Opinion: Comparing Trump to Hitler? Not so fast
Why invoking Nazism is not only incorrect, but also dangerous
Bair is a MBA student at the University of Portland. Photo Courtesy of Calvin Bair.
When Louis C.K, Bill Maher, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and even the sister of Anne Frank likened President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, many Americans nodded in agreement.
At the recent Women’s March, many signs declared their resistance to “fascism.” And an incredibly slim, yet highly visible subgroup of Trump supporters - the asinine “alt-right” - have been compared to Nazis. We lament that President Trump censored some government agencies, yet forget that both presidents that preceded him did precisely the same thing.
To be clear, President Trump does display sociopathic tendencies. He changes policy positions on a whim. He seemingly says whatever comes to his mind. Some of his speeches are nearly incoherent ramblings, devoid of substance or even the pretense of syntax. He is an aspiring, if inept, autocrat. And, certainly, his cabinet is filled with Goldman Sachs alumni, climate change deniers, religious zealots, snake charmers and opportunists.
The dearth of moral fortitude is palpable.
They pose a threat to our institutions, our press and our liberties. But are they plotting genocide?
Of the 11 million innocents slaughtered in the Holocaust, six million were Jewish. Poland alone, including its Jewish citizens, lost six million to the camps. If we include the 40 million soldiers and civilians that perished in the European theater of World War II, we begin to see just how astonishing the loss of life really was.
To compare a boorish man who brags about reprehensible behavior towards women to a man who devised a plan to not only bring the world to its knees, but to also exterminate entire ethnicities from the face of the planet is a preposterous analogy.
Such a comparison numbs us to the truest horror of modern history. Further, to paint Trump as an ascendant dictator has the effect of cornering his supporters, forcing them to defend themselves against charges of nationalism, racism or worse.
Some Trump voters and apologists may indeed harbor these sentiments. However, I would suggest that a majority do not. Many saw Hillary Clinton as a continuation of the corporatist, neoliberal status-quo that brought us deindustrialization, NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, to name a few. Deregulation, wealth disparity and dislocation have been the results of these policies, as anyone living in the aptly named “Rust Belt” can confirm.
Trump rallied to these people and played to their trepidations, firing them up like an evangelist in a sweltering revival tent. All the Democrats could lamely offer was more of the same, and if they didn’t like it, well, then, they must be ignorant.
A bloc of Americans voted for Trump not necessarily because they liked him, nor considered all Mexicans to be rapists and sexual assault to be “locker room talk,” but because they had been abandoned by the Democratic Party.
He is a demagogue, a title that literally translates to “leader of the people” and a term that has its roots in Athens.
He is not unlike Cleon of ancient Greece, about whom Aristotle wrote: “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.” Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin had similar temperaments, exploiting the economic
insecurities of the 1930’s to rise to national prominence.
Fear, bullying and ardent nationalism shrouded in the veil of American Exceptionalism were their hallmarks; the dog whistle of racial and ethnic tensions, their preferred tool. President Trump reiterating his “America First” mentality and warning constituents of “those people” who will commit vast voter fraud is no different.
Trump is not Hitler, and we do not yet live in a fascist nation. The much graver threat is that such a transition is not unthinkable.
Historian Robert Paxton, in “The Five Stages of Fascism,” identifies the logical progressions that a state makes when moving towards fascism; Intellectual exploration, rooting, arrival to power, exercise of power and radicalization or entropy. Only Italy and Germany ever made it through all five. We have perhaps just arrived at stage three, which is concerning, but not irreversible. Hence, the need to resist through mobilization and organization and by wielding the almighty power of the ballot.
There is an axiom, defined as Goodwin’s law, which asserts that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Which is to say, when constructive dialogue has devolved to denigration, we resort to the nuclear option, call someone a Nazi and walk away.
This is no way to accomplish anything.
To flippantly compare President Trump to Hitler is not only a grave disrespect to the worldwide horror that Hitler and his acolytes wrought 80 years ago, but also serves to obfuscate just how threatening a Trump presidency could be, by immediately assuming the worst and freezing us in a state of inaction.
The same fiery rhetoric that we would condemn in our political opponents should have no place in our own discourse. This is our democracy, the longest running constitutional republic in world history. Let’s cherish it, and then let’s fight for it. And let’s leave the disparaging hyperbole at home.
Calvin Bair is studying in the Masters of Business Administration program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.