It has become commonplace for the critics of President Trump to refer to him as an aspirant Adolf Hitler. Democratic Representative Hank Robertson, in the first session of the 2019-20 Congress, made the following comparison:
Hitler led a political movement of anti-education, anti-science racists, who focused on nationalism with rhetoric about making Germany a strong country, which would result in prosperity for the German people … Sound familiar?
No, not familiar at all, but the accuracy of Robertson’s allusion is mostly beside the point. To understand our times, it is necessary to turn this all on its head. We need to start asking why the likes of Robertson believe their political adversaries are modern-day Nazis and what that means for our future.
Condemning Donald Trump for being a modern-day Führer amounts to an ad hominem attack of the highest order. Should they not be calling for his assassination? There are ethical arguments in favour of tyrannicide. Playing the Hitler card, admittedly, is not exactly new in political discourse. The political philosopher Leo Strauss defined the phenomenon, in 1951, as an association fallacy and coined the expression reductio ad Hitlerum: “A view is not refuted when it happens to have been shared by Hitler.”
This essay appears in March’s Quadrant.
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In our context, at least, Donald Trump is a nationalist and Adolf Hitler was a nationalist of sorts, and yet it does not follow that America First equates to Aryan supremacism. Trump held mass rallies during the presidential campaign. He spoke as many as five times on the same day, flying from one to the next. He advocated law and order, endorsed family ideals, championed the worker and the farmer and wrote a political memoir. Moreover, he is vainglorious, dominates conversations, has a younger female companion, does not imbibe, likes popular movies, keeps irregular hours, and the list goes on. None of this proves that The Donald is a re-embodiment of Der Führer. Members of the anti-Trump brigade are at liberty to employ reductio ad Hitlerum for all their worth, although we are equally within our rights to work out what this says about them.
Use of the Nazi allegory had become so pervasive by 1990 that Mike Godwin, an American academic, successfully propagated Godwin’s Law or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies, the notion that as “an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. Godwin’s brainchild made history or, at any rate, the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Mike Godwin might be regretting his eponymous law. These days, he sounds more and more like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: “[T]he code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.” Godwin, in a 2015 opinion piece for the anti-Trump Washington Post, wrote: “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politicians.” He was “pleasantly surprised” that many negative commentaries on Candidate Trump, such as “Is Trump a Fascist?” by Peter Bergen of CNN, made “meaningful and substantiative” comparisons between The Donald and Der Führer.
By 2018, Godwin appeared to have completely forsaken his own guideline. Responding to a question about the status of the newly (and duly) elected president of Brazil—“So, just to be clear, is it OK to call Bolsonaro a Nazi?”—Godwin responded with an unqualified Yes.
Yehuda Bauer’s Rethinking the Holocaust (2002), a subtle but important shift in the great scholar’s explanation of the Holocaust, is a good starting point on the matter of Nazi analogies. Bauer replaces “uniqueness” as his descriptor of the Holocaust with “unprecedented”. There have been other genocides, but the Holocaust was a radicalised genocide in its “planned attempt to physically eliminate every single member of a targeted group”. It may have been perpetrated by regular everyday people, as depicted in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 (1992), but these ordinary men were also the product of eight years of Nazi ideology.
American academic Donald Jonah Goldhagen, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), attempted to refute the Ordinary Men theory, insisting that “eliminationist anti-Semitism” had been a feature of pre-Nazi Germany and a key motivating factor in the atrocities committed by Reserve Battalion 101. At the same time, though, while their actions may have been motivated, or at least framed, by anti-Semitism, theirs was a systematic murderousness wholly concomitant with the Third Reich. Nazi ideology, then, is something different again from customary Judeophobia, as terrible as that was in its own right. To blame the conception and overall implementation of the Holocaust on traditional German behaviour, maintains Bauer, is not supported by the long arc of history and amounts to a form of Germanophobic racism.
What about Americanophobic racism? Although there is nothing original—or perhaps because there is nothing original—about the polemics of Ward Churchill, his notorious essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”, posted the day after September 11, reveals something of how radicalised Americans have come to view their own country. The vividness of Churchill’s writing and readiness to follow his anti-America creed to its logical (or illogical) conclusion is disturbingly instructive. Only an American citizen with an extraordinarily disconsolate view of his homeland could write this about the fate of 3000 murdered compatriots as the site of their horrific killing still smouldered:
If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the Little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.
Ward Churchill was probably inspired by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Although Adolf Eichmann deserved to be executed, reasoned Arendt, this “desk murderer” (Schriebtischtäter) “never realised what he was doing”. Ward Churchill, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, considered the targets of Al Qaeda’s terrorism in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to be “military/corporate personnel” or “Little Eichmanns”, and their deaths a form of “justice”. The “operation” was, additionally, he asserted, “a kind of reality therapy” and even potentially “humanitarian” in its attempt to wake up ordinary Americans about their role in US atrocities.
An earlier but just as pertinent instance of Nazi equivalency is to be found in the 1949 Bremen lecture by Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt’s erstwhile mentor and lover:
Farming is now a motorised food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and the starving of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb.
Professor Heidegger omitted to mention that tractors and abattoirs do not operate themselves any more than do gas chambers and extermination camps. Technically-skilled personnel in an agribusiness are engaged in a very different line of work from technically-skilled personnel in Chelmno death camp. Heidegger’s apologists would argue that he disregarded the specifics of human agency since this is the very point he wanted to make: industrial-scale technology abolishes human agency.
We can understand why activists during the burgeoning of the New Left in the 1960s, concerned that the combination of technology and science was a Frankenstein’s monster, found inspiration in Martin Heidegger’s work. In fact, Hans Jonas, like Arendt an actual student of Heidegger’s in the late 1920s, helped inspire the establishment of the Green Party with his celebrated tome on environmental ethics, Technology and Responsibility (1973). There is obviously something in Heidegger’s warning that technology has the capacity to diminish humanity. Still, given Heidegger’s affiliation with Nazism, including eleven months as rector-führer (President) at the University of Freiburg in 1933-34, he might have avoided juxtaposing “motorised food industry” with “gas chambers” in his condemnation of technological tyranny. Intriguingly, PETA’s “To Animals, All People Are Nazis” campaign made that very same connection some sixty years later.
Even Martin Heidegger, despite remaining a member of the Nazi Party until 1945, presents problems on the reductio ad Hitlerum front. Joshua Rothman wrote a valuable article on the subject titled, appropriately enough, “Is Heidegger Contaminated by Nazism?” Rothman argued that Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) is revelatory because it attempts to understand the nature of human existence, not least the problem of mind-body or spirit-material division, purportedly problematic in the West at least since the time of the Enlightenment philosophers. Our existentialist goal is “being-in-the-world”, neither trapped in our heads nor corporeal instruments of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit). We must each take a stand—in the midst of our thrownness, fallenness and projection—against the flow of time. Essence of Truth (1932), according to Rothman, is an entreaty to care (but not in the Christian usage: more like be alert) about the things in our day-to-day lives, because only by connecting with them do they become “unconcealed”.
The more we are alive in this world, therefore, the greater realisation that we “are surrounded by the hidden”; similarly, the more we are free of thoughtlessness (in the Heideggerian sense), the less likely we are to be deluded and the more likely we are to be aware of deep truth. Rothman’s view, in the end, is that even though we are “morally shocked” by the anti-Semitism expressed in Heidegger’s posthumously published Black Notebooks, the ideas contained in Being and Time and Essence of Truth remain “too useful, and too influential, to be marginalised”. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, therefore, was foolish but extraneous to his insights about the need to be fully engaged with world if we are to avoid being less than human or “thoughtless”.
Heidegger and Hitler shared not only a belief that the German volk needed to be re-awoken or saved, but also an anti-Semitic understanding that Jews (or Jewish ideas) caused the malaise. A national community, insisted Heidegger, should not allow technology to come between the blood and the soil. A modern-day anarchist-primitivist might say the same thing without, as Heidegger did, resorting to anti-Semitic canards about the relationship between Jewish modernity and the Enlightenment. Heidegger’s Judeophobia did not extend to genocidal annihilation and in the case of four of his most famous students, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith and Hans Jonas, did not impede his cultivation of brilliant young Jewish scholars (before 1933, at any rate).
The Führer’s obsession with blood and soil (Blut und Boden) might seem similar to Heidegger’s unyielding technophobia and Wanderwögel reveries, especially in the early days, and yet Hitler in power embraced new technology—from the Volkswagen and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 to the Tiger Tank and V2 rockets, not to mention industrial-scale “gas chambers and extermination camps”—as the saviour of the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft). Both Heidegger and Hitler maintained a contempt for what we might call the conscience of the individual or capitalist modernity: the people (latterly “the masses” according to Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism) were no longer the sovereign architects of their lives but virtual automatons or, to use a different term for the same idea, ghosts—or, to use yet another word, banal.
While Heidegger remained a technophobe, Hitler showed himself to be an assiduous technophile (and, of course, warmonger/genocidal psychopath) who finished up believing the German people’s salvation would come in the form of Wonder Weapons. Martin Heidegger would have correctly identified this as deviating quite dramatically from his own philosophy. Heidegger never expressed regret about the Holocaust but did reflect—after the war—that his engagement with the Nazis was “the greatest stupidity of his life”. This was the stupidity of the jilted lover. Our existentialist philosopher, who understood “caring” in unequivocally tribalist and un-Christian terms, did not leave the Nazis so much as the Nazis left him.
Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Essence of Truth inform not only Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis but are critical to an understanding—and refutation—of Ward Churchill’s “Little Eichmanns” proposition. We might now begin to disassemble one of the central assumptions underpinning the modern-day Left’s Americanophobia, which is that ordinary people are without a moral compass; self-awareness, along these lines, is precluded by their intrinsic banality. Correspondingly, Adolf Eichmann, who presented himself in Jerusalem as a mostly ordinary fellow (careerism apart), gave every indication at his trial of having never thought through the actuality of his “radical evil” (an expression from Origins of Totalitarianism). His banality, his self-deception, conceit and lack of empathy, could “wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts put together”.
Nevertheless, Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: Life of a Mass Murderer (2014) contradicts Arendt’s contention that SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann was a non-ideological bureaucrat-careerist who “never realised what he was doing”. First, in Jerusalem Eichmann assumed the role of the stereotypical dull bureaucrat, so he might use the “Nuremberg defence” to evade execution. Second, there was nothing unthinking or contingent about Eichmann’s Nazi ideology. Stangneth writes that he pondered the meaning of Nazi philosophy to such an extent in his Argentinian exile during the 1950s, that he could possibly qualify as Alfred Rosenberg’s successor in the post of official philosopher of the Third Reich—not such an achievement, admittedly, given the absence of competition for the job and the lack of a Third Reich.
Arendt defender Seyla Benhabib and critic Richard Wolin had an engrossing intellectual tussle in 2014. The subject was whether the banality-of-evil thesis—that is, Eichmann’s “inability to think”—owed more to eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant or Arendt’s mentor Martin Heidegger. Benhabib plumped for Kant, while Wolin suggested Heidegger. It was a debate of tremendous significance and with enormous intellectual ramifications, and yet it has mostly gone under the radar.
Enlightened thinking, according Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790), might be summarised as thinking for oneself, thinking consistently and thinking empathetically. The banality of Eichmann’s evil, insisted Benhabib (and Arendt), was in the way he used anti-Semitic clichés, immunised himself from the horror of the Holocaust with every kind of self-deception, and obsessed only about the importance of his career. He was as guilty as hell of crimes against humanity, but he simply could not think independently, honestly or sympathetically enough to truly comprehend this. Wolin, conversely, asserted that Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem confirms it was not Immanuel Kant who had Adolf Eichmann’s number but, rather, Eichmann who knew all about the universalism of Kant’s “enlightened thinking” and, understanding its implications, rejected it as antithetical to Aryan supremacism.
In short, the provenance of Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis was not Kant’s idea of non-thinking but Heidegger’s concept of thoughtlessness. Eichmann’s “inability to think” did not bring him undone: he was, as Eichmann Before Jerusalem illustrates, a prolific thinker. It was all his ruminating on Nazi ideology that detached him from the ethic reciprocity (or Golden Rule) he learned in his Calvinist childhood. The breathtaking influence of Heidegger becomes even harder to ignore if we consider that Ward Churchill’s Americanophobic racism is explained not only by an America-Nazi equivalency, but also his unintended employment of Heideggerian “thoughtlessness” via Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis.
There is a fissure growing in America and the West in general. Our affiliation with one side or the other facing off at the barricades is explained less by class struggle, as envisaged by Karl Marx, than by two rival worldviews. Our fundamental cognitive orientation, astonishingly, has much to do with Nazism or, at least, what we perceive Nazism to embody. Progressives are bent on awakening America and the West from our Eichmann-like “thoughtlessness”. In their narrative, we are, whether knowingly or not, the defenders and beneficiaries of a white, heteronormative patriarchy that has much in common with Nazism.
The idea that Nazism can be explained in politically-correct terms must come as a surprise to conventional Marxists. Terry Eagleton, for example, ascribed the rise and rise of Adolf Hitler to a capitalist conspiracy: the Nazis championing the class interests of an impoverished small business class and the ruined landed gentry but ultimately answering to the demands of big business. That is no longer the leftist mantra. Our new generation of radical thinkers talk of the “dangers of certainty”, as if politically-incorrect intolerance or narrow-mindedness explains the slaughter of six million Jews.
The false-equivalence narrative is now less about awkward comparisons between (say) death camps and mechanised farming, and more about depicting the Third Reich as a manifestation (albeit a heightened one) of Western civilisation’s inequities. Take, as one instance, the repurposing of the Nazis’ inverted pink triangles (die Rosa-Winkel) to symbolise the persecution of gays in America. The persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, which resulted in between 5000 and 15,000 people winding up in concentration camps and some 200 executed, was a horrific aspect of Adolf Hitler’s rule, but the oppression of non-heteronormative people in the United States and in Nazi Germany are demonstrably unalike. The false-narrative equivalency disseminated by LGBQT activists might advance Americanophobic (or, more accurately, Westernophobic and whiteophobic) polemic, but it does nothing to explain Nazi ideology or combat its recurrence in an altered guise.
The ideology of Nazi Germany was not white, heteronormative patriarchism. Close to the mark are the concepts of secular religion and religious politics as delineated by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda (2006). Richard Landes, going even further in Heaven on Earth (2011), argues persuasively that the Third Reich involved a bout of millennial psychosis, with its very name Tausendjähriges Reich literally meaning “Millennial Kingdom” in the German language: “And when the Nazi ideologues developed their notion of the Third Reich as a millennial kingdom, they knew precisely to what they referred.” Only “the rare few”, in the opinion of Landes, are prepared to designate Nazism as a “millennial religion”, more akin to Vladimir Lenin’s War Communism, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Salafi-Jihadism (Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, the Islamic State, and so on) than the white, heteronormative patriarchy that supposedly characterises America—or should we say AmeriKKKa?
The forty-nine people slaughtered in the 2016 Orlando terrorist attack, according to PC reasoning, were not the victims a dangerous ideologue, but of a heteronormative man afflicted with homophobia. Omar Mateen was, besides, a misogynist and his wife was a victim no less than those murdered and maimed at the nightclub. It is as if we are back in Jerusalem in 1961 with Hannah Arendt, vainly searching for an explanation of radical evil, and all we can come up with is some updated version of the banality of evil. The mass-murderer is unthinking, a clown, bigot, narcissist, self-deceiver, joiner, careerist, liar and so forth. But the true reason for the lethal malevolence of Omar Mateen or Adolf Eichmann is their submission to a radical ideology that abhors Western civilisation and everything good about it.
I note, as only one of numerous instances cited in Stangneth’s book, Adolf Eichmann amending himself on the subject of marriage: he had to think past his outmoded view to the Nazi position, which, of course, was always quick to purge Christian principles in the service of millennialist Aryanism. Even the most negative aspects of traditional European civilisation, not least the problematic treatment of its Jewish population, were transformed by Nazism into something far worse, “Christian anti-Semitism without Christianity” as Yehuda Bauer adroitly puts it.
Adolf Hitler’s supreme victory, according to Richard Landes, was to co-opt the whole nation—after he originally assumed power in what we might call a crypto-legal conspiracy—in the pursuit of his apocalyptic mission. As Richard Landes has written, “The Nazis articulated a vision in which the very existence of the rival chosen people, the Jews, meant the certain death of the German people.” It was through this paranoid imperative, “exterminate or be exterminated”, that Adolf Hitler was able to animate the dark fantasy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the imagination of his people. SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann knew the Protocols were a forgery but he bought into Nazi dogma at a more theoretical level.
We can say that Nazi ideology transformed Germans, as outlined by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man (1973), into “tortured ghosts” (the victims of the Nazis) and “obedient ghosts” (the Nazis and their accomplices). Ordinary Germans might not be to blame for the conception of the Holocaust, and yet if it was their collective fate to live in evil times, it was not their individual fates to rub along with the Nazis. We “still have judgment”, as Macbeth acknowledges, before committing the greatest crime of all. Neither time nor ideology changes that.
Our modern-day leftists are also ghosts of ideology, and yet this is not to traffic in reductio ad Hitlerum. PC orthodoxy is despotic enough but not in the same way as Nazism, even if it has obfuscated on the subject of Salafi-Jihadism and active Salafism, which are themselves not so far away from the psychosis of Nazism. What is fair and reasonable to conclude, however, is that the PC police are infused with a millennialist fervour that is increasingly emboldened to take a flame-thrower to Western civilisation in their quest to destroy the white, heteronormative patriarchy. The idea that the phoenix of a global people’s community—humanity redeemed—will emerge from the ashes of their destructive fury is a tragic delusion.
I offer that as a metaphor, of course, but Ward Churchill was pondering “the justice of roosting chickens” as people fell to their deaths escaping the World Trade Center’s blazing inferno. Maybe Frank Joyce said it better (or worse) with his article, “White Men Must Be Stopped: The Very Future of Mankind Depends on It”. Then again, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s infamous tweet, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide”, also has a certain modishness.
The Left power elite, from the mainstream media and Hollywood celebrities to Democratic politicians and the professoriate, are so ideologically attuned to their false-equivalence narrative that the length and breadth of the Twitter-zone was triggered recently when activist-journalists smeared pro-life Catholic high school students. These teenagers were wearing Make America Great Again hats, which is as yet not a crime. If any of them were a little smug, the truly irresponsible and outrageous characters in this whole scenario were, nevertheless, the “grown-ups”. It was the adult-activists on social media and in the mainstream media who falsely framed the teenage boys as the culprits in their public exchange with African-American Black Supremacists and Native American activists. Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, pronounced on social media: “Covington Catholic High School seems like a hate factory to me. Why not just close it?”
The Covington “scandal” demonstrates that Ward Churchill’s response to 9/11 was not so much an inexplicable anomaly but, in its own way, something of a portent. Mainstream America, astonishingly, is turning Americanophobic. Even Covington High School and the local Roman Catholic diocese were loath to defend their charges. Meanwhile, so-called conservative commentators, without knowing the facts, were keen to find fourteen-year-old Nick Sandmann and his friends guilty of a hate crime they never committed. What does it take to convince Never Trumpers that fake news really is fake? Perhaps it was actress-activist Alyssa Milano who, pithily if inadvertently, joined together all the dots of this essay with her missive to an outraged and self-righteous “resistance” movement in the midst of the Covington firestorm: “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood.”
Donald Trump is no more Adolf Hitler than George W. Bush was “BusHitler”, but there would be little point trying to debate that with the likes of Alyssa Milano or anyone else in the PC movement, since they are the ghosts of an ideology. Any argument contesting their correctist narrative would merely prove the point that we are the product of hate factories. It is ideology rather than banality that prevents them from thinking in the enlightened way Immanuel Kant advised. They have engaged in prolific amounts of thinking in order to unfasten themselves from the freedom of thought. They no longer think independently, consistently or empathetically. Correctists have, like Adolf Eichmann before them, reasoned themselves out of reasonability.
There is no evading their opprobrium by hiding behind the fig leaf of #nevertrump. Something will always give us away—the colour of our skin or our sex or, perhaps, our Christian faith or possibly a pro-life standpoint. We are the new Volksfiende (if that is not contravening Godwin’s Law) and yet, according to the topsy-turvy ideology of latter-day lefties, we are also the Nazis. All we need to know, if that seems a little too paradoxical, is that when the PC police see white, pro-life Catholic boys on fake news singing school chants outside the Lincoln Memorial, what they are hearing is:
The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to me.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann