“It lists Hitler as a fairly stable veteran of the Great War.” – Crow T. Robot
About a decade ago, I wrote a series of posts inspired by quotes from the legendary MST3K movie ‘Space Mutiny’. In the mid-00s, something about that terrible 80s movie, a rebellion on a spaceship being put down by a single muscle-bound hero, resonated with our relatively new “war on terror”. I wrote five posts about random topics – now banished to the internet memory hole – but there was supposed to be a sixth.
The post was meant to be the finale of the series – about Godwin’s Law and the mountains of shitty Hitler comparisons that passed for political discourse at the time. But it was also supposed to be about the realization that sometimes the comparison fits and we shouldn’t be afraid to make it. I never finished it…fuck that, I never really even started it. Trying to put parameters around when you can and can’t make a Hitler comparison quickly felt like an insane undertaking. And I’m a goddamn engineer, well aware that no one reads the shit I write anyway.
A recent article in Politico about Russia has introduced me to an interesting term – “reflexive control”. The idea behind reflexive control is that you can condition people to act a certain way if you repeatedly put them on the defensive about doing the opposite. The example cited in that article is about the post-Cold War era, and how years of Russians accusing the west of wanting to revive the Cold War has caused westerners to reflexively to rule out the possibility entirely, lest they prove the Russians were correct all along.
I’m not totally convinced this happens as a matter of manipulation, but instead as a matter of hardened principle. The same thing can be said for all kinds of military undertakings right now. Many Americans have become reflexively against any kind of heavy involvement in actual ground combat anywhere in the world. The puppeteers driving that reflex aren’t any set of nefarious people who gain from our pacifism, they’re the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a belief that these regional conflicts aren’t worth the deaths of American lives. We have a similar reflex to any politician who declares a war on drugs. This reflex isn’t conditioned by advocates trying to keep us from fighting it, it’s from the grim awareness that it backfires with all sorts of unintended consequences.
There’s also some reflexive control that drives the way we regard Godwin’s Law, and the desire to point out parallels to a time when democracy collapsed. It’s seen as a form of intellectual laziness and hyperbole to draw parallels between 1930s Germany and today. But I think now more than ever, we need to look to that time to have better context over the present, to be able to draw both parallels and contrasts.
A lot of scholarly articles have pointed at that Donald Trump isn’t a Fascist. It’s true. Fascism is a movement with a very narrow definition that many scholars think *only* applies to the movements under Mussolini and Hitler. Even movements that seemed similar enough had subtle differences in culture and style that made it not quite fit the label. By that narrow definition, Trump and his rabid follows aren’t truly Fascist, but that’s not to say there aren’t some pretty strong parallels that matter.
Reading through Volker Ullrich’s biography of Hitler, one of the many things that jumps out is how clear Hitler was about what he believed, yet how difficult it was for people to accept that his base motivations were genuine and that he’d follow through. The nationalism that drove his movement was fueled by a growing belief that Jews and other outsiders were parasites weakening the state from the inside. Disastrous economic conditions in the 20s and 30s caused that sentiment to spiral out of control, but the base sentiment that sank German democracy and drove the world towards war was a broad sentiment that multiculturalism was a cancer making Germany weak.
Michiko Kakutani’s review of Ullrich’s biography called out a number of other striking parallels that the book makes clear – Hitler’s narcissism, his stunning dishonesty, and his ability to play to crowds and appeal to the basest instincts of his followers. Trump’s campaign was also eerily similar to early Nazi rhetoric around cultural decay and the hope for national rebirth. So was their open disdain of a so-called “liberal media”. But it’s the backlash against a multicultural, socially tolerant, America that’s the cornerstone of the entire movement and the parallel that should concern us the most.
A number of the people that Trump has pulled into his inner circle – from Bannon to Flynn to Sessions – have a long record of projecting pathological anxiety over America’s increasing diversity. And his campaign drew support from all sorts of dark corners of America’s network of hate groups. His blanket portrayals of Mexicans as criminals, black communities as dangerous hellscapes, and Muslims as an existential threat to the west might seem like clownish rhetoric. But these sentiments have broader appeal than we like to admit, and even worse, they were not seen as disqualifying by an even larger subset of voters. Just as too many people ignored Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a mere side-show, we can’t do the same with Trump and his clearly bigoted worldview. As we learned back then, the anti-Semitism wasn’t just a side-show, it ended up being the main fucking feature.
But beyond that, it’s obvious that Trump himself is no Hitler or Mussolini. They’re very different people who took very different paths to their political success. Hitler was a failed art student who was briefly homeless as a young man before signing up to fight with the German army in WWI. Mussolini was a staunch socialist before taking his ultra-nationalist turn. Trump was a man born into extreme wealth who had a long life of fame and comfort before finally getting into politics. That’s not to say that there’s no concern about what Trump will eventually do, but that it’d be foolish to expect everything over the next few years to play out in a similar fashion to what happened in Europe nearly a century ago. Other extreme nationalist movements over the years have failed miserably in other places, including the United States. America’s democratic institutions, our wealthy urban areas, our open technology, and our culture of strident individualism gives us a better set of tools for taking on this kind of threat.
The first full week of the Trump Administration has done nothing but reinforce all of this. They’ve signed an executive order to build a pointless wall along the Mexican border and threatened tariffs as a way to pay for it. Trump continues to insist without any evidence that vote tallies in areas with large numbers of minorities are illegitimate. They’re re-orienting the State Department to deal more with Islamic terrorism. He casually threatened on Twitter to send federal troops into Chicago to deal with homicides after being triggered by a Bill O’Reilly segment. They plan to publish a regular report of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, something the Nazi’s did with Jews in the 1930s. They continue to insist that the media is dishonest and untrustworthy, as they tell outlandish lies. And yesterday, Trump signed a ban on nationals from 7 predominantly Muslim countries entering the US, even those who’ve risked their lives for American troops. This should set off alarms for anyone with even a passing knowledge of history, not just of Fascism, but of any type of nationalist authoritarian rule.
The next few years are going to be rough, but America has defeated this shit before. MLK said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I picture it more as a slowly rising sine curve, and we’re on a downslope. A large segment of this country is willing to believe that up is down and black is white merely because they hear it from powerful people who share their deepest fears about our increasingly multicultural society. It’d be extremely naive to believe that there won’t be a lot of collateral damage from all this. There will be. The Trump Administration will go after the most marginalized first and dare us to speak up for them. This compels us to stand up and be counted, and stay firm in our affirmation of the American democratic values of pluralism and tolerance.