If it wasn’t already clear, Donald Trump’s results in last week’s Super Tuesday primaries illustrates the degree to which he has insinuated himself in American politics. The public sphere in this country is currently brimming over with analyses of what exactly this portends.
It’s difficult to know exactly what a Trump presidency would entail, since Trump tailors his message to the needs of any particular moment without regard to consistency or cogency.
Perhaps, for this reason, one of the most common rhetorical strategies has been to compare Trump, quite often, to Hitler. In this respect, American political discourse displays its fundamental poverty.
The impulse to comparison is, in and of itself, a normal part of human attempts to come to terms with a complex universe. When we come into contact with something new it makes a certain intellectual sense to try to find examples in our previous experience to which to compare it. But, as Adorno argued in the 1960s, the positive has a power of its own, suppressing the truth of that which is negated. This conflict between particularity and generality is fundamental to the humanities. The philosopher of science Heinrich Rickert argued that the difference between history and the social sciences was that, while the latter sought to establish general laws, the former was “ideographic,” focusing on the description of unique formations.
In fact, neither the social sciences nor history work with such purity of approach. Yet it is nonetheless the case that these two points of orientation are firmly embedded in the training and the professional approach to the respective disciplines. Historians often complain that social scientists cherry pick data from incomparably different sources to create comprehensive theories. Social scientists complain that historians merely provide a litany of facts without any systematic organizing principle.
Political discourse in the public sphere is not particularly sensitive to the niceties of these academic distinctions. Putting aside the matter of the sheer ignorance of with respect to the facts of history among even educated segments of the polity in the industrialized West, the practice of comparison has taken on a predominantly aesthetic function. This historian Eugen Weber wrote in Varieties of Fascism (1964) that the accusation that someone was a fascist had become a way of “giving a dog a bad name” (so that he might justly be hanged). That this had come to be the case in the first half of the 1960s was not particularly surprising given the historical proximity to the Third Reich. Similarly, the accusation that someone was a communist played the same role for those as the other extreme of the political spectrum. What was common to these accusations was their common detachment from political reality.
In the years that followed, the terminology of political abuse would change in important ways. The political left has, at least excluding its furthest fringes, generally moved away from simple-minded accusations of fascism (or Nazism). On the right, there seems to be some inability to decide whether the government comprises communists (Obama is an “African socialist”) or fascists (the NRA’s frequent characterization of law enforcement as “jack-booted thugs”). Yet, it is worth noting that, irrespective of the political orientation of the source, the point is not really to identify an actual political tendency, but create a mood that facilitates one’s own political proclivities.
Of the many peculiarities of Trump’s outsider campaign is the degree to which the vitriol directed at him has come from both the left and right wings of the political echelon. Predictably, those on the left (as well as the “mainstream” elements of the Democratic Party who are really center-right in terms of their actual politics) have focused on Trump’s overtly racist utterances (his claim that Mexico was shipping rapists north of the border, etc), as well as his plan to kill the families of terrorists. But even those on what is notionally his own end of the spectrum have taken up the cudgels against him. Thus, we find failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney publicly calling Trump a phony, a fraud, a bully, and a misogynist (the last being particularly surprising since that’s not exactly an insult in terms of mainline American conservatism).
The comparisons of Trump to Hitler generally focus on his xenophobic populism, his bullying demeanor, his willingness to lie publicly, and his willingness to take whatever position his current audience seems to favor. These are, in fact, all things that Hitler did. They are also, in one way or another, things that Mussolini (to whom Trump is also occasionally compared) did during his political career. But this is only to say that these are common features of demagogic populism, and if they tend to occur rather more on the political right than on the left,they are by no means absent from either end of the political spectrum.
This is a separate issue from whether Trump’s candidacy might imply some sort of danger for the republic. It is at least arguable that it does, but to no greater extent than the degeneration of the Republican Party into a rabble of goldbugs, climate change deniers, and various other crackpots already did. True, the party is now essentially in the position of being blackmailed by Trump, who will either make it wholly beholden to its most irrational fringe supporters, or lose them to a Trump third party candidacy. It is probably this that has led some many of the major figures in the party to criticize a guy who, viewed in objective terms, isn’t really expressing views outside the Republican mainstream.
One might wonder why the question of comparison to historical figures should, in and of itself, be a cause for concern, especially given the fact that accusations of small penis size are apparently the new norm of American political discourse. But the real issue here is the violence that one does to history. Comparisons to German National Socialism should be made sparingly and only with great circumspection. This is not to say that comparison itself should simply be abjured. As noted above, it is a normal feature of how human beings parse their experience. But historico-political comparisons need to do work, i.e. there needs to be something brought out by the comparison that would otherwise be hidden from view.
By and large, though not without exception, comparisons to various kinds of fascism serve only to express that someone is very, very bad in the opinion of the speaker. But it must be remembered that Hitler was not just bad, but that he was bad in a very particular way, and there are very few other people in human history who have managed to be quite that bad in quite that way. Barack Obama is not one of them, nor is George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Ariel Sharon, or George Osborne, or…well, the list could go on and on. But to be clear, it also contains Donald Trump.
The danger with comparing things to National Socialism, or people to Hitler, is that it runs the risk of trivializing these historical horrors. This is to be avoided. It is to be avoided because it makes us less able to gauge effectively when such phenomena are seriously in danger of recurring. But it is also to be avoided because it, in a certain sense, re-victimizes the victims by making it seem as if they met their fate at the hands of some garden variety criminal, rather than being caught up in one of the most profound horrors of human history.
I have, in a previous column, used Trump’s name in the same sentence as that of Hitler. And, although I did make clear that I don’t view Trump as in anything like the same league as Hitler, in retrospect I still probably should not have done it, at least for the reason that it sets a bad example.
Trump is a bad person. His simplistic, racist demagoguery has caused American political discourse to plumb even grimmer depths than the public utterances of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan might have already been expected to do. But it is important to remember that there is an enormous difference between this sort of lowest common denominator politics and the murderous mass movements of the 20th century. Perhaps it is best if we let Trump be bad on his own merits.