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Jan. 6 could happen again. It’s up to us to stop it

This essay was adapted from IT COULD HAPPEN HERE by Jonathan Greenblatt, published by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Greenblatt. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.

From that fateful day in July 2015 when Donald Trump announced his candidacy as he descended a gilded escalator, he contrived grim visions of criminals and terrorists storming across our southern border.

Every hostile tweet, every offensive speech, every coarse comment fanned the flames of hate. And the press breathlessly repeated his hateful messages, allowing intolerance to spread through social media virtually unchecked. Extremists took advantage of the political cover Trump offered them not just to commit acts of violence but to enter the political discourse, further normalizing hate.

For five years, it seemed to many that nothing fundamentally changed — that these instances of bigotry were only words, unpleasant but not especially harmful to our democratic system. The attack on the Capitol Building and attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, was a wake-up call to the imminent threat posed by Far Right extremists and their hateful ideology, a threat not just to Americans but to proponents of liberal democracy around the world.

Trump’s bigotry also catalyzed extremism on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Although nothing like Trump’s demagoguery exists on the political left, strident voices have arisen there that espouse a different kind of illiberalism.

In particular, a small but steady stream of anti-Zionist critique has veered into blatant antisemitism. Entrenched hostility toward Jews among some on the left became painfully clear during the spring of 2021. Over a two-week period, ADL tracked a 75 percent rise in anti-Jewish incidents, from harassment to vandalism to violence. In Los Angeles, a mob waving pro-Palestinian flags attacked a group of Jewish men as they ate dinner at a restaurant. In New York City, a man shouting antisemitic invective attacked a Jewish man on his way to synagogue, kicking and chasing him for blocks. In Miami, men in an SUV shouted slurs and threatened to rape the female members of a Jewish family.

Our society is becoming more vulnerable by the day to hate on both the left and the right. In this environment, with hatred seething around us, the arrival of another demagogue — one smarter and more disciplined than President Donald Trump — is all it would take to produce an explosion of violence, mass death, and the destruction of our society and democracy.

But another larger-than-life figure is not necessary for us to suffer this horrible outcome. Yet another norm of our democracy — the notion that naked racism and antisemitism have no place in the workings of Congress — had been shattered. Figures like freshman GOP representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Congressman Paul Gosar not only repeat QAnon conspiracies and the big lie about the 2020 election but also trumpet hate.

Perhaps instead of combusting all at once, our nation will fall into violence more gradually as seemingly smaller figures operate on the periphery, pushing the envelope, numbing the public and shifting norms of acceptable conduct until, at a certain point, what once appeared impossible becomes possible.

Nobody would have guessed that one day people would see brazen and violent attacks on innocent Jews in places like midtown Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles. None of us want to believe that America could end up like Germany in the 1930s. Nobody wants to believe that illiberalism, fascism and violence could unfold on our shores.

But we must confront that possibility. What might occur if social instability deepens, hateful attitudes become even more pervasive and entrenched, the traditional institutional protections are worn down even more and a much shrewder demagogue rises to power?

What might occur if a series of opportunistic mini-demagogues on either the right or the left attain power in the next decade, eroding our norms one after the other and making hate increasingly palatable until finally the nation simply lacks the guardrails required to protect it from tragedy?

We can’t afford to find out. And hopefully, we won’t. With horrifying attacks on minority groups occurring weekly, our society is growing perilously radicalized and hateful. But as terrifying as that is, we have reason for hope. We can still confront hatred head-on before it destroys us, attacking it at its roots.

The good news is that decent, upstanding Americans far outnumber the haters and insurgents. The even better news is that we have the virtual and figurative tools to fight extremist hate and push it back into the sewer where it belongs.

We can stop the worst, most violent expressions of hate by interrupting the process by which individuals and society become radicalized. We can dial back even deeply entrenched hate if we mobilize a combination of education and public advocacy and courageously call out those who perpetuate intolerance, regardless of their political affiliation or supposed moral position.

During the 1930s and 1940s, antisemitism was rampant in the United States, with about 40% of the U.S. population subscribing to hateful beliefs, according to one survey. In 1964, ADL research found, 29% held strong antisemitic beliefs, defined as subscribing to “six or more common stereotypes about Jews, out of a total of 11 such stereotypes.” As of 2020, only 11% of the population was antisemitic by this definition.

This positive change was due to a number of factors, including increased Jewish representation in the media and participation in public life, but a combination of advocacy and education on the part of ADL and other community-based organizations also proved pivotal. Although antisemitism is again on the rise across the political spectrum and hateful acts are exploding, we can push back and help a new generation become more respectful, not just of Jews but of all minority and marginalized groups.

Societal beliefs can and do change for the better — but we do have to work at it.

Most of us don’t go through life seeking to “win” endless ideological arguments. We’re simply trying to earn a respectable living, raise our kids, help our neighbors and conduct ourselves according to a set of core values. We’re frightened by the polarization and vicious rhetoric we encounter all around us, and we seek ways to both understand and combat it.

January 6 was bad, but it might have been far worse, and we will certainly see even more atrocities if we don’t interrupt intolerance. Hate isn’t someone else’s problem — it’s our problem. We are not part of the solution — we are the solution. We can all make a difference, working to change people’s minds and soften their hardened opinions.

I’m scared to death of what the future might hold for the Jewish people and all people if present trends persist. I feel compelled to do everything in my power to stop the unthinkable from happening. We must all realize how close we are to widespread violence and the disintegration of democracy and civilized society. My family witnessed firsthand the catastrophes that unfettered hate can inflict on the world. Never again, I say. And I mean it.

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