Pulling the Hitler card has become so standard in what passes for debates or discourse, it is even the subject of a kind of law: Godwin’s Law. It dates back to 1990, apparently, but while somewhat reductionist, it does facetiously highlight a reductionist habit: Using Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a synonym for “you’re a really, really, really awful human being,” or “you’re ideas and argumentation are really, really, awful and I don’t agree with them.” However: The political spectrum of dictatorship and evil doings is wide and quite well-stocked in bad guys and processes aimed at violating individual liberty. And as usual, there are degrees to watch. Is it time to look elsewhere and enrich the conversation?
Godwin’s Law is equal opportunity, it affects everyone across the political spectrum, and it seems mostly to spring from, as mentioned, a tendency towards extreme reductionism, or, simply, ignorance: either not knowing, or the inability to go look for, some better historical analogies. Smearing with Hitler and the Nazis was popular among George W. Bush opponents, who felt that the war on Iraq and the agitprop promoting it were Hitlerian, like, maybe the 1939 attack on Poland, or the earlier invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later, almost as revenge for the so-called anti-Bush crowd’s brandishing of Bush-Hitler posters, the newfangled Tea Party decided to let out its trademark anger against Barack (Hussein, always) Obama by giving the new black president a little square mustache for bailing out the banks and trying to prevent the US and the world from falling into economic depression.
With the Trump administration, the Hitler card is almost brandishing itself, however. Trump revels in autocratic/dictatorial imagery. He loves to sign executive orders (decrees, government by fiat). And I barely need to mention the rallies, the self-adulation (more à la Mussolini), now replete with longings for military parades. Then there is the equivocal reaction to the Tiki-torch march, the constant ad hominem attacks on people of any color or non-evangelical religion, in addition to women, Democrats and generally anyone who doesn’t agree with him or who corrects his lies, errors, obfuscations, notably the free press.
But is it the real thing? No, say quite a few commentators: Tim Molloy of The Wrap – to name one of many – has written cogently about this reductionist problem in other contexts, namely Glenn Beck brandishing Hitler to smear anyone and everyone he didn’t agree with. He also noted Trump’s own antics, like having people pledge to vote for him by raising their right hand, which looks suspiciously like a crowd sieg-heiling. Molloy, in turn, is extensively referred to by Michael Lind, of Politico, who exhorted people to stop comparing Trump and Hitler. In his March 2016 piece, Lind pointed out that the likes of Goldwater were painted with the brown brush, whereby he was in fact a libertarian and would never abide by the state controls applied by the Nazis. He puts some of the blame on the “émigré Marxist intellectuals of the so-called Frankfurt School” and on lazy journalists, or, later, on social scientists, for intentionally or accidentally confusing populism with fascism. There is a lot of truth to it – and to be fair he mentions the absurd right-wing use of the Nazi smear against the left.
Lind puts Trump in line with many populists in US history, from Andrew Jackson, to Huey Long, and passing by William Jennings Bryan (I’ll be exploring this in a new piece in the coming months). Indeed, for Trump, who is essentially a showman, and a con man in some ways, waving his arms about is the key to success. He does this for his followers as much as for those who oppose him (cf. my post The revolution is permanent noise). Trump is an improviser, he has no real plan, he extemporizes, albeit with certain repetitive riffs. In a New York Magazine article published before the election, former New York Times op-ed writer Frank Rich pointed out correctly that Hitler had a particular personality that Trump does not have: “He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies.”
Fundamentally, one should avoid confusing a historical model with present realities. Humans do not repeat history one-on-one even if some actions may look the same. Yet, while the content may be different, the processes that led up to the model may be similar enough and can serve as a warning sign that something nefarious is afoot. The best example is the Big Lie repeated over and over again, which has worked for Trump, as it worked for Josef Goebbels and, throughout history, for a variegated horde of demagogues, blowsy four-flushers , and even advertising agencies, have employed the Big Lie to get their product sold.
And this, just to be clear: The Nazis did not invent scapegoating either, a facile technique to hide one’s game. The insane witch hunts of the Middle Ages (and earlier), which cost the lives of tens of thousands of mostly women, are a case in point. Women, mostly poor, and some men, were blamed for all sorts of things, from sick children to hail storms. Personal grudges could be handled by a denunciation. Or, there are the artificially generated “Terreurs” of the French Revolution. History is full of scapegoats, as it is full of self-victimizers who use their synthetic victim status to justify their victimization of others. Here, too, Trump is definitely guilty as charged, as Rich pointed out in his article: “Trump has made himself the supreme leader of an enraged swath of Americans, perhaps some 40 percent of the electorate, as eager to blow up our republic as the Nazis were Weimar. A subset of that Trumpentariat adheres to neo-Nazi values (and in some cases neo-Nazi organizations) defined by a hatred of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and most other racial and ethnic minorities.”
Democracy: Use it or lose it.
Neither Lind, nor Molloy, nor Rich mention that the reason Hitler is drawn so quickly is the plain fact that many either ignore history’s many villains and iniquitous systems, or they are addressing an audience whose awareness of those villains and systems is extremely limited, at best, or non-existent. The fact that Trump is evidently not a Hitler does not mean that people and lawmakers should just sit back and relax, especially with a fellow who fits into the populist mold.
Because Democracy does not “die in darkness,” but rather in ignorance and complacency, as two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have shown. Their main thesis in How Democracies Die is that the threat of an old-fashioned quick-and-dirty attack on democratic institutions à la Hitler, or Pinochet, has receded. This quote comes from a Guardian excerpt:
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. (…)The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. (…) There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”
Indeed, during the Trump campaign, while many liberals were yelling Hitler, my alarm bell went off with those hysterical “Lock-her-ups” chants, and calls to attack the press. Katy Tur has written about the surreal feeling of being exposed, personally, by name, while in a cage in the midst of rabidly angry Trump fans. This rhetoric was neither justified, nor becoming to a democratic process. And then Trump pushed further, by suggesting that he would get the FBI to arrest Hillary Clinton pronto after reaching the Oval Office I started thinking “Salami!”
Salami tactics were a specialty of the Communists in postwar Europe, notably in Hungary. The term was actually coined by the Hungarian Communist leader Màtyàs Ràkosi, who perfected its application. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”
Hitler used brute force, essentially. The Communists in postwar Europe had to be a little more subtle. Few people probably realize that the Soviet Union didn’t just take over Eastern Europe and impose its system after ridding the area of the Wehrmacht in World War Two. There was a process aimed at terminating democratic rule, and in Hungary (and to an extent Poland) the method used was the salami slicing mentioned above.
In brief: The November 1945 elections in the country gave an overwhelming majority (56%) to a center-right party, the Smallholders, some 18% to the Socialists, and 17% to the Communists. When it came to sharing the government, Ràkosi became deputy prime minister and asked for the Ministry of the Interior (like the DOJ), where he created a kind of FBI or KGB, if you will, the AVO, later known as the AHV. This police force coupled with the power of the Ministry was used to attack any opposition to the communists, mostly by linking them to the defunct fascists, or Nazis, or Horthy government. It was all about innuendo, trumped up charges, arbitrary arrests, the construction of outlandish conspiracy theories. It was in many ways quite unlike Hitler’s take-over of Germany.
The technique worked well. Within four years, the Communists had sliced up the opposition and become the single party ruling Hungary. Ràkosi then proceeded to purge the Communist ranks of potential rivals, notably the very popular Rajk, and consolidate his power with faithful, obedient Moscow Communists. From 1950 to 1953, anyone complaining or suspected of not liking the government, intellectuals, etc., could be arrested. Hungary even had its own little Gulag, a place called Recsk in the up in the Màtra Mountains.
At any rate, throughout the campaign, I could not help but think of the parallels between Trump and the communist dictators, often noisy populists like Trump, who created their own set of enemies of the people among the peasant classes, the financiers, the industrialists, the intelligentsia. Bannon, former adviser to the president, was quite open about his admiration for Lenin. And Sebastian Gorka, another former White House adviser, is actually Hungarian and would no doubt be familiar with salami tactics.
So every time Trump attacks the judiciary, or muses out loud that he controls the DOJ, or the White House sends down new judges for approval, whose only qualifications seem to be their ultra-conservative convictions, I think salami. The fact is, in a democracy, the judiciary must remain as impartial as possible. There are very few absolutes in law. Time has published several articles on this dangerous court stuffing, for example this one . Indeed, ideology in a judge – which is not the same as political bent, please, no false equivalencies here, the degrees are important – is dangerous, since these people are appointed for life.
Furthermore, Trump and now the entire GOP led by bloviators like Lord HawHaw Hannity of Fox and his new sidekick, Ms Lahren, are promulgating all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about the FBI, aimed at discrediting or subverting the agency. They seem to be greasing the rails for the expulsion of the current crop of “Republican” brass. It can be replaced by yes-saying apparatchik, people who will attack democratic institutions with impunity, since the GOP is apparently quite happy with their president… In Communist countries, this was called a purge.
SCOTUS denizen stay for a long time after their appointer has gone. Meanwhile, the press (not the right-wing “press”) is being demonized as “fake” mainly for reporting things that are unpleasant to the president and, often, the GOP itself. And I think again: salami.
No panic, but…
This Communist reference, for lack of a better word, was noticed, not surprisingly, by a Republican first: Jeff Flake of Arizona, member of Trump’s GOP. He pointed out that the attacks on the free press were reminiscent of Stalin. There was some nodding, but not much else. The GOP remains steadfastly behind Trump.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are on to Trump, but are, as usual, fairly tame about it. One who has started punching back hard, by treating Trump like an unruly teenager, is Californian Congressman Adam Schiff. In a recent interview with Bill Maher (a comedy show… amazing) , he referred, probably unknowingly, to salami tactics:
“We do need to be mindful of the much bigger challenge facing the country right now. There is a systematic undermining of our checks and balances. Brick by brick, the walls are being taken down, the wall between the White House and the Justice department, the way we are demeaning the press, and as you say, the way there seems to be no such thing as objective fact anymore, the way the administration says that a judge that rules against us is illegitimate.”
This observation cannot be refuted easily, yet no media has really taken it up. And it should be worrisome, even to the GOP, which likes to see itself as Ur-American, patriotic, flag-waving…. But for what?
Whether this means that our democracy is in danger is another issue. But one thing is certain: Democracy demands a lot of vigilance, and a well-educated electorate. Even Plato knew this nearly 2500 years ago. And in the era of fake news, the 24-hour noise-news cycle, Breitbart and Fox, and bots, being well informed is becoming tough if you don’t have some background in reading serious stuff, in figuring out what is near enough to the truth, and what is simply rubbish.
Of course, when one of the two parties in the USA starts vying for unimpeded power by using the smoke screen of a noisemaking pseudo-autocratic president, it should worry us. Trump may be “refreshingly honest ” for some, but that does not mean that he is genuinely honest or any good at what he does. Speaking your mind does not make you a good leader.
Back to Levitsky and Ziblatt. They offer a recipe to preserve democratic institutions:
“An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?”
The final question by the two authors still remains unanswered, for the moment. Indeed, the courts are still functioning, apparently, and Trump has not yet succeeded in beating democratic institutions into submission, though he does seem to be trying hard. The fourth pillar, the press, is alas, reacting to every nonsensical tweet and thereby failing to pay attention to the important processes taking place that will change the face of the USA and perhaps undermine democracy as we knew it.
To conclude: The Hitler card is pulled all too often as a way to punctuate a debate that is off the rails. And besides diminishing and concealing the crimes of the Nazis, it also tends to be inaccurate. While not denying that the Trump administration is a serious risk to US democracy, the methods employed are closer to infiltration methods of the Hungarian Communists post World War Two. In a country trying to model itself on parliamentary democracy, they were able bit by bit to subvert the existing institutions
I have written to a number of editors about this phenomenon, especially when their publications drew the Hitler card (notably the HuffPo), but none seems ready to shift their focus away from the far more attractive fireworks Trump lights up every Friday afternoon for weekend entertainment. Besides, they’d have to explain who Ràkosi was and, to be honest, his low-octane evil is a lot less attractive than the absolute evil of a Hitler.
Of course, the USA is not war-ravaged Hungary. But the population has been primed, alas, by some very poor news media, including those Trump likes to refer to as “fake news.” For decades, CBS, ABC, NBC and the rest have engaged in some ridiculous whataboutism, which confers the same importance to truth and patent bilge. This has greased the rails for trainloads of nonsense that become the object of long and vituperous “debates” amongst pundits.
This is one of the most worrisome aspects of the Trump presidency, and it has been addressed by Rich and many others. The fact that conspiracy theories once relegated to the mossiest, mustiest areas of the country, are now bandied about by elected officials is shocking. One can only hope that reason once again sweeps the nation, as it did in the 18th century, and that this is the last hurrah for those who exploit the nation’s darkest feelings for their profit and are willing to jeopardize democracy to get their money. And one can definitely hope that Americans get off their haunches, register to vote, and demand that things like gerrymandering be made illegal in the country. One person, one vote, and the electoral college be damned, too.