Do Hitler-Trump comparisons cross the line?

Adolf Hitler, 1939.
Photo from Wikipedia

When Mike Godwin created Godwin’s Law — the tongue-in-cheek rule that as conversations progress online it becomes increasingly likely that someone will make an Adolf Hitler comparison — Godwin didn’t want to completely stifle discussion of the Nazi leader. He just wanted to make it more thoughtful.

“I didn’t want people to stop making comparisons to Hitler,” said Godwin, who is senior counsel at R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. “I wanted people to think about the comparisons they were making.”

Now Godwin may be getting what he wanted.

Over the course of the 2016 campaign and since President Donald Trump took office in January, Hitler-Trump comparisons have abounded on social media. While some of these comparisons are made only for shock value, like a widely shared Photoshopped image of Trump with a Hitler mustache on the cover of Time magazine, some thinkers have sought to explore thoughtfully the similarities between Trump and Hitler. In doing so, these people have come up against a question at the heart of Godwin’s Law: Is it possible to relate Hitler to current events without exploding thoughtful discussion?

Godwin, for one, believes that intelligent comparisons between Trump and Hitler — both ones that argue that they are alike and ones that argue that they are different — have been useful in furthering public discourse.

“I would say that there are a number of writers who have really taken pains to spell out either way what they think,” he said. “What I see that I think is valuable is people putting together historical arguments one way or another.”

One scholar, Jeffrey Herf, a professor of history at University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in the history of Nazi Germany, has tried to thread the needle on this question.

Herf believes directly comparing Hitler to Trump is “not historically accurate or helpful” and “too frequently fosters hysteria.” He nevertheless sees parallels between Hitler and Trump and has written about the similarities and differences between the two.

“The short answer to the question [Is Donald Trump a fascist?] is, ‘No, but.’ But the ‘but’ begs an historically tutored explanation, the conclusion to which should not make us feel good about the ‘no’ part of the answer,” Herf wrote in a March 2016 essay in The American Interest.

In making Hitler-Trump comparisons, Herf said that people often overlook the “extent of Hitler’s evil.” He added that other differences between Hitler and Trump include Hitler’s military background (which Trump lacks), a relatively strong economy during Trump’s rise to power (1920s Germany was teetering economically), Hitler’s desire to come across as an intellectual (Trump is famous for not reading) and Hitler’s affinity for Islam, as he understood the religion.

On the other hand, Herf sees parallels between the two, including the extent to which mainstream politicians underestimated both men, and their attacks on the idea of journalistic truth.

Last week at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who is on the staff of The Atlantic, suggested that Trump presents a major risk to American democracy, but that it isn’t useful to expect that Trump’s version of authoritarianism will look like Hitler’s.

“A lot of people use the Hitler analogy,” said Frum, who wrote a cover story for The Atlantic this month on Trump’s potential authoritarianism. “On the train to bad outcomes, there’s a lot of stops before you arrive at Hitler station. You don’t have to ride the train to the end to say, ‘I don’t like the ride.’”

Still, some thinkers have directly related Trump to Hitler, including Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “I realize that the name Hitler has the distractive quality of pornography and so I cite it only with reluctance,” he wrote last September. “While Trump is neither an anti-Semite nor does he have designs on neighboring countries, he is Hitlerian in his thinking.”

There is some evidence that Trump-Hitler comparisons have produced backlash. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly responded a few days later to Cohen’s column. “The liberal media, in particular, is in panic mode so they’re breaking out the evil card, Adolf Hitler.” In a similar vein, the conservative Washington Examiner in December compiled a list of “Seven times the media compared Trump to Hitler.”

Like his critics, Trump seems to be aware of the force of comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Nine days before his inauguration, Trump tweeted in response to an unverified dossier leaked to the media containing scandalous information about him:

Thomas Weber, a German historian who specializes in Nazi Germany, is sensitive to how these comparisons can play out, calling the Trump-Hitler comparison a “distraction” in an interview with the online German publication DW.

“The problem is that the moment someone brings up Hitler in a political discussion, in a way it’s the end of the political discussion, because then it turns into a discussion over the comparison rather than substance,” he said.

Despite seeing some similarities between the two figures, Weber argued that comparing Trump to Hitler is strategically unwise.

“My advice would really be to point out what is dangerous about Trump and a presidency of Donald Trump,” he said. “By invoking Hitler, you run the risk that people will just somehow try to prove that Trump is not Hitler, and if Trump isn’t Hitler, then everything will be fine. My point is: Trump isn’t Hitler, but things won’t be fine.”

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