A few days ago, a friend of mine mentioned the difficulty of writing about Donald Trump’s campaign, how he felt himself inevitably drawn to Hitler comparisons and thus running afoul of Godwin’s Law.
The thing about Godwin’s Law, though, is that it is descriptive: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The un-nuanced application of this law is a proscriptive one–that comparisons to Hitler, the Nazis, and fascism in general shouldn’t be made, and if one makes them, one’s overall argument is immediately suspect.
Avoiding Hitler comparisons is probably good advice, as Hitler was extraordinarily and uniquely bad. He started a world war, killed millions of people, and gave an aggressive global voice to a particularly violent, racist ideology. If you are talking about town zoning ordinances or someone’s musical preferences, Hitler comparisons are maybe not the best rhetorical tactic.
What Godwin’s Law does not do, though, is automatically disqualify arguments involving references to Hitler and the Nazis as fallacious. In the case of Donald Trump, one feels the pull toward these comparisons because Trump is a demagogue who is stoking and exploiting for political gain the nativist resentment of a segment of the population who are scared of their loss of cultural power within our changing society. Further, the solutions he proposes are simple-minded and totalitarian. These tactics are, in fact, the same that Hitler and the Nazis used in their rise to power in Germany.
Here is Evan Osnos, in a New Yorker article about Trump’s appeal to the xenophobic right wing:
When Trump leaped to the head of the Republican field, he delivered the appearance of legitimacy to a moral vision once confined to the fevered fringe, elevating fantasies from the message boards and campgrounds to the center stage of American life. In doing so, he pulled America into a current that is coursing through other Western democracies—Britain, France, Spain, Greece, Scandinavia—where xenophobic, nationalist parties have emerged since the 2008 economic crisis to besiege middle-ground politicians. In country after country, voters beset by inequality and scarcity have reached past the sober promises of the center-left and the center-right to the spectre of a transcendent solution, no matter how cruel. “The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, told me. “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”
Trump has succeeded in unleashing an old gene in American politics—the crude tribalism that Richard Hofstadter named “the paranoid style”—and, over the summer, it replicated like a runaway mutation. Whenever Americans have confronted the reshuffling of status and influence—the Great Migration, the end of Jim Crow, the end of a white majority—we succumb to the anti-democratic politics of absolutism, of a “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” in which, Hofstadter wrote, “the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.” Trump was born to the part. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” he wrote, in “The Art of the Deal.” “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us.
I have no idea to what degree Trump himself actually believes this stuff, but that does not really matter, just like it didn’t matter when he was going on his birtherism binge during the run-up to the 2012 election. He is a performer, and he has figured out how to leverage the grievances of ignorant white people aggrieved about the perceived loss of their privileged status in our society.