No, I am interested in a recent to-and-fro that took place between the New York Times and Fox News. In this Times Op-Ed piece, Charles Blow argues that President Trump employs deceptive rhetorical strategies akin to those used by Adolf Hitler. One such strategy consists of telling lies of such magnitude that they seem to followers almost impossible to concoct, giving a new meaning to the old adage, 'you just can't make this stuff up.' Another strategy involves the constant use of caveats to preface his ridiculous and demonstrably false claims, as when Trump says, 'A lot of people are saying...' or 'I have heard that...' or the like. This provides just the right amount of discursive cushion between himself and the claim that he's making, such that he can never be accused, not with any legal force, at least, of lying or defamation. (An odd strategy, given that this president has also said, on numerous occasions, that journalists should be required to out their sources... then again, integrity is not Donald's strong suit). This amounts, Blow argues, to a 'weaponizing of untruth' that ought to scare citizens living in the most militarily powerful nation in the world. (We have long ago surrendered any putative moral power).
Cue the righteous indignation. Predictably, Amanda Head of Fox News, the de facto media arm of the Trump administration, returned the favor with this piece, titled, 'Sorry, New York Times, Trump Isn't Hitler. Not Even Close.' Now, leaving aside the fact that the title of Blow's piece is literally, 'Trump Isn't Hitler...' and leaving aside the fact that Head only circuitously addresses Blow's central premise about Trump's weaponized lying, I'll get right to my point: Head claims that 'to evoke Adolf Hitler - the most reviled dictator in the history of the world - is a bridge too far, even for the New York Times.' So I did a quick Google search, 'Fox News Trump Hitler' - it turns out, Fox News is downright sick and tired of the comparisons between Hitler and Trump.
*Sigh* To quote Head, 'Where to even begin?' For starters, for anyone who is in any way affiliated with Fox News - whether as a pundit, anchor, contributor, racist grandparent, or casual viewer - to cry foul over Hitler comparisons, is positively laughable. We should remind ourselves that when Barack Obama was president, the Hitler comparisons on Fox were a dime a dozen. As a matter of fact, here's a short compilation, in case you've forgotten.
But in Obama's case, it wasn't because he arrested en masse persons involved in the protests of his inauguration, or because he suggested that people ought to be forced to behave in certain ways during the playing of the national anthem, or because he said he wanted to strip away the broadcast licenses of every media outlet that dared to question his authority or veracity, or concomitantly, because he only gave interviews to the media outlets who spent their every moment trumpeting his glory, or because he wanted to give national preference to one particular religion, or because he explicitly wanted to disallow members of another religion from entering the country, or because he said that a federal judge of a particular race couldn't be objective in a case concerning himself, or because he touted a false moral equivalency between self-proclaimed racists and the protesters who marched against them, or because he threatened to 'primary' any members of his political party who didn't pledge absolute loyalty to him, or because he falsely and without evidence accused a former president of illegally wiretapping him, or because he threatened to imprison his political opponents if elected, or because he fired the director of the FBI for the express reason that said director was investigating possible collusion in a presidential election between himself and a hostile foreign power. *Deep, restorative breath* No, in Obama's case, the Hitler comparisons were made because of the sizes of Obama's rally audiences, the chimerical seizure of all firearms that Obama had no interest in passing, Obama's efforts to pass universal health care, Michelle Obama's push for healthier food options in public schools, and the fact that, like just like Adolf Hitler, Obama was, brace yourself, democratically elected. (Watch the video, if you don't believe me).
But, we should address the larger point... that Hitler comparisons are simply out of bounds, a 'bridge too far...' as Head put it. As even Blow himself says, 'It is a commonly accepted rule among those who are in the business of argument, especially online, that he or she who invokes Adolf Hitler, either in oratory or in essays, automatically forfeits the argument.' Until just recently, when Nazis have suddenly hit the mainstream once again, it was simply accepted as unassailable fact that the Nazis, and chief among them Adolf, were the paradigmatic example of the most radical evil imaginable in history, an evil so Satanically evil as to be utterly inhuman, almost to the point of otherworldliness. As a teacher of philosophy, I could not even begin to guess how many times I've gotten some version of the Nazi question: 'Spinoza says everything that happens happens as an expression of God's perfect nature - So, Hitler is an expression of God's perfect nature?' 'Nietzsche says that we must affirm life with all its imperfections. So Nietzsche would affirm Hitler?' 'Kant says we must always tell the truth - but does that mean I have to give up to the Nazis the Jews that I'm hiding in the attic?' 'Anselm says that it is better to exist than to not exist - but wouldn't a non-existent Hitler be better than an existent Hitler?' Etc. It is this otherworldly sense of absolute, radical evil that grounds the 'out of bounds' characterization of any Nazi comparisons (provided they're against my political party). As Head writes, 'there is no comparison between a lie and the mass execution of millions of innocent civilians.'
It is high time we drop this veneer of untouchability and incomparability when it comes to the Nazis, and high time that we rehumanize the Nazis. Don't get me wrong. Yes, Hitler was a genocidal racist, a master propagandist, demagogue, and a madman who led Europe into self-destruction; yes, Nazism was (and is) evil; yes, an entire nation (or at least, the lion's share of a certain subset of that nation) was seduced by the poisonous haze of National Socialism. But that is precisely what makes it so interesting, and so potentially instructive. When I say that we must rehumanize the Nazis, I mean that it is of fundamental importance that we treat Nazism for what it was. Nazism did not arise spontaneously one day, ex nihilo. It was not the result of a hypnotism from another planet. It was not the beasts of hell unleashed upon the earth. Nor was it the product of one single madman. Oh, if only it were that simple.
While Nazism as a political movement may have been the brainchild of Hitler, the elements that constituted the core of Nazism were in no way invented by Hitler. Hitler did not invent the antisemitism that had been part of Western culture since the Roman occupation of Judea (Palestine); nor did he invent Social Darwinism or eugenics. Hitler wasn't responsible for the nationalism that preached the cultural superiority of Germany - a nationalism with philosophical roots that went back at least to the time of Fichte and Hegel; Hitler did not create the conditions of World War I, and it wasn't Hitler who imposed the British naval blockade of ships bringing rations to Germany, believed to be responsible for upwards of 800,000 German civilian deaths during that war. Hitler didn't set the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that later left Germany's economy in tatters. Nor did he invent the human propensity for resentment, tribalism, or that special breed of tribalism known as bent-twig nationalism. This is not to diminish his role, of course. In Hitler these passionate rages and resentments coalesced into a maddening rationality, to quote Jonathan Glover, 'a twisted deontology'; and Hitler was the strategist and orator who harnessed these elements and used them to propel himself to power, and ultimately attempt to exterminate an entire race of people (along with Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and so on). But these elements were in the air for him to exploit, and exploit them he did. By rehumanizing, I mean, it is time we acknowledge that it was not demons, monsters, or otherworldly beings who made up the Nazi party - it was good old-fashioned, flesh and blood human beings. It was human beings who put these persons in power; human beings who helped stigmatize, exclude, and oppress certain classes of human beings; who screamed in fervor as they threw their books into bonfires; human beings who cheered, enraptured, as Hitler spoke about the purity of their blood; human beings who collected the personal effects of the human beings who were being carted to their deaths; human beings who locked up and operated train cars full of human beings; human beings who marched human beings to the ovens; and it was human beings who closed their windows in the summertime to quell the stench of the burning human beings coming from the nearby crematoria. The resentments, brutalities, bigotries, megalomaniacal ambitions, credulity, conformity, and cruelty that made up the phenomenon of Nazism were undeniably human. We ignore this at our peril.
What does any of this have to do with our unrepentant narcissist-in-chief? Well, it seems to me that what is so potentially effective about the Nazi comparison is that, like thoughtful and well-executed science fiction or dystopian fiction, Nazi comparisons operate by identifying structural and tactical similarities between the world we inhabit and the world we all (or most of us) agree we'd like to avoid. The guiding principle is that the more family resemblances that are shared between these two worlds, the closer we are to creating a world that we do not want to inhabit. Just as Nazism didn't emerge ex nihilo, the final solution developed over a period of time, as the political terminus of all those factors noted above. It seems clear that if we must wait, as Amanda Head seems to suggest we should, until we reach the point of mass genocide to begin asking questions, we've waited too long. I agree with Head that such comparisons ought not be made carelessly, but I fundamentally reject the principle that such comparisons are categorically off limits, (and clearly Fox does too, given the aforementioned treatment of President Obama).
So here are some suggested criteria for the assessment of all future Hitler comparisons. These criteria are predicated upon the aforementioned similarities between our current political world, and the world of Nazism. The considerations are: (1) the nature of the similarities - how relevant they are to the implementation of policies. Obviously there are a lot of similarities between President Trump and Adolf Hitler. (They are both males, both white, they both have hair, etc.). Many of these similarities, however, have nothing directly to do with policy. In this way, the fact that Obama and Hitler were both democratically elected ought to be recognized for the blatantly, almost unprecedentedly stupid remark that it is; (2) how distinctively Nazi those characteristics are. There may be other similarities that an American president may share with Hitler that do pertain to policy, and yet, they are the sorts of policies that many other (non-Nazi) governments have pursued. So the fact that the Nazis implemented firearms restrictions in the late 1930s, or that the Nazis were concerned with health care, would not be relevant considerations by this criterion, because many (non-Nazi) governments have implemented gun restrictions (with overwhelmingly positive results), and every industrialized nation in the world has some form of universal health care; (3) the relatedness of the characteristic to the genocidal acts of the Nazis. While Trump's weaponized lying would accord nicely with criterion #2, it alone would not necessarily pass muster for criterion #3, since there is not a strong essential relation between deception and genocide. However, the racism of Trump would; (4) the number of these similarities, and their relations to each other. This one muddies the waters, insofar as it suggests that a characteristic need not fit all of the criteria listed, if that characteristic, partnered with others, is worrisome. With the Nazis, for instance, the sheer fact that they imposed restrictions on gun ownership is not, on its face, worrisome. However, that these restrictions were imposed along strictly racial lines, makes it so. Likewise, Trump's weaponized lying, while not fitting comfortably within criterion #3 on its own, can be mobilized to serve ends that tend in the direction of #3, as happened for instance when he used his brand of weaponized lying to launch an all-out, relentless assault on the legitimacy of America's first black president, or when he lied repeatedly about the thousands of Muslims who celebrated the fall of the towers on 9/11. This sort of lying is weaponized in the sense that it aids Trump in helping stoke and disseminate race- and religion-based hatred, which could potentially lead to more deadly outcomes.
Santayana famously said that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' While comparisons to mass-murdering megalomaniacs should always be conducted with surgical precision and care, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice of willful forgetting if we declare them, without qualification, 'a bridge too far.'