Trump is Hitler.
The comparison is difficult to avoid, if not in the privacy of your thoughts, then certainly somewhere in your various news feeds and timelines, as calls for a Muslim travel ban, the mass deportation of 12 million undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the “closing” of the internet have catalyzed rhetorical juxtapositions between historical German Führer and current Republican frontrunner. John Kasich has even released an ad leveraging a clumsy, yet well-intentioned paraphrase of Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came for the Socialists” in order to insinuate the comparison.
(Having recently visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. myself, I can quietly verify some rather unpleasant similarities, not only with regards to explicit policy suggestions, but also in the rhetorical reasoning clothing each agenda: that this is about “saving” our country, making it “strong” again, restoring “tradition,” etc. From our historical vantage point it’s easy to forget that it was primarily Hitler’s nationalism, rather than his anti-semitism, that first enamored him to the German public. The two shouldn’t be separated–it’s simply important to remember that the destruction of the Jews was not an ends in itself, but was always sold as a way of “saving” Germany.)1
And where Hitler references arise, allusions to Godwin’s Law are never far behind. A proverb of the early internet, Godwin’s Law states, that: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” In theory, this just means that the longer a comment thread, the more likely it is that the ghost of Adolf will make an appearance, while in practice this also usually means that whoever has uttered such a reference is immediately disqualified from the debate, bringing the argument to closure.
Mike Godwin, an attorney and author in 1990, now a director of innovation policy and general counsel for The R Street Institute, has himself written on the Trump-Hitler comparisons, arguing, as he has since his initial proclamation, that the ultimate purpose of Godwin’s Law is not necessarily to end debate when Hitler is referenced, but rather to encourage critical investigation into the usage of such a reference, in order to avoid both obscuring the topic at hand and underestimating the full historical significance of the Nazi regime. “The best way to prevent future holocausts,” he writes, “is not to forbear from Holocaust comparisons; instead, it’s to make sure that those comparisons are meaningful and substantive.”
What I want to suggest is that the most insightful comparison between Trump and Hitler arises not from a listing of their apparent similarities, but rather from a singular focus on their most fundamental difference: the materiality of their civic agency, the uniformity of Hitler’s person, image, thought and history contrasted with the Oz-like fissure that exists between Trump’s historical person and present political image.
Adolf Hitler was a decorated war veteran of WWI turned political leader, eventually sent to prison in 1923 following an attempted coup in Munich. It was there that he wrote the infamous Mein Kampf, a book that is both autobiography and political manifesto, a hybrid-genre demonstrative of Hitler’s belief in the convergence of his own personal fate and that of the German state–a convergence that eventually saw one man’s dreams manifested in the state-sponsored butchering of six million Jews.
Obviously, it was not Hitler’s will alone that begot the Holocaust–such a hyper-focus on the individual deludes an understanding of the scale of cooperation and complicity, both within Germany and beyond, that was necessary for the systematic persecution and slaughter of World War II. I only wish here to abstract from Hitler’s personal history the most chillingly obvious: that Hitler really seemed to believe in everything he did and said. His external rhetoric matched his internal cognitive processing. You can’t comprehend the totality of the Nazi movement through the lens of a single individual, sure, but it’s not difficult to imagine that every act of brutality would have been greeted with personal approval from the Führer.
In contrast, Trump famously skipped out on serving his country in Vietnam. He has never governed a political party or spent time in prison. He wouldn’t dare utter the phrase “my struggle,” let alone write a book on it. Instead, he’s pumped out a dozen or so garbage self-help-yourself-to-the-Hamptons books that serve to “explain” his economic success in duplicative terms, rather than postulate any grand political vision of the future.
This tone may suggest a sort of perverted preference for Hitler. But no. The point is that you can understand Hitler’s actions between the years of 1933-1945 as a continuation of an earlier narrative founded in the physical, material actualities of his past–fighting on the warfront as a soldier, stewing in jail as a political prisoner. There’s a unity between his political vision and his personal history.2 The same cannot be said for Donald Trump, who, on top of only declaring himself a politician in the last year, wasn’t even a card-carrying Republican until he became a folk-hero of the far right following his leading role in the “birtherism” madness.
There’s simply no material connection between Trump’s personal history and his current political rhetoric. This is a lifelong Democrat (thanks Jeb!) running as a Republican–a New York media tycoon who has spent half his life in the headlines, and half his life working to plant the family name on as many skyscrapers as possible, now serving as the supposed born-again Christ of America’s “silent majority.”
The demographics of the Trump base have been well documented: mostly older, white, rural-based Republicans without college degrees. Beyond the color of his skin and his biological age, this is not Donald “life-long Manhattanite, Wharton-grad” Trump. This isn’t even the target consumer of The Trump Organization’s many golf resorts and casinos. Trump has never been like his supporters, voted in line with his supporters, or, in all likelihood, even sold anything to his supporters.
Obviously, Trump is not the first politician to “represent” a constituency that he isn’t truly a member of.3But the split here between person and people, between rhetoric and reality, is egregious. Progressive democrats support Hillary despite her initial support of the Iraq war and her lifelong friendship with Wall Street. With Trump, this equation has been inverted. Trump’s legions do not support him despite the split between his political rhetoric and personal reality, but rather because of how clean and perfect this split is. The image of Trump does not have to correspond to any material individual; his words do not have to refer to any semblance of reality.
Perhaps the greatest misconception of Trump, posited by both sides of the aisle, is that he is somehow “new,” that his political game is somehow unheard of. To hold this view is to commit the same error of his supporters in turning away from the past and hyper-focusing on the simulacra of the present. Trump is not a break from contemporary conservatism, but rather, its perfection. To be a Trump supporter involves a gleeful, intentional blinding of oneself to Trump’s past. And it is exactly this split, between rhetoric and reality, image and material, that demonstrates Trump to be the pinnacle of conservatism in the age of Obama.
Conservative rhetoric of the last seven years has consisted of two seemingly contradictory yet entirely complimentary trends: the first, an emphasis on the non-necessity of historical perspective, with a focus on the near-apocalyptic present moment; the second, an overwhelming emphasis on the need to anchor contemporary American identity in the mythic tradition of colonial America. It’s easy to understand this rhetorical output as a reaction to leftist activism of the last decade. The dominant trope of this activism has been the nebulous concept of “political correctness,” which, despite conservative efforts to paint it as solely a form of thought policing, is more or less a broad campaign of humanistic awareness.4 At it’s core, political correctness is less an aspirational impulse for a more perfect speech than it is an attempt to illuminate how contemporary speech reflects historical power inequalities across spectrums such as race, gender, nationality, sexuality, wealth, etc. The goal of political correctness is thus a re-fusing of rhetoric and reality, a dragging of rhetoric back through itself towards its foundational historical reality.5
Various efforts to explore and elucidate concepts such as “white privilege” or “systemic oppression” operate in such a fashion, by working to illuminate an interconnection between material power dynamics–economic, social and political–and the ways in which they are either represented, or misrepresented, in various media.
Conservatives have repeatedly insisted that these concepts are at best a distraction from the “real” problems at hand (usually ISIS, the singular “economy,” or the pseudo-slavery of Obamacare), and at worst complete lies, working to cause, rather than reflect on political division in the country.6 The standard conservative line is that it’s not race or gender or religion, or the historical treatment of any constituency bound under any category of identity that determines one’s economic success or social capital, but rather, each individual’s willingness to work hard (and often each family’s willingness to stay intact and provide proper moral education).
This emphasis on isolated, individual social units not only shifts attention away from structural systems and influences within communities both large and small, but also implicitly brings the focus into the present moment, away from any historical causation. It’s only about how hard you are willing to work now–it’s not collective history, but individual agency within the moment at hand.
Hence, in response to years of concentrated activist efforts to first spotlight and then combat concepts such as white privilege, conservative America gives birth to 2016 Republican front-runner Donald Trump. In response to years of focusing on the “systematic” quality of issues such as campaign financing, mass incarceration, gun control, global warming, etc., the right wing of America counters with a man who’s written a small library’s worth of books on how his success ultimately boiled down to his willingness to work hard, “think big” and “turn his challenges into success”–a man whose entire platform is a single wall and infinite winning. This is a man whose ego is so big you can’t see around it, whose constant references to his own intelligence and success almost make you forget that he inherited a multi-million dollar company from his father. Donald Trump has always been a poster boy for white privilege–now he’s also the primary hero for those who think said privilege is entirely made up.
This line of conservative rhetoric isn’t new, but where it begins to get interesting is when you contrast this idea of political correctness and social activism as inherently distracting/potentially detrimental in today’s world with the obsessive aligning of modern conservatism with colonial America, as though the only history that could ever be worthy of our constant fixation is that of the later half of the 18th century. While discussing the history of race relations in regards to American policing is supposedly a waste, endlessly hyping the foundations of the country seems necessary. Somehow, contemporary paranoia has found its mate in historical romanticism.
You can find this colonial fetishism in the self-labeling of the far right (“The Tea Party”), in the incessant invocations of both the Constitution as some kind of objective political litmus test and the Founding Fathers as some sort of singular political entity, and, if you’re willing to do a little psychoanalytic digging, in the origins-obsession at the heart of the birther movement, the suggestion there being that the totality of one’s “Americanness,” and the “Americanness” of the country as a whole, is defined at the point of conception.
Using the “Founding Fathers” as a unified political referent–a single group of like-minded men–is simply inaccurate. Suggesting that the meaning of the Constitution was locked in place as soon as the ink dried is likewise naive, given the historical role of interpretation in articulating the document’s legal power. (And then there’s the whole fact that the Constitution included this thing called the “Fugitive Slave Clause,” and that the Declaration of Independence, America’s birth certificate, was signed by 56 men, 41 of whom owned slaves.)7
My goal here isn’t to make any brash suggestion about the “truth” of American history, but rather to simply put forward that it remains curious as to why conservative cynicism towards contemporary politicians somehow loses its fangs when directed towards leaders of the past. Why is the reductive take away from early American history simply that this is when the greatness of America was cemented? Perhaps this seems an unnecessarily naive line of thought. But then, why does nearly every modern Republican talking point continue to take the form of “[insert policy claim], because that’s what this great country was founded on?”
To paraphrase Heidegger: the horror of tradition is that it saves us from actually looking towards the past.8 Because of course, this whole “back to ’76” movement really has little to do with the realities of America’s past, and everything to do with white America’s present need to mythologize itself. It may not be as initially obvious as the apocalyptic, the-theater-is-on-fire-and-we-have-to-act-now rhetoric in its form, but rest assured that the patriotic colonial fetishism is likewise an attempt to turn one’s eyes away from the actual material past, pre-empting such an investigation by loudly declaring that America’s foundational and historical core is obvious, well-known, and blindingly brilliant.
“Make America Great Again.” Trump’s tagline can be applied to the totality of modern conservative rhetoric. On the surface it suggests a temporal element–a narrative of past greatness now lost–that neither Trump nor any of his cohorts ever accentuates or defines. Where was this greatness? Who was entitled to it? How was it lost? The mantra suggests a sense of historicity, but ultimately, it’s merely rhetoric, not meant to speak of a historical reality, but rather, to incite a contemporary political fervor.
This, I would like to propose, has been the ultimate campaign of Republican rhetoric in the past decade: to disconnect rhetoric from any kind of material reality. To make it as loud and as boisterous as possible. To suggest that politics can be fought in a purely rhetorical arena. And then, when the whole political conversation has been whittled down to newspaper headlines and Obama-is-a-socialist memes, to unleash a constant barrage of inflammatory rhetoric that appears a priori, that appears as though it’s simply true as is, capable of being validated independently based on its own internal logic rather than any material experience.
Because how can you argue against wanting to make America great again? It’s a statement that can internally justify itself: to make America great again insinuates it isn’t great now, thus, precipitating the need to make it great once more. In isolation, this statement makes total, rhetorical sense.
Consider the conservative response to #BlackLivesMatter: #AllLivesMatter. What’s so shocking about this response is that it too makes total sense – if you only consider #BlackLivesMatter to be nothing more than those three words, i.e. a line of rhetoric. Because in a conversational vacuum, the statement “all lives matter” would logically trump the statement “black lives matter.” But of course, the movement is more than simply a hash tag. And yet, could the conservative response not be more indicative of their contemporary political methodology?
Consider, as well, the most common conservative attack on activists–that they’re simply whining, i.e. that their activism can be boiled down to a speech act, one conservatives find, again, at best a distraction, at worst a divider. The insinuation is that everyone else is trying to have an adult “conversation,” and activists are simply being adolescent in their utterances.
Consider, on top of all this, the most common praise of Donald Trump: that he says what other politicians won’t–that he tells everyone exactly what he’s supposedly really thinking. Another way of understanding this refrain is that everything you need to know about Trump is on the surface, is in the image, in the name–there’s no digging around necessary.9 This Oz doesn’t even need a curtain. His followers are too enamored with the floating head to even bother looking over at the material humbug pulling all the levers.
Trump is pure, perfected ideology, disconnected from any material person or history. Yes, the racism and the xenophobia and the tough-guy misogyny and all the politics of fear and hatred have certainly been contributing factors in his success, sure–but these are factors he shares with the rest of the Republican candidates. He may take the party’s agenda to a new extreme, but just because no other candidate is suggesting a Muslim travel ban doesn’t mean any of them aren’t extreme Islamophobes. What separates Trump from the pack–and what has led to his continued front-runner status–is not his platform but his delivery. It isn’t what he’s saying but how loudly he’s screaming it.
That this election has, more than any before it, felt like an extended reality TV show is no coincidence. Reality TV relies on social dysfunction. In a similar vein, dysfunction has become the key political weapon of the Republican party since Obama’s inauguration, when party leaders famously set the agenda as simply an opposition to anything with a Democratic byline. Make it a mess–because the messier, more adolescent and dysfunctional Washington seems, the easier it is to sell a conservative political message preaching federal inaction. This is the conservative response to activism’s focus on articulating broad, systemic, historically-complex issues: turn politics into such a spectacle that nobody cares. Generate as many headlines as possible so that the electorate only speaks in the form of headlines–short, simple, reductive, ahistorical, and hollow.
Trump won’t win this election–but Trumpism itself is already a victory for stagnant conservatism. As this recent Vox piece exhaustively lays it out, America seems to be in the early stages of what may be a decades-long conservative feedback loop, Republicans sacrificing their broader public image and the throne of the Presidency in order to tighten their grip on local legislatures, self-imploding on the national stage in such brilliant fashion as to disillusion as many voters as possible, political apathy serving as a key catalyst to continual political and economic inequality. Let Trump turn it all into such a circus that all the country does is watch, rather than act, inaction and stagnation, historical complacency, the greatest hindrance to intersectional activist efforts hoping not only to re-write, but redirect the history of the country.
This is the ultimate horror of Trump: that his candidacy lacks a material core but still carries with it such material repercussions–that he could be made of nothing and yet still weigh so much.
Photo courtesy of here and here and here.
Notes and Errata [ + ]
On a somewhat tangential note, though in the same neighborhood of trans-historical comparisons/my recent trip to DC: John Wilkes Booth. Take his diary, replace “Lincoln” with “Obama,” and you end up with almost the entire canon of Tea Party rhetoric from these last eight, supposedly uber-tyrannical years of Obama-rule. From his final diary entry, post-assassination: “The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved… [Lincoln is] a greater tyrant [than Caesar]…” It’s easy to forget that Booth’s sympathy for the Confederacy arose primarily from his distaste for the supposed overreach of Lincoln’s administration, rather than any predominant love of slavery. (Of course, after shooting Lincoln and jumping from his suite to the theater stage, Booth shouted a line from Shakespeare, his favorite playwright. I have a haunting suspicion that the Bard is not as popular amongst the Palin-ite crowd.)
A unity that persisted until the end: when defeat was imminent, Hitler shot himself, his body subsequently burned in accordance with his will. State and person dissolved in unison.
Karl Marx–not a factory worker.
Interestingly enough, the only kind of excessive police or “policing” that conservatives ever seem to be bothered by.
This has always seemed to me a fundamental aspect of “political correctness” that opponents of the agenda just completely miss. Rhetoric isn’t the ideal arena for political change, obviously – it just happens to be the stage with the greatest spotlight. In other words, while I would be remiss to pretend that I can speak on behalf of the totality or even a large majority of social activists, I feel very comfortable in saying that Halloween costumes and Cinco de Drinko are not at the top of their to-do lists. They just happen to be the only way to get the stereotypical white frat bro to even pay attention to social activism. Rhetoric, costume, appropriated appearances, jokes: these aren’t the ultimate destination, but simply the launching point. You pull at these little weeds with the hopes of eventually bringing out their roots.
“White privilege” becomes a poisonous idea that absolves black Americans from focusing on personal responsibility, the idea that we could have a black Santa or that Starbucks could pander to more than one religion becomes the “War on Christmas,” and any exploration into the gender wage gap becomes the “war on men.” Thus, these “politically correct” notions are framed as not only unnecessary, but destructive, somehow not only incorrect, but dangerous as well!
In a kind of twisted way, the history of colonial America would seem to me extremely fertile grounds for political paranoia, as a testament to the fact that it’s possible to write, with a straight face and an iron fist, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” all while owning slaves. As adolescent as this may seem, it’s truly shocking to me that a political party supposedly centered around skepticism towards government would not look back at 1776 and think, wow, this is actually pretty terrifying: how easy it was for political rhetoric to deflect political reality.
An idea with a particularly vicious meta-logic when you take into account Heidegger’s own personal history. A titan of 21st century Continental philosophy, he was, nevertheless, a flaming Nazi.
And while Trump’s greatest draw is his ahistoricism, Ben Carson’s (fading) draw is his promise of simplicity. What made Carson such a hit isn’t that he’s a neurosurgeon, but that he’s a neurosurgeon who says politics is easy. Here’s a guy who can perform brain surgery, and can tell you, to your own reassurance, that politics isn’t brain surgery – that you don’t have to think too hard about these things. It’s not his intelligence, but the fact that he is an intelligent man telling you you don’t need intelligence to see what’s supposedly really wrong with this country. The entire conservative obsession with amateur politicians, going back to Sarah Palin, seems to follow this line of reasoning: politics is easy, the solutions are obvious.