The internet has in many ways cheapened and vulgarized our definitions of knowledge and dialogue. Expressions of emotional content, uninformed by facts or logic, abound on all sides of the political scale. Internet phenomena have even developed rules of their own, such as Godwin’s Law, which suggests that in any uninformed political conversation, comparisons by one side of the other to Adolf Hitler or to Nazism are effectively inevitable. Hitler is seen (justifiably, of course) as an ultimate evil, and his name is used to denigrate everything opposed by uninformed political amateurs and commenters, from Bush’s war in Iraq to the Affordable Care Act and even Obama himself. The latest recipient of the comparison is Donald Trump; but for once, critics have finally come close to the truth. Trump is not Hitler; nor could he ever replicate Hitler’s initial success or the terrors that he unleashed. But Trump has created a monstrosity of fascist forces beyond his control, forces which themselves now pose a greater threat to our nation than the foreign terrorists of ISIS. Trump has unleashed forces that threaten the community of our City on a Hill; and to defeat our enemies abroad, we must defeat these forces at home. But our enemies are not a new Nazi Party or anything like it. Our enemies are our own hatreds, fears, and paranoia about each other, and about our community and government.
Comparisons of politicians and their philosophies and policies with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler have become a part of the political vulgarity, a cheap and generally uninformed criticism of issues beyond the understanding of most of those who make the comparison. Cheap shots are fired from both sides, by meaner and uneducated critics of the other side, and recent presidents (and other leaders) of both parties have been compared to Hitler by those not understanding either the full meaning of the terms they used or the politicians they wished to criticize. George W. Bush’s unpopular decision to invade Iraq for reasons later proven to be wrong subjected him to leftist criticism which was cheapened by such comparisons, and his successor, Obama, has also weathered such moronic attacks, which amazingly compared giving uninsured Americans access to health care to genocide policies of the Third Reich. One problem with the frequency of such attacks is that they are reminiscent of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They desensitize Americans to the problem of actual fascists among us, such as southern “flaggers,” and other extremists. It becomes easy not only to compare such icons of bombastic pettiness and hatred like Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, but to ignore such comparisons as a now too-common cost of doing business in politics. Trump supporters can deflect such arguments with the same casual superciliousness and nonchalance that Democrats enjoyed when Obama was Hitlerized by right-wing extremists, or that Republicans experienced when Bush suffered such comparisons. The ease with which both sides can now both fire off and ignore comparisons to Nazism therefore closes our eyes, as in the case of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” to real enemies of our City on the Hill when they arise in our midst. When the real wolf shows up, we treat him as just another prank.
The latest wolf in our midst is Donald Trump; and to a lesser extent the Republican Party’s current field of political leaders. Trump, who has no political experience at all, and no political legitimacy at all, has managed nonetheless to build a base of rabid supporters from the lowest common denominator of hatred, fear, and self-entitlement. Tapping into a politically marginalized horde of anti-intellectuals and xenophobes, Trump uses simple facsimiles of public oratory such as his slogan “Make America Great Again.” There is an easy parallel to find with Hitler’s promise to put Germany “back” as the centerpiece of European civilization, and with Hitler’s promise of an innate and genetic German greatness that had been oppressed by a conspiracy of foreign powers and subhumans. Trump’s argument is not nearly as thought out (however ahistorically) as was Hitler’s message. Trump merely pushes his base into seeing that at one time, America was “great”; but that now – due to the actions of “stupid” politicians – we have lost that greatness. Trump claims also to have the solution: close the borders, build a wall, keep out Mexicans and Muslims, deport or intern and publicly mark such untermenschen; and, of course, believe in the essential greatness of our new Leader. Trump ignores essential constitutional principles (which at any rate lie above his educational and intellectual pay grade), and he cares less about the basic history behind the challenges the US currently faces, challenges with which our next presidents will have to contend.
An even scarier comparison to Hitler can be found in those following Trump. Trump’s supporters have attacked, openly and violently, those opposing or questioning his candidacy, a frightening parallel to the Nazi Party’s use of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in fomenting street violence and providing “security” at Nazi Party events. Trump has encouraged such violence from his supporters by applauding the rough treatment of anti-Trump protesters. However, Trump demonstrates himself to be less a leader than an impotent follower unsure of how to handle the violent base he has crafted from the dregs of our polity. Unlike the Nazis, who deliberately created an organized political street army (with uniforms, ranks, and all), Trump manifests more as a Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he’s created. The monster is real; and the evil behind the monster’s creation is also just as real. But it is getting out of the control of its depraved and alienated creator.
It is with Trump’s metamorphosis from Hitler to Frankenstein that some of the problems of Hitler analogies begin to manifest. Other problems with the analogy arise, such as Hitler’s acquisition of power through the collapse of a weak and inflexible political structure. Hitler never faced an electoral situation like that provided for by the US Constitution; and the US has never had a small party take power without developing substantial electoral strength throughout the nation. With even his own new-found Republican Party fleeing from him in droves, his front-runner status may still be strong in the polls in comparison with his rivals, but only a small portion of Americans (or even of Republicans) actually support him. The prospect of Trump facing a Democratic candidate (Clinton or Sanders) is both exciting and nerve-wracking to Democrats; exciting because it virtually guarantees a Democratic victory, but nerve-wracking because of the small but frightening prospect that he might actually win anyway.
Another problem in comparing Trump with Hitler is in their relative political and oratorical skills. Hitler demonstrated much political acumen in his earlier years (later becoming ever more unable to grasp basic political realities); and his skill at using public oratory to move the crowds remains legendary. He brought even well-educated people over to his side, and powered them with a thirst for greatness and a belief in their rights to it. Trump, on the other hand, is an oratorical buffoon, able to move with xenophobic rhetoric those weak-minded enough to enlist in his mob army, but easily dismissed and laughed at by comedians, pundits, and real politicians. Trump’s few proposals for action on problems faced by our country earn a similar reception, as the creations of a simple-minded child unable to cognize the world around him. Trump is unable to master even conservative politics as he has attempted to do, earning not only the front-runner position in public polling (a position not backed up yet by any state primaries), but also a firmly entrenched opposition to him from the very party he claims to be leading.
As with any political phenomenon, the two American parties of course have different responses to Trump’s “campaign.” Usually, most candidates in the pre-primary struggle for relevance defend their partisan comrades from the other side, but point out the great differences between themselves and their rivals. While the Democrats have very cohesively defended each other against external attacks (e.g., Sanders’ defense against Clinton’s critics on the email investigation and the obviously partisan Benghazi committee), and the mainstream Republican field has done much the same among themselves, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to Trump, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Carli Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, and others objecting to Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric. If there’s anything the nation can seem to get together on, it is that Trump’s core political values are a betrayal of our City on a Hill. Nonetheless, as Clinton, Obama, and others have pointed out, while the GOP mainstream is opposed to Trump’s cheap invective, they still collude with Trump on the party’s basic message, including their mutual xenophobia. What the GOP fear in Trump is not so much a transformation of the country, as that a political outsider and neophyte would be at the helm of that transformation. They do not fear the developing paranoia or nationalism; but they fear their own loss of power as the traditional helmsmen of such forces, and they fear that Trump’s political incompetence will make the transformation superficial and ephemeral, risking the future of the conservative revolution.
Donald Trump’s campaign, and the many trending comparisons of Trump to Hitler, teach us that we have many demons yet to fight before we can achieve our City on a Hill, and that those demons, our greatest threats, are here at home. Trump is not Hitler, nor could he ever be, for a variety of individual and political reasons. But he is unleashing, deliberately, forces which threaten the core values of our nation. He is unleashing, deliberately, forces of hatred, fear, xenophobia, and mutual suspicion. He is unleashing, deliberately, forces opposed to the formation of a community of care, a value that forms the center of the American promise. That promise is what our enemies, both foreign and domestic, hope to destroy: the promise to build a community of all people, of all faiths, of all races and nationalities, of all classes, working together and caring for each other. To defeat our foreign enemies, and defeat those here at home, we must respond not in fear but with strength and confidence in our mission, welcoming those wanting to join us, and caring for those in need. Those fearful of others, those frightened of their neighbors, are the ones threatening our City on a Hill, and strengthening our enemies abroad. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed that such forces threatened America in the 1930s, just as he saw not foreign enemies but Americans’ own fears of each other as itself the greatest threat to our security, we must once again be warned that, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
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