former president denounced as a “witch hunt.”
But these issues were nothing more than a sideshow mounted to provide a rationale for Republicans who voted to acquit because they feared Trump’s retribution. The core of Trump’s defense, brazenly offered up against a floodtide of evidence of his guilt, was that the president did nothing wrong. One is reminded of another old movie, this one featuring the Marx Brothers. Chico tells a woman who’s skeptical about something he’s telling her: “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?” Forty-three members of a Senate, self-described as the world’s largest deliberative body, cravenly chose to believe what they were being told.
Four years ago, a newly elected president sent his press secretary out to tell reporters that the crowds drawn by his boss’s inauguration were larger than those who gathered for his predecessor’s, even though photographic evidence proved otherwise. How many of us understood that this bit of childish narcissism would metastasize into the Big Lie that seduced as much as 80 percent of Republican voters into believing that Trump had won the 2020 election by a landslide, and provoked thousands to stage an insurrection?
Although I’m a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, I’ve never feared that it could happen here. Our history is different from Germany’s. And besides, our system of government has sturdy firewalls to check extremism that have held firm for more than two centuries. Now I’m not so sure. The Founding Fathers didn’t have to reckon with the internet, or reality TV that makes the fabricated appear real. Perhaps even more ominous than the insurrection is the incredible fact that 75 million Americans voted to re-elect a president who lied to them more than 30,000 times during his brief tenure. And the firewalls, which are only as strong as the people who man them, are crumbling.
Here in Santa Barbara we’ve been somewhat removed from all of this. Yes, we have local and regional issues that remain unresolved. But by-and-large, we’re a peaceable community governed and represented by the reliable people we’ve elected. But evil is in the national wind, and it can spread with the speed of cyber communication.
Sitting in his jail cell, Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor imprisoned by Hitler, wrote the following:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s not yet time for panic. But it is a time for vigilance lest the embers of anarchy be allowed to burst into flame. This has happened elsewhere. It begins at the grassroots, with elections to the local school board … then moves upward to the city council … the mayor’s. Before long, voters elect dangerous whackos who embrace QAnon conspiracy theories and hypocrites like Lindsay Graham, who once said that Trump should be “kicked out of the Republican party” but morphed into his golfing buddy, and Ted Cruz, who once called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “coward,” but led the January 6 attempt to disqualify enough votes to get Trump elected.
Vigilance does not imply watching from the sidelines. To the contrary, it calls for intensified engagement in the public square by churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as secular agencies and individuals working separately and in coalitions of decency. It can happen here and elsewhere. But it doesn’t have to. Perhaps we can take a mulligan for not paying more attention to what Trump-enabler Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts” when they first appeared. But not now. To paraphrase what Representative Joe Neguse said in his closing argument: Former president Trump says that this is just the beginning. Let’s be sure to make it the end.
Rabbi Ira Youdovin is executive vice president emeritus of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. He entered peaceful retirement in Santa Barbara 12 years ago.