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It’s difficult to say when the Hitler analogies got out of control. Maybe it was when Donald Trump started asking people at his rallies to raise their hands in a loyalty oath, and the photos made it look like they were zealots delivering a “Sieg Heil.” “This Donald Trump Rally Looks like a Scene from Nazi Germany,” screamed a headline from The Huffington Post. Or maybe it was when, over the past several weeks as Trump has edged closer to the nomination, everyone from comedians Bill Maher and Louis C.K. to no fewer than three Mexican presidents began to say flatly that we are living in Weimar America, with Trump as the potential new Fuhrer. "Please stop it with voting for Trump. It was funny for a little while," Louis C.K. wrote in an email to his fans this week. "But the guy is Hitler. And by that I mean that we are being Germany in the 30s."
This is absurd. Granted, Trump’s combination of outsider populism, thinly-veiled appeals to ethnic and racial resentment and tough-guy talk are far more likely to invite comparisons to populist tyrants like Hitler (or Mussolini, another popular Trump analogue) than to, say, Mahatma Gandhi. But the major factor at work here is “Godwin’s Law”—the tongue-in-cheek idea that any online discussion will eventually end up comparing someone or something to Hitler or Nazis. It is a rule illustrated by the long history of Hitler comparisons deployed against both conservative and liberal politicians in America.
Glenn Beck, for example, is one of many who has recently compared Trump to Hitler. But as the comedian Lewis Black has pointed out, Beck himself has long suffered from “Nazi Tourette’s Syndrome.” In 2013, Tim Molloy of The Wrap observed that among the people Beck has compared to Nazis are Barack Obama, Al Gore, and two Jews—former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an Israeli-Jewish flight attendant on American Airlines who allegedly treated Beck as a “subhuman” by being rude during a trans-Atlantic flight. Among the “Downfall” parody videos on Youtube, there needs to be one entitled, “Hitler Reacts to News That Glenn Beck Has Compared Him to an Israeli Flight Attendant.”
And Trump, it would appear, is not the only potential Nazi-style dictator still in the Republican race for the GOP presidential nomination. Cruz is a potential Hitler, too, Newsweek writer Alexander Nazaryan implied when he tweeted “Ted Cruz has a strong ground game in Iowa,” along with a photo of Nazi soldiers. (He later deleted the tweet.) Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has denounced Marco Rubio for attending a fundraiser at the home of a rich donor in Dallas who owns some paintings by Hitler, along with paintings by Churchill, Eisenhower, Monet and Renoir. In a recent anti-Trump ad, rival Republican presidential candidate John Kasich implicitly likened Trump to Hitler by quoting the words of the anti-Nazi German pastor Martin Niemoller. Yet Kasich himself has been compared to Hitler by the left for anti-union measures he promoted as governor of Ohio.
Nor are Trump, Cruz and Rubio the first Republicans to be compared to Hitler by liberals. “Barry Goldwater’s Rise is Compared to Rise of Hitler,” announced Jet magazine on July 30, 1964. While Goldwater opposed federal civil rights laws and most New Deal/Great Society programs, he was essentially a libertarian, at the other extreme from a fascist favoring a centralized state. “Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass,” Goldwater said later of one of the leaders of the religious right. And the older Goldwater shocked many conservatives by defending gay rights.
Like Goldwater, Richard Nixon was frequently compared to Hitler—by his Democratic rival for the presidency, George McGovern, among others. Then Ronald Reagan was Hitler for a while, and, inevitably, the funny little mustache was bestowed on President George W. Bush. His father President George Herbert Walker Bush, to judge by my perfunctory research, was seldom compared to Hitler—perhaps because he was a poor public speaker, unlike Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, during his time in office the elder Bush was smeared indirectly, by conspiracy theorists attempting to link the Bush family as a whole with the Nazi regime.
In addition to comparing mainstream conservatives and conservative populists directly to Hitler, many progressives and libertarians smear them indirectly, by comparing their followers to Hitler’s supporters. “Why are the supporters of Candidate X so similar to the jack-booted Nazis who saluted at the Nuremberg rallies?”
This indirect version of the Hitler smear goes back to the 1950s, when émigré Marxist intellectuals of the so-called Frankfurt School, many of them refugees from Hitler, wondered why the masses of their adopted country had not yet risen up to overthrow capitalism. Their answer was that many if not most of the blue collar workers in the country that had saved them were sinister brownshirts in the making, afflicted with “authoritarian personalities.”
Around the same time, centrists like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Peter Viereck were appalled and puzzled by the demagogic appeal of the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. They couldn’t understand why everybody in America didn’t join them in rallying behind Adlai Stevenson. For these centrists and liberals, the historian Richard Hofstadter supplied an explanation in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” More careful historians, in Hofstadter’s time and ours, have demolished his explanation of the populist movement in terms of irrational, quasi-fascist paranoia. But the phrase “the paranoid style” is endlessly recycled by lazy journalists and editorial page columnists. And the equally dubious Frankfurt School concept of the “authoritarian personality” is likewise recycled by social scientists in every election cycle. Typically the liberal academics begin by equating regular conservatism or run-of-the-mill populism with “authoritarianism” and then predictably discover—surprise!—that “authoritarianism” thus defined is found among conservatives and populists.
Of course both sides can play the Hitler smear game. In October 1964, Republican Representative William Miller compared President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform to the Hitler regime. More recently, the conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism. which equated the entire Progressive-Liberal tradition from Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt to the present with Italian Fascism and German Nationalism, was a best-seller on the right.
That Obama is the new Hitler has been a frequent theme of conservative commentators and politicians during his two terms in office. A low point came when Mike Huckabee said that as a result of the multinational Iranian nuclear deal, President Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
All of this bears out the “law” of the Internet age put forward by Mike Godwin, an American attorney and author, that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” But long before Godwin, the German philosopher Leo Strauss—himself a Jewish refugee from Hitler—dismissed what he called the argumentum ad Hitlerum as a cheap debating trick: “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.”
As early as 1944, in his essay “What is Fascism?” George Orwell concluded: “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless … I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” The word “fascist” according to Orwell had been degraded “to the level of a swearword.”
In the case of Trump, legitimate historical parallels can be drawn. In some respects, he resembles historic American populists like Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long. Like George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, he has a constituency on the right motivated in part by racial resentments. Trump can also be compared to various contemporary European politicians on the populist right, including Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen.
But let’s face it, nothing plays quite like Hitler, which explains the eternal validity of Godwin’s Law. Compared to Trump-as-Hitler or Trump-as-Mussolini, the title of a Washington Post op-ed by Rula Jebreal—“Donald Trump is America’s Silvio Berlusconi”—just doesn’t pack the same punch. Neither does Arthur Chu’s comparison in Salon of Trump to Henry Ford, “a tycoon dilettante with a “straight shooting” style who mainstreamed repugnant racist views.”
Trump himself says he’s appalled by being likened to the Nazi tyrant. “It's a terrible comparison. I'm not happy about that certainly," Trump said on ABC's "Good Morning America." Who does he compare himself to? Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “What I'm doing is no different than FDR," he said. In this case, both sides are wrong—Trump is no Hitler and he is also no FDR.