The Trump-as-Hitler trope is not entirely surprising. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were often maligned in this form, as well. Yet the mainstreaming of this comparison is particularly disturbing. They are appearing in mainstream publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, MSNBC.
A description of this sort of argument was coined by Leo Strauss in 1951: reductio ad Hitlerum. In essence, such an argument reduces an opponent to the level of Hitler and then condemns said opponent by guilt-through-association.
And it is a lethal attack. Few modern figures produce as much visceral revulsion as Hitler. Images of gas chambers and emaciated figures quickly come to mind. Such arguments exhibit an extreme digression in discourse. They are obviously not an attempt to disprove a policy position nor are they a mere logical fallacy in need of correction. Throwing out ad hominems, like “fascist,” is still far tamer than this sort of argument. This is rock bottom.
Let’s look at a few of the recent examples of this argument:
“Adolf Hitler was the first to describe the technique of repeating a lie so often that people would come to believe it. He called it the ‘Big Lie.’From his denial of climate change to his denial that Obama was born in Hawaii, Trump has dusted off the Big Lie. But then he does the classic Big Liars one better―by denying the denial.”
Of course, the comparison of Trump to Hitler reaches down to the popular level, as well. A California teacher recently made the comparison and drew a Hitler mustache on a picture of Trump. You expect such comparisons by leftist ideologues, but not this far into mainstream progressive thought.
It is not just that this rhetoric is abhorrent, it’s dangerous. In the Nuremberg trials after WWII, the international community deemed a number of Nazis worthy of death because of their war crimes. Their crimes were committed under the authority of Hitler. If he hadn’t committed suicide, he would’ve hanged with them.
When we compare President Trump to Hitler, we are saying that he is, in essence, worthy of death. What war crimes and mass programs of annihilation justify such a claim? As for propaganda, can his many dubious claims escape the attention of a mainstream media that is hostile to him? Clearly not. He has earned the wrath of progressivism because he is not a progressive. And his treatment of the media is not so much manipulation as it is circumvention. By not passing through the gates of mainstream media orthodoxy, he is considered an apostate.
Can we simply conclude that no analogies to Hitler will hold until a political figure begins a systematic program of exterminating political enemies and racial and religious scapegoats? Perhaps it is fair to say that such rhetoric as the reductio ad Hitlerum is not constructive as it pertains to the public debate, nor as it pertains to the recognizing the humanity of our political opponents?
You may believe that President Trump will undermine American values. If so, make that case. If you resort to this absurd and dangerous argument, however, you will prove yourself the enemy of our values—not President Trump.