Godwin Is Dead: Ron Rosenbaum, one of the great magazine writers of our time, has written a widely-hailed L.A. Review of Books piece that he insists does not argue that “Trump=Hitler.” He’s explicit on this point!
While Trump’s crusade had at times been malign, as had his vociferous supporters, he and they did not seem bent on genocide. He did not seem bent on anything but hideous, hurtful simplemindedness — a childishly vindictive buffoon trailing racist followers whose existence he had mainstreamed. … [G]enocide is almost by definition beyond comparison with “normal” politics and everyday thuggish behavior, and to compare Trump’s feckless racism and compulsive lying was inevitably to trivialize Hitler’s crime and the victims of genocide.
“I posit similarities and differences, not identity” between Hitler and Trump, Rosenbaum later declared. All very careful and nuanced. And yet, by the end of his piece, Rosenbaum seamlessly deploys the stock 1934ist template when discussing how the media should react to Trump: they should shun “compliance,” condemn “normalization,” emulate the “defiance that was heroic and inspirational” by the anti-Hitler journalists of the Munich Post. Obviously, Rosenbaum thinks the similarities are strong indeed– strong enough, anyway, to justify cranking up the full machinery of the pre-war anti-fascist struggle, strong enough to justify invoking the martyrs of Munich.
How strong, exactly? Rosenbaum says, “Trump and his minions are … attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German.” [Emphasis added]
And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf. [E.A.]
Sounds pretty bad. ** And if Trump really is that much like Hitler — Not identical! Not equal — no sirree! But with bloodthirsty views out of Mein Kampf! — then we really don’t want to normalize him the way so many Germans foolishly normalized Hitler. The trouble is, Rosenbaum’s own piece, with its riveting, punctilious descriptions of Hitler’s rise to power, makes a perhaps-unintended but near-overwhelming case that Trump is really not much like Hitler at all.
I’m talking here of any indications that Trump, like Hitler, will , if “normalized,” pursue an evil, autocratic course of action. It’s not enough if both men are “mountebanks,”*** con men who don’t believe their cons, whose outrageous acts and contradictory statements distract, lull and befuddle opponents, so that
you can’t take a stand against Trump because you don’t know where Trump is standing. You can’t find him guilty of evil, you can’t find him at all.
What we need is the evidence, amid all the confusion, that Trump actually is driven to autocracy, as Hitler was — not that he, like Hitler, conned and clowned his way into office, but that he’ll use the office so acquired to further some horrifying, megalomaniacal, perhaps “bloodthirsty” anti-democratic scheme. That’s the key question, isn’t it? The Munich Post journalists knew that underneath it all Hitler was Hitler — and he needed to be fought, not normalized. How does the evidence they had compare with the evidence offered by Rosenbaum regarding Trump?
Here’s my crude catalog of HItler’s Hitleresque sins — as known (often uncovered) by Munich Post journalists — compared with Trump’s:
— Had attempted to violently overthrow the government (the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923)
— Had “a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents”
— Sent his private militia (precursor of the SS) to physically ransack the newsroom of the paper that opposed him
—Planned a “‘final solution’ for Munich’s Jews.”
— Supported by some racist and anti-Semitic tweeters
— Proposed, and then abandoned, a hold on travel to the US by Muslims.
— Allegedly had a copy of Mein Kampf by his bed
— Once ducked an invitation to “unequivocally condemn” David Duke.
You get the idea. The two lists are orders of magnitude apart. Are there things about Trump — seeds, if you will**** — that make reasonable people worry about future developments? Sure, just as there were with a dozen other national politicians (including Nixon and even FDR). But those are seeds, not the tree, and there are seeds of a lot of things in Trump, including many good things. Hitler, you had more than seeds.
And don’t say (as Rosenbaum did when we argued on Twitter) that “[H]itler was in office 12 years Trump 2 weeks.” The list above is a list of things Hitler did before he took office in 1933 — the equivalent of Trump before January 20 of this year. Was boycotting the Iowa debate Trump’s Beer Hall Putsch?
Maybe Trump will try to acquire autocratic power. But, in Rosenbaum’s piece, that seems to be more an assumption than a conclusion.
This became clearer after the piece was published, when Rosenbaum vigorously defended it on Twitter — because a funny thing began to happen. In argument, Rosenbaum tried to supply some of the evidence the piece he was defending lacked — evidence that Trump, if “normalized,” really would try to become an autocrat. Hadn’t Trump aide Steve Bannon told the “press to ‘shut its mouth.'”? That was “an example of autorratic [autocratic] impulse he shares with many dictators not just AH.”
Rosenbaum’s right: Telling the media to “shut up” [actually, saying it should “be embarrassed” and “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”] does represent an autocratic impulse.*** It’s an impulse shared by half the politicians in America — but if followed blindly to its ultimate conclusion it would be bad news for the First Amendment. So why didn’t Rosenbaum include it in his piece, which cries out for actual examples of the dictatorial drive that only Munich Postische anti-normalist resistance can block?
Answer: Because it would look pathetic. Hitler sent his militia to physically destroy newsrooms. Trump has an aide who said a hostile press should put attacks on hold! See the paralllel? We do … and we don’t.
Likewise, Rosenbaum, who mentions the “Muslim ban” in passing in his piece, refers on Twitter to Trump ” banning an entire religion.” When a Twitter adversary notes Trump’s actual executive order affected only 7 out of “40 or so Muslim countries,” Rosenbaum responds “the order can be extended w/o to all Muslim nations.” Why yes, it can! But that would be a transformative change, and Trump has been heading in the opposite direction. Normalization works sometimes.
If comparing Politican X to Hitler makes you spend most of your time explaining that you aren’t equating the two, and mainly succeeds in making your legitimate complaints about X seem small in comparison to Hitler’s monstrousness, maybe it’s not such a useful comparison. Godwin had a point! If Trump’s only a 2% Hitler then maybe the media attitude we need is 2% no-business-as-usual anti-normalization–or, in any case, not 100% heroic***** dedicated resistance. All Rosenbaum’s words spent in stirring description of the Munich Post tend to obscure this point. They become a distraction, much as even Trump’s more righteous tweets are often distractions.
Why strain to make the comparison? Why not find an autocrat who better fits the subject? (Berlusconi seems an obvious choice.) [Because then Trump’s opponents couldn’t cloak themselves in the glory of the German resistance?–ed You said that.]
** — The antecedent of “they” — who are “not joking” — seems to be Trump, or maybe “Trump and his minions.” Not merely the minions.
*** –Rosenbaum notes that historian Alan Bullock, proponent of the “mountebank” theory, “would later change his mind” and acknowledge that Hitler was heavily invested in his anti-Semitism.
**** — Attacking judges represents another potentially troubling impulse, a “seed”– one Rosenbaum doesn’t mention in his piece. So far, Trump has engaged in name calling while he obediently complies with judges’ orders. The author of the “Mein Kampf playbook” went a little further (at one point setting up an alternative court system until the judges “knuckled under”).
*****– Does it take heroism to oppose Trump? Not that I can see. In most places resistance (like resistance to the Vietnam War, or to Nixon) is more likely to get you laid. Former N.Y. Judge Robert Smith wrote recently that “Not many federal judges travel in circles where being an enemy of Donald Trump is anything but a badge of honor.” Same for journalists.