Tag Archives: Godwin’s Law

Troubling Parallels

When Tuesday’s primary results led to speculation about a brokered GOP convention, Donald Trump predicted (threatened?) that an effort to deny him the nomination would be met with riots.

It is harder and harder to avoid the parallels between the improbable emergence of Donald Trump and the social and political conditions that enabled Hitler’s rise.

I’ve always appreciated Godwin’s Law. Facile or offhand comparisons of contemporary bad behavior to the holocaust–a period in human history that remains inexplicable to civilized beings–is profoundly insulting; the effect is to trivialize atrocities.

But as Godwin himself recently noted, admonitions to be careful with analogies to Hitler and the Nazis should not be taken to mean that those comparisons are never apt.

I have always wondered how Hitler gained power. Where were the good people? How did a civilized, cultured population breed a movement of vicious, violent racial “overlords”?

Like many other Jews, my antennae are especially sensitive to intolerance and bigotry–but I’m also aware that I am at risk of overreacting to thoughtless comments or to the existence of hate groups composed only of a few damaged individuals who don’t represent a broader threat.

Back in December, CNN ran a very thoughtful article asking the question: is Trump a fascist? The author, Peter Bergen, goes through the precursors to and characteristics of fascism: a sense that the nation faces a crisis beyond the reach of traditional political solutions; the asserted superiority of the leader’s gut instincts over abstract and universal reason; the belief of one group (here, working-class white men) that they are victims, and that their victimization justifies extreme actions; the need for authority to be exercised by “natural leaders” (always male), culminating in a national ruler who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.

Bergen finds the Trump phenomenon squarely meeting those criteria. But he points to one characteristic that Trump does not share– “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will when they are devoted to the group’s success.”

There is no hint that Trump wishes to engage in or to foment violence against the enemies, such as immigrants, he has identified as undermining the American way of life.

That may have been true when it was written, but it is clearly not true now.No one who has watched Trump deliberately fomenting violence at his rallies can have any doubt.

When he urges supporters to punch protestors in the face, when he promises to pay the legal bills of those who rough up hecklers, when the violence becomes so threatening that at least one rally has to be called off, when he speaks longingly of the days when “political correctness” didn’t prevent silencing dissent by beating up the dissenters or worse–the parallels are too close, too obvious to ignore.

And those calls for violence have been escalating.

A few years ago, one of Trump’s ex-wives reportedly said that he kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. At the time, I dismissed the accusation as the product of divorce bitterness, but I believe it now.

I keep reminding myself that the United States is not Germany, and the year 2016 is not 1933. The differences matter. But the question we all face is: what can people of good will do to prevent a contemporary replay of one of history’s most horrendous periods?


Trivializing Evil

Godwin’s law is a term that originated on Usenet, in what we now think of as the dawn of the Internet age. Godwin’s Law posits that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will invoke Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

When that happens, the guilty person is seen to have effectively forfeited both the argument and the right to be taken seriously.

Mike Huckabee is certainly not the only elected official to have employed this odious hyperbole, but he is a serial offender; he has previously compared both legal abortion and the national debt to the Holocaust. Most recently, he has said that the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by the U.S. and six other nations would deliver the Israelis to “the doors of the ovens.”

(Of course, Huckabee is particularly concerned about Israel, because his belief in “end times” theology requires the prior gathering of all Jews in the Holy Land, where we are to be given a choice between accepting Jesus and burning in eternal hellfire. In other words, if anyone is going to incinerate the Jews, it had better be the Christian Zionists.)

We live in a time when language has been so debased that genuine communication is increasingly difficult. Labels substitute for descriptions; words that used to have content are hurled as epithets. But Godwin’s Law identifies an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon, because the easy and thoughtless accusations of “Nazi-like” attitudes and behaviors trivializes evil and blurs critical moral distinctions.

Comparing “Obamacare” to the Holocaust (as several Republican elected officials have done), or suggesting that IRS agents are “like the gestapo” (Maine’s Governor), or claiming that the effort to regulate for-profit colleges is like the Holocaust (GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx)  is more than ludicrous, more than offensive. It is a sign of moral obtuseness so pronounced as to mark the person uttering it as someone unfit for public office.

Or, for that matter, for polite society.