Nowadays, it’s hard to know what political norms have a function or are otherwise subject to being summarily eschewed. In the era of President Donald J. Trump, it would seem all bets, as they say, are off. One set of guiding principles that’s still fairly sacrosanct, meanwhile, is what I call the Hitler Rules. As I would phrase them, they are as follows:
- Don’t talk about Adolf Hitler in a remotely positive light or quote him without a very good reason for doing so.
- If you find yourself extolling Hitler’s virtues or publicly citing Mein Kampf, stop immediately and apologize profusely.
- Dear God, why are you still talking about Hitler?
If you get to Principle #1, you messed up. If you get to Principle #3, you really messed up. If any of this doesn’t make sense, go watch the History Channel or visit the Holocaust Museum or open up a book (yes, an actual physical book) about World War II. There’s way too much to cover in the span of one blog post.
And yet, people like Candace Owens evidently are unapologetic about their references to a man who advocated for the ethnic cleansing of an entire people. Back in February, the conservative activist Owens spoke at the London launch of right-wing organization Turning Point USA, a student-oriented group focused on changing the narrative that the liberal left has a “monopoly” over young people. When asked by an audience member how those who champion nationalist causes can, well, not be called “nationalists,” Owens had this to say:
I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word “nationalism.” I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. […] Whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler.
He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. To me, that’s not nationalism. In thinking about how we could go bad down the line, I don’t really have an issue with nationalism. I really don’t.
So, wait: Hitler wasn’t bad until he took his act on the road? What about the whole, you know, attempted extermination of the Jews thing? However you slice it, it seems pretty bad. Also puzzling is Owens’s definition of “nationalism.” It’s one thing for members of a state to embrace certain cultural elements and values. It’s quite another to insist people all act, look, and speak a certain way as part of a racist or xenophobic agenda. Oxford Dictionaries defines nationalism as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Including but not limited to starting a world freaking war and killing millions of people in accordance with some perverted ideal of racial purity. Yes, Ms. Owens, that would make Hitler a nationalist.
In the ensuing backlash, Owens insisted she was taken out of context, which conservatives often like to claim when being held accountable for dumb shit they say. In an ex post facto explanatory video uploaded to Twitter, Owens derided Buzzfeed and its report that helped draw attention to her remarks as a “scum-of-the-earth” publication. She also doubled down on her assertion that wanting to protect the “sovereignty” of one’s nation from outside “threats” shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing, defending the likes of Pres. Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, as well as standing by her interpretation of “nationalism” to exclude Hitler on the basis he didn’t put Germany first because he killed German Jews. You could’ve at least mentioned that the first time around, Ms. Owens.
Owens put a cap on her rebuttal by pointing to the “insanity” of leftist journalists for highlighting her comments about Hitler. Here’s the thing, though, Ms. Owens: no one forced you to bring up Hitler. You made the initial comment that people (which people, anyway?) think of the Führer when they think of nationalism. You could’ve stopped there. At any rate, you should’ve denounced his hate and genocidal violence right then and there in your initial answer. But you didn’t. At best, your explanation was a lazy one. At worst, it intentionally left out the mass murder of European Jews as a matter of German domestic and foreign policy. Don’t blame liberal journos for your deficiency. Even given full context, your lack of clarity merits admonishment.
When not explicitly issuing bad takes on Adolf Hitler, others in recent memory have questionably quoted his inflammatory language as a means of attacking the other side. A few weeks ago, Republican Mo Brooks invoked Mein Kampf as a way of railing against Democrats and the Mueller investigation. Citing Hitler’s words directly, he assailed Dems for promoting “big lie propaganda.” Evidently, Rep. Brooks tried to make the connection that because some Democrats identify as socialists and because the Nazis identified as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Democratic Party is akin to the Nazi Party. Um, what?
First of all, Rep. Brooks, Hitler and the Nazis were fascists. Their “national socialism” was a nationalist recontextualization of the term socialism that emphasized hierarchical structures (as opposed to universal equality) and disdained representative democracy. As with the Nazis’ use of the swastika and their celebration of an Aryan “master race,” their brand of “socialism” was a perversion of the kind adhered to by the likes of the Marxists.
Second of all, even if the point you were trying to make was a sound one
—which it was not—this is Mein freaking Kampf we’re talking about here. We can do without Hitler’s verbiage. Besides, while we’re discussing whether people are being taken out of context, Hitler’s concept of a “big lie” refers to the notion of a Jewish conspiracy to blame Germany’s defeat in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff. Its function was to foment anti-Semitism, effectively creating a scapegoat in the Jewish people. So what—you’re alleging the president is as persecuted as the Jews? Pardon me if I elect not to weep for a man of Trump’s purported wealth, a straight white male, no less.
In both Owens’s and Brooks’s cases, these mentions of Hitler were unsolicited on the part of those observing. For Owens, it was a discussion of the leader of the Nazi Party and nationalism that sounded like a defense more than anything and that was wrongheaded either way. For Brooks, it was a ham-handed comparison between the Democratic Party and the Nazis, one that unnecessarily and disingenuously cited Mein Kampf and therefore could’ve been replaced by the writings of pretty much any other public figure such that it would’ve made for an improvement. Heck, you could’ve thrown a random Post Malone lyric out there. I’m not sure what the relevance would have been, mind you, but at least it wouldn’t have come from Hitler-Comma-Adolf. Both of these individuals flagrantly violated the Hitler Rules—and no amount of context can take them off the hook for that.
Conjuring images of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany willy-nilly is, for most rational people not beholden to a regressive conservative agenda, ill-advised. Of course, if you’re a member of a far-right political organization or a neo-Nazi group looking to recruit new members, naked affection for Hitler’s agenda is likely welcome. With today’s Republican Party under Donald Trump, the separation between a party that implicitly excludes people on racist and classist principles and one that openly campaigns on destruction of the other is ever narrowing.
Then again, some people may just be invoking a different fascist leader. Sen. John Cornyn made news in February when he posted to his Twitter account a quote, without context, by Benito Mussolini. As with Mo Brooks, this was a dig at self-professed democratic socialists. Never mind that Mussolini, like Hitler, was a fascist who, despite earlier socialist leanings, came to denounce the Italian Socialist Party as he embraced a more nationalist outlook and eventually rose to dictatorial heights. In other words, if your aim as Sen. Cornyn is to demean socialism by promoting fascism or otherwise directly quoting a mass murderer and despot, your priorities may need realignment.
We might be remiss if we didn’t consider that conservatives are not the only ones who have made allusions to Hitler in their comparisons. Candace Owens noted in her violation of the Hitler Rules how nationalism, at least in the U.S., gets conflated with Germany’s one-time Nazi leader. As the Promulgator-in-Chief of “America First” nationalism, Trump is therefore the Hitler figure in this analogy.
This is where Trump’s defenders customarily begin to lose their shit and/or exhibit their performative umbrage over the supposed likeness. How dare liberals talk bad about our beloved president! He’s a great man and certainly no Adolf Hitler! In an ironic twist, they throw a hissy fit and talk about something they allege the left suffers from in “Trump derangement syndrome.” Which, not for nothing, is a terrible name. For one, it’s cumbersome. Second of all, it doesn’t make awfully clear which party is the deranged one. Just as easily, I could infer that Trump is the one who suffers from his own distinctive brand of insanity. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t “pop.”
Literally speaking, Trump isn’t Hitler. He hasn’t led the Axis Powers on a mission of world conquest, nor has he advocated for the full-scale deletion of an entire race. (Not yet, at least.) Nevertheless, elements of his administration’s policy and Trump’s rhetoric are worrisome and reminiscent of Hitler’s stewardship of Nazi Germany.
Maiken Umbach, professor of modern history at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, wrote a piece back in 2016 prior to the election asking what the similarities between Hitler and Trump are. It’s not just the denigration of minority groups. Sadly, Trump is not the only bad actor in this regard worldwide; we need look no further than Marine Le Pen’s candidacy for the top office in France or the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum vote for other modern cohorts. Umbach would also echo the concern that Trump is not proposing a “final solution” to get rid of Mexicans and other immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Although by now, the separation of families at the border and putting them in glorified cages, hearkening back to how Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II, doesn’t exactly bolster Trump’s credibility on this front.
These thoughts aside, where Umbach and others see parallels between Trump and Hitler is in the promotion of domestic and foreign policy short on specifics and long on the creation of a charismatic leader who claims he alone can decisively move the country forward and in a way that breaks with established corruption. She closes her article with these considerations:
Like Hitler, Trump is capitalising on a longing for charismatic leadership, to which even highly developed Western democracies seem very susceptible when democratic structures fail to deliver all the desired outcomes. No Western democracy currently faces problems on the scale of those Germany grappled with before 1933. And yet, there is a very real sense amongst a large part of the population that they have not been on the “winning side” for a long time.
The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, and in the process, the classical attributes of political leadership – education, expertise, eloquent speeches – have come to be seen not as problem-solving strategies, but as the identity markers of a social elite who are looking after their own interests only.
Even where new policies on healthcare, education, or job creation achieve their goals, they are not popular, because they are tinged with that smell of elitism that makes many ordinary people not feel valued by the political classes. Trump has not been the first demagogue to capitalise on such sentiments, and he will not be the last. If elected, we will not see a resurgence of National Socialism. Trump is, nevertheless, a symptom of a fundamental problem with our democratic system, which we seem utterly unable to fix.
As it must be stressed, President Donald Trump is merely an outgrowth of a dysfunctional political system and an embodiment of prejudices that have existed long before his rise to power. In Umbach’s parlance, he is not the first and won’t be the last. Just the same, the attitudes and behaviors he encourages should not be altogether dismissed, nor should we ignore the conditions that led to Trump’s upset electoral victory. Feelings of anger, fear, and hate have come to be associated with Trump’s base. That the Hitler comparison even appears credible at points suggests this is not simple hyperbole or “derangement.” And it’s not just American leftists throwing out the analogy either. When Holocaust survivors tell you there is room for comparison, you tend to listen.
Whatever side of the political fence you’re on, name-dropping Adolf Hitler is a move to which one should give due weight before acting on it. The above examples coming from the right are rather egregious instances of individuals attempting to defend their personal embrace of nationalism or attack their political rivals according to a faulty pretext. The left is not altogether blameless in this regard, however, and must be judicious in its connections to Nazism lest its card-carrying members lose credibility amid the withering criticism of right-wing trolls.
If nothing else, though, the concession should be easy to make that Hitler wasn’t a “good” leader. A few weeks back, in my home state, a high school athletic director tried to make the case that Hitler was a good leader with “bad moral character and intentions.” It may seem like semantics, but beyond framing Hitler as an effective leader who led his country down a dark and ruinous path, there should be no justification for calling him a good leader. That is, you can’t neatly separate his leadership style from the deleterious results, presuming you think it effective in the first place.
The same might be said for Trump and an assessment of his presidency as a whole. Judging by the turmoil in his administration and the Cabinet as well as the damage he has done to our standing in the world by moving America deliberately backwards, Trump’s presidency has been an utter disaster. Never mind what he and his backers might aver. The ends, in this case, by no means justify the means, and by this token, Trump is no good leader either.
We can’t forget the lessons World War II and Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy have taught us. The context in which we revisit these lessons, on the other hand, matters. Candace Owens and Mo Brooks in particular should heed this advice or risk suffering the consequences.