Howl of the Day: Mar 8, 2016
A disclaimer first. This article is not at all meant to endorse Donald J. Trump as a candidate for president of the United States. It is not even meant to suggest anything particularly good about him. It is only meant to discredit a particular strain of irresponsible rhetoric that has arisen surrounding his campaign.
Donald J. Trump is not like Hitler. It seems this can’t be repeated often enough.
It can’t be repeated often enough because saying that Trump is like Hitler does two things: it denigrates the sacrifices and sufferings of millions upon millions of human beings, military and civilian, during the Second World War, and it promotes such laziness of thinking as to make even basic political understanding impossible to achieve. Americans need to be able to speak about the relative merits and demerits of political figures and positions without sloppily referring to anything that doesn’t immediately please them as being like Hitler.
One certainly hears the charge made frequently, and loudly. One can scarcely avoid it.
Just a few days ago, the popular comedian, Louis C.K., made headline news when he opined on the matter in an email to his fans. C.K. had actually upped the ante, by not saying that Trump is like Hitler, but rather that he is Hitler, presumably because that is funnier. The comedian indicated that while Trump had been funny for a while, he has since ceased to be so. At least we now have an assessment of Trump’s comic value, and from a professional.
But there is good reason to suspect that if anything at all in America would flourish under a Trump administration, it would be political jokes. Saturday Night Live is already on the case. In his email, Louis C.K. went on to call himself an idiot and a person unqualified to discuss the matter. That’s funny, of course, but like so many other people who profess ignorance only to go on talking, C.K. obviously doesn’t believe it about himself.
On a rung still lower down the ladder of spirit, the Hollywood actor, George Clooney has weighed in as well. The handsome and affable fellow who memorably played Matt Stevens in “Return of the Killer Tomatoes!” (1988), shortly before he exploded into thespian greatness, has called Trump a “xenophobic fascist”. Those are big words – they have six syllables between them, and they even have uncommon sounds like an ‘x’ pronounced as a ‘z’ and an ‘sc’ pronounced ‘sh’. It is no doubt this kind of speaking talent that sees Clooney making more than $20 million per film.
It does get even more ridiculous and lazy than the Hitler comparison. J.K. Rowling, best known as the author of the Harry Potter series of children’s books, has not compared Trump to Hitler, but she has tweeted that the businessman is even worse than the main villain in her stories, Lord Voldemort. This despite the fact that there has been no word yet as to how Trump feels about muggles and magical half-bloods, or whether his plans for a presidency would include an attack on Hogwarts.
It must be noted, however, that similar charges have been made from more serious and sympathetic quarters. Eva Schloss, the step-sister of Anne Frank has said that Trump is acting like Hitler. This is a tough one – nobody wants to denigrate the view of an aging Holocaust survivor (Schloss is 86). There are precious few of them left and they rightly possess the cultural aura of honored sufferers. But Schloss is simply not correct about this, and one can only wish that she had spent her emotional authority elsewhere.
Sadly, she has thrown her lot in with the Anti-Trumplodytes, the people who think that Trump is like Hitler. These folks are a timely and specific derivative of a more general type: people who say that all sorts of stuff they don’t like is akin to Hitler or to Nazism, thereby both sparing themselves the trouble of examining it and scoring easy rhetorical points.
This situation is perpetuated and exacerbated by the mainstream media. While the various news outlets in the English speaking world do not seem themselves inclined to make the comparison, it does seem that they report on it every time someone else does. A casual search of CNN.com reveals dozens of recent pieces along these lines. Say that Trump is like Hitler and there is a better chance that CNN will publish an article that you did so than there is that you will get hit by a car tomorrow. Those aren’t bad odds for fifteen minutes of fame, and you’re probably still driving to work in the morning.
In the face of all this neglect of history and trivialization of tyranny, it is easy to be reminded of Godwin’s Law, which posits that as a conversation on the internet grows longer, so too does the probability that a comparison to Hitler will be made in it. And it reminds too of the phrase that the philosopher, Leo Strauss made famous in his Natural Right and History, “reductio ad Hitlerum”, which characterizes the fallacy that a view is refuted by the fact that Hitler shared it. On the basis of his lousy paintings, it appears that Hitler too thought the sky was blue. Or at least that some parts of it are.
The reality doesn’t take even much work to discern. Long before he came to power in 1933, Hitler had campaigned against capitalism, communism, and liberalism. He had even led an armed attempt to topple the Weimar Republic. And, of course, he had also penned the despicable Mein Kampf, his long screed in which he blamed everything on the Jews, and looked forward to German military conquest.
None of this is like Trump in theory or practice. Trump has shown up at a WWE wrestling show to dump money on the crowd, he has verbally sparred with D-list celebrities, starred in a hokey “reality” show about how he fires dingbats from jobs that they don’t have, written awful books about how to succeed in business, and run a fake university.
And, yes, he’s also said objectionable things about Mexicans and Muslims. He’s pretended to be a Christian, he’s suggested a boycott of Starbucks because of their red cups, and he disavowed the support of white supremacists just slowly enough so as not to offend them.
Trump might be crass. He might be sleazy, and he might be somewhat bigoted. He might also not be competent to lead the nation.
But he’s not like Hitler, and to suggest otherwise not only denigrates the horrors of Nazi Germany and what it took to stop that menace, it points out an inability to distinguish between the most vicious politics and things that we just don’t like. This is dangerous stuff. When we mischaracterize things as extreme, we become less able to identify extremism when it actually appears. We cripple the vocabulary that we employ in order to discuss matters of politics and we willfully distort our own view of them. It is in this, more than other things, that current political discourse in America is reminiscent of that in the once Weimar Republic – a basic sense of political perspective had been lost there, and tyranny could not be identified as a consequence. It hurts the cause of liberal democracy more than it helps when we call Trump a Hitler.
America doesn’t need more irresponsible hyperbole than it’s already got. After all, we haven’t just got the Anti-Trumplodytes, we’ve got the Trumplodytes too.