By Tom Ehrich

It seems to be hate season in America.

It's as if someone took off the lid of civility and said, "Hate away."

Hate gays, hate blacks, hate an African-American president, hate immigrants, hate gun nuts, hate gun-controllers, hate abortion foes, hate abortion providers, hate the Supreme Court, hate men, hate women, hate government, hate the Tea Party, hate anyone whose views differ from your own.

Actions being taken are so stupid that only hatred could explain them. Gun folks carrying automatic rifles into McDonalds are beyond nonsense. Efforts by anti-Obama forces to cripple the Affordable Care Act are self-defeating. Same with efforts to pounce on every opportunity for partisan snark, even at the risk of confounding American interests in foreign policy. Hatred of science and intellectual pursuits are miring us in ignorance.

Democracy itself is in danger. For democracy depends in part on that very lid of civility, which restrains those who disagree from demonizing each other and resorting quickly to violence. Hatred seeks to destroy the other, with no room for the compromise, consensus and self-sacrifice that democracy requires.

One part of Adolf Hitler's genius, which I have been studying lately, is that he grew up filled with hatred and its cousin self-loathing, and he learned to tap into that same toxic core inside others.

Not everyone shared all of his hatreds -- Jews, gays, gypsies, Slavs, communists, democrats, Christians, intellectuals, Russians -- but he took one common line of hatred, joined it with other lines, and created a monstrous regime that lived by demonizing and killing.

Murderous regimes like Idi Amin's Uganda or the Taliban follow the same template: name the hatreds, give permission to hate, unleash the haters, and ride the bloody slope to power.

I keep waiting for the Christian community to step forward. But we seem paralyzed by small-stakes battles that we enjoy waging but don't expose us to risk of cultural rejection. While hatred stalks the streets, we fuss over who sits where at the parlor table.

Hatred doesn't explain all of our divisions in America. But it does explain the venom, the inability to resolve conflicts, and the growing feeling that we mean nothing to each other and have no obligation to each other.

Love is assuredly the answer, but love does better dealing with loneliness, grief and remorse. Love needs at least some oxygen, and hatred suffocates love in an airless cell, like the cattle cars that Nazis used to transport the hated to death.

Standing up to hatred takes courage. Remaining calm, even-handed, open-minded and tolerant gets harder and harder. Our weak and self-serving politicians are the first to fall away, followed soon by anyone who depends on the marketplace for their livelihood. Can't offend the customers.

What lies ahead? If hatred carries the day, we will dissolve in mob rule, followed by rule imposed by the powerful, and freedom will vanish. I know the theory, but I never thought I'd see the possibility up close and personal, as I do now.