It’s been 78 years since Dorothy Thompson published her iconic “Who Goes Nazi?” in Harper’s. “Interesting and somewhat macabre,” Who Goes Nazi? is a game you can play with your friends and acquaintances (although, for your safety, play it in your own head, not out loud). The rules are simple: Look around a group and ferret out who would go Nazi under the right conditions, and who never, ever would, no matter what. In her piece, Thompson described playing her game at an imaginary dinner party. We present to you, updated for the 21st century: the Office Edition. After you’ve finished reading, try it out at your own workplace (again, in your head, or with very trusty coworkers).
As with Thompson’s dinner party, the imaginary office described below is not meant to be an average or universal environment, representative of all experiences (as if there could be such a thing). It’s a very specific place: a white-collar corporation in a gentrifying liberal city. By no means are the characters described below the only kind of people who would go Nazi. Nor is it impossible, as Thompson stipulates, for Jewish or non-white people to go Nazi. “Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality,” Thompson says. “It appeals to a certain type of mind.”
Let us look around the conference room, and see if we can locate this certain type of mind.
The woman who will soon triple-clap to begin this lunch meeting is the office manager. We’ll call her the Cheerleader. She was, in fact, never actually a cheerleader, but she has that same kind of team-spiritedness, shaded with irony now for coolness’s sake. Alpha girl, committee queen, she peaked in college roles that rewarded organization and bullying. In her ponytail and her sweats she could, as a gorgeous, authoritative 22 year old, control a crowd of fellow students, and she loved the power of it. She hates her powerlessness now.
In her childhood, the Cheerleader was told so often that she was stupid, and only her weight and beauty mattered, that she believes it now absolutely, and downplays her own formidable intelligence (though not without consciousness, she’s recognized that acting stupid when she isn’t is a species of cleverness, the cleverest weapon she has). With her coworkers she’s openly, passionately anti-intellectual, an avid non-reader—this makes men more comfortable, or so she’s found. The cheerleader is always attuned to what men, who are power, find valuable and useful. She doesn’t have much use for or place much value on women, including herself.
Everyone knows the Cheerleader is fucking the boss. Not for attraction, but for lack of anything better to do, and because it’s power, or as close as she can get to it anyway. As his mistress and his right hand, she’s the bubbly blonde enforcer of the boss’ will. You’d better give obeisance to her or you’ll be slowly starved of advancement opportunities, blamed for random errors, and never invited out after work. If you’re a man, she’s automatically got your back; if you’re a woman you’ll have to work very hard to prove you’re not a threat. Loudly, proudly, not a feminist, the Cheerleader never votes because “voting doesn’t change anything.” She has lots of gay friends and is progressive on the surface, but these gay friends (you’ve met them) are the type that absolutely despise women. With them—they’re all white—she engages in a laughing low-key racism, slipping into AAVE for “comic effect.” She would not only go full Nazi but would make an excellent prison comandante.
Next is a fellow associate-level coworker, the Failed Academic. He’s only here as a day job, and makes sure everybody knows it. A self-described Marxist, he would have been an academic if academia were still a field with careers. But the academy is broken, which despite his professed Marxism he takes more personally than politically, because it’s forced him to scrounge for meaningless salaried work like the rest of you slobs. He writes “pieces” for his blog and sometimes for tiny journals run by failed academics like himself. These are lengthy essays, deeply researched, dense with allusions, all displaying a reflexive contempt for the masses who can’t understand his talents and aren’t reading his work anyway. The existence of Gmail’s automated features means everyone is becoming robots. Facebook’s algorithms dominate the human information multiplex; there is no escaping it. (You can catch him on Facebook at least four hours of every workday, getting into labyrinthine quarrels with important left figures you’ve never heard of).
In the Failed Academic’s former Marxist politics, now flattened into despair, nothing can be fought, only monitored, and mourned, though with contempt for you and your petty bourgeois nostalgia for a past that was never real. Any liking his coworkers ever express for pop culture, however hedged and passing, feeds the flames of his contempt for everyone around him. (He’s perfectly interested in pop culture himself, but he’s always careful to pass off his tastes as thoughtful; the ‘80s action movies he loves are symbolic of a great hollowness, which he’s certain is society and not himself).
The Failed Academic will never go Nazi, because he still has his principles, and also because going Nazi would require change, and he finished developing years ago. But he’ll chronicle the descent into fascism lyrically, fatalistically, for an audience of no one. (Should it be socialism instead, he won’t help or organize, but he’ll chronicle it too, with a confused and disbelieving joy).
Across the table from the Failed Academic, chatting amiably to anyone and everyone, we find the receptionist, who we’ll call the Maddow Madhound. Ugh. She’s nice. It’s really hard to dislike her. She’s a decent, thoughtful person. The day you got sick after eating that tuna wrap you stole from the VP’s meeting, the receptionist was the one who called your roommate to come get you. But as kind as she is, the Maddow Madhound is, in Seinfeldian terms, a long talker. And for the past few years, her favorite subject has been the #Resistance. She knows every detail of the Russia investigation, and having decided that your political sympathies are firmly Team Blue, she can’t wait to tell you all about it. Every morning, she breaks down the thrilling news that Rachel Maddow broke to her last night. Mueller is inching closer to the target, he’ll get there any day now; the Republicans are turning on Trump, it’ll take just a few more senators, a few more shocking revelations, and then, just like that, pop! the Orange Abomination will be impeached, and the nightmare will be over.
Behind the Maddow Madhound’s back, the other people in your office (especially the Failed Academic) make fun of her. They mock her for her social awkwardness, for long-talking, for being hopeful, for being unselfishly kind. Despite her commitment to the #Resistance, her actual politics—when you can draw her off Russia—are relatively left. The word “socialism” makes her nervous—she’s worried the government is going to come for her pension, as (she thinks happened) in Venezuela. But at the same time she does believe the rich should be aggressively taxed and healthcare should be free for everyone. Her daughter’s getting married to an immigrant and she just couldn’t be happier, she tells you loudly but also sincerely; she means it or she wants to mean it; she is actively trying to be a good person. She will never go Nazi. In fact, unlike the Failed Academic, she’s politically engaged. She’ll phonebank for the first socialist presidential candidate, and cry at the inauguration.
Sipping moodily at her coffee and nervously biting her nails is the project manager. You don’t want to cross her, lest you be at the sudden receiving end of an avalanche of anxiety which triggers your own barely managed disorder. Unlike the Maddow Madhound, you do, actively, despise the Anxiety Attacker. It’s hard not to. The Anxiety Attacker guards her territory fiercely; she gets in at 7:00 am and stays until 9:00 pm, working, always working, performing how hard she’s working, which is also how hard she doesn’t need to work, because if she just delegated and explained you’d be happy to help. But in her anxiety and self-protectiveness and terror of the boss she simply can’t. Everyone is out to get her; if you say hello to her she wants to know what you’re after. She’s sure that everybody wants something. This is just the latest in a long line of cruel jobs; decades of workplace mind-games and sudden shocking layoffs have made her distrust everyone, and for good reason. She makes huge mistakes in her distrust and her exhaustion, and her errors have rippling effects throughout the office. But, if you ever suggest she might have screwed up she’ll go to HR, accusing you of trying to undermine her.
The Anxiety Attacker has no stated politics. She’s opposed to the redistribution of wealth because she’s worked hard, so very fucking hard, and she just wants to retire in peace (she will never retire, she’s addicted to the abuse-cycle of overwork and pride in overwork and in hating herself for overwork and for making errors, the inexcusable imperfections of an exhausted mind). She’s been through too much to turn back now. She’s terminally tired. Will she go Nazi? Hard to say. She’s already a Nazi in her own heart, a Nazi of herself, proud and hateful and obedient and death-driven. She’ll do anything to be safe from the fear of loss and failure. She might not help the Nazis, but she won’t stop them. She won’t even notice when they’ve arrived.
Chatting fearlessly next to the Anxiety Attacker is an additional associate, yet another woman in the office who drives the Failed Academic crazy. This one is the Cheerful Centrist. She’s a liberal, so she says, and she knows things are bad. It’s just that right now most things are so nice, for her. The conveniences of modern life can’t be beat. She loves Netflix and Spotify and her Amazon Prime account. She takes Uber everywhere, even when she technically doesn’t have to. Yes, it’s bad, but what can you do? Her boyfriend works for Google and drives a Tesla, he’s actually a lovely guy, they’re buying a house, you hate them just a little or maybe a lot for being able to afford a house, for speaking in a capitalized soup of brands and only shrugging wryly at it. What can you do?
The Cheerful Centrist is a feminist, sincerely, and cares about every intersection except class. She has a finely balanced sense of the absurd, and is funny, and is your workfriend. You commiserate about microaggressions over drinks. She remembers, months later, the name of the writer you said you liked. She wants the world to be better but she doesn’t want to lose anything in the process. Her parents are very conservative and she loves them. When they first immigrated they struggled for a while and, while they’re quite comfortable now, they’ve impressed upon her that she must avoid struggle. She must never lose.
This Cheerful Centrist will not become a Nazi, but it’s going to be tough to make her a socialist. She’ll hold on to what she has. She feels her parents earned it at great cost, and she puts up with a lot of bullshit to keep it. Her life is too smooth, fun, unwrinkled, lively. Her clothes are beautiful; her vacations are Instagrammable. She isn’t willing to take the difficult journey into where and when and how she’s wrong.
Who’s sitting with his back to the Cheerful Centrist, listening furiously, fuming at every word? Why, it’s the IT Guy, who you call, succinctly, the Internet Guy. He thinks Joe Rogan is hilarious, but when you ask him to tell you a funny Joe Rogan joke he says you just have to watch it. Whenever you venture into his ratty windowless office for computer help, you catch him mainlining Rogan and the rest of IDW YouTube. The Internet Guy has never studied the humanities, and he hasn’t read a book in years. He may have bought and skimmed 12 Rules For Life, and also Richard Dawkins’ books, which he privately thought were too dense, which in his mind is synonymous with brilliant. When GamerGate happened, he told you it was about ethics in video game journalism, but when you asked for more information he couldn’t clarify what that meant. He claims he isn’t part of the alt-right (and is offended you would insinuate that!) Oddly enough, he always ends up hating the “woke”, “diverse” corporate pop culture artifacts starring women and people of color, but never for the right reasons. He’ll focus on the CGI, or the frame rate, or a single awkward line, or a generalized failure-to-be-exactly-the-same-narrative-he-loved-as-a-child. The Internet Guy has the kind of raw, lashing, intellectual insecurity of a man who doesn’t really know how to analyze narrative and is ashamed of it, but rather than doing the work of self-education he flings his private inferiority and ignorance outward on a carrier wave of distrust and resentment. It’s infectious; the Internet Guy is so confident that you, like him, know nothing and understand nothing that you begin to believe it yourself.
Desperately crushing on the Cheerful Centrist, the Internet Guy covers for it by aggressively teasing her, which she receives laconically, almost unbothered. He’s just another piece of shit she has to put up with to stay where she is. When he tries to discuss politics with you, he always references his Cuban grandfather, as if this both shields him from being a bigot and justifies his fear of socialism (it doesn’t). He lives in a luxury condo in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and thinks his Black neighbors hate him (they do). He thinks this is racism (it isn’t). He considers identity politics a personal attack (what he wants is automatic forgiveness for the sins of history, without realizing that no one is asking for his private guilt, just his help).
The Internet Guy will absolutely go Nazi. He probably has already. See if you can find his secret posts on a popular alt-right message board. Don’t know his avi? Try the name of his favorite video game character. He was bullied as a child a few times for being a nerd. He has never forgotten. You can’t possibly appreciate how oppressed he is, at least as much as people of color, for having been bullied, once, twice, maybe even three whole times.
Enough talk of politics! cries the pink-cheeked CIO, The Apolitical Adjudicator. He hates politics. He doesn’t believe in politics. He has extremely strict politics. Everyone just needs to sit down and have a good conversation, really hammer it out. Everyone can overcome anything, with a little hard work. Even bigotry can be overcome by doing your best and proving your worth. Why, the Apolitical Adjudicator knows a guy who…his stories ramble, but everyone endures it, as they won’t for the Maddow Madhound, because she’s a woman and lower-ranking, and he’s a founding member of the company. Born in the South, the Apolitical Adjudicator is all sweetness and down-home charm unless you cross him, in which case he turns brightly vicious, and the accent disappears. In any case his Southernness is mostly affectation. He may have been born in Tennessee but he attended Exeter (yes, he keeps the banner above his desk, along with his diplomas from Yale and Carnegie Mellon).
The Apolitical Adjudicator believes in hard work but he does not, himself, work very hard. He spends most of his days on the phone with his children, or with the schools he’s trying to get his grandchildren into (he praises the high achievers and complains about the artistic losers, but in either case he pushes his contacts to get his grandchildren accepted. They are his grandchildren, after all). But enough about his family, his non-politics which are the inflexible unquestioned politics of American conservatism—will he go Nazi? In theory he is opposed. He’s a patriotic American. He owns multiple unread Churchill biographies. But in practice, should some other, undeserving, possibly browner person’s child squeeze his legacy admissions out of what they so rightly deserve, he’ll be forced to declare himself fascist, far-right, whatever, if that’s what the leftists, those uncivilized partisans and the true bigots, have driven him towards. What happened to this country, during the long years where he didn’t have to care about politics? Whatever happened to freedom, values, and an unfettered, American chance at happiness? (He will remain opposed, in any case, to free college.)
Finally, the lunch meeting begins. The speaker—the only speaker—is the man himself, the man in charge, the CEO, the Boss. He started this company from scratch with nothing, except the Apolitical Adjudicator, a $100,000 dollar loan, and a third partner who has long been cut out of the picture, literally at times, like Stalin’s disfavored officials. That is the only comparison to Stalin the Boss will admit. He’s a capitalist down to his bones and out again through his Botoxed skin. The Boss, and the private power of Bosses like himself, is the only authority he recognizes.
Mercurial and arbitrary, the Boss’ winds blow in any direction, and can suddenly froth into a hurricane. Are his sudden storms an act to keep his employees cowed? Or just cocaine? It’s hard to tell. He is a blur of movement. He’s always changing his mind. You’ve always done it wrong, unless you’re The Cheerleader, his mistress, in which case someone else is to blame.
The Boss votes Republican, though he pretended reluctance when it came to Trump. Really, he just doesn’t like getting gouged by Uncle Sam, not while he’s trying to renovate his lakehouse. It isn’t fair; he’s worked so hard, he’s built this company, he’s survived so many storms (including the ones he created). From fragments of conversation screamed into his office phone, you’ve deduced that he’s being audited by the IRS. He didn’t do anything wrong. It isn’t fair. He keeps shouting about a Mr. Epstein from that agency, who’s been calling to arrange an appointment. Mr. Epstein, Mr. Epstein—he’s very fixated on that name. He can’t seem to stop saying it. Coincidentally, it just so happens that he regularly confuses the names of the few people of color in the office. You may have considered complaining about his behavior to HR, but those who do so tend to leave the company rather quickly. They didn’t do anything wrong. It isn’t fair.
In his office, the Boss is yelling on the phone to his betrayed and long-suffering wife not to answer any more calls from Mr. Epstein. The lakehouse and the money he failed to mention on his tax return is his, as dear to him as his own body or his wife or his mistress, all of his prized possessions. It’s all his; he’s worked so hard, harder than anyone else at this company, which is also his own, his private property. He deserves what he’s earned. He deserves everything. No one, he believes, has ever deserved it more than himself. If the Boss wasn’t going to go Nazi before—though he likely would have—he’ll certainly go full Nazi now, and happily so, finally able to give his grievances a Jewish name. When you finally quit the company, make sure you shake his hand, and look him in the eye, and tell him you can’t wait for the day when all his wealth will be expropriated.
This article was originally published in the January – February issue of Current Affairs.
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