“Adolph Hitler — one of the worst mass murderers in all of history — has now become the go-to metaphor in comparison for anyone you have a minor disagreement with.” — The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 06/15/2005
There is a law describing debates on the internet that states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Known as Godwin’s Law, it is sadly an incredibly accurate statement. Anyone who has been on the internet more than five minutes knows that Hitler comparisons are tossed about like they are going out of style.
It is one thing when ignorant internet users use Hitler as a quick ad hominen in an online debate. It’s sad, certainly, but not entirely unexpected. It is quite another thing, however, when the Hitler references begin to creep into the national discourse.
Those who wonder how much worse our political rhetoric has become need only look to see how often politicians, and especially Barack Obama, are compared to the Nazi party or its leader. Such comparisons are not only limited to the Fuhrer, however, as analogies involving Stalin or other mass murderers are becoming more common as well.
Take, for example, the Peoria Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky who claimed that Obama “seems intent on following a similar path” as Hitler and Stalin for his ruling on birth-control. In a similar vein, he also likened Catholic politicians who did not adhere to Church policies to Judas Iscariot. Jenky’s comments have led to a complaint being filed with the IRS which alleges that Jenky violated federal law by intervening in a federal election.
When the Obama administration recently announced its new campaign slogan, “Forward,” a few right-wing commentators found in this seemingly-innocuous phrase links not only to Hitler but also to Mao and the Great Leap Forward.
The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank infamous for its climate-change denialism, evoked a similar tactic when it announced plans to erect a series of billboards with pictures of various mass murderers including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro, with captions saying that these criminals “still believe in global warming” and asking if the viewer does as well. The Institute ended up only putting up the billboard with Kaczynski for 24 hours before taking it down after intense public criticism.
The comparisons to Nazis and other mass murderers are not monopolized by the right. As the Daily Show explains, Hitler references first became prominent in the wider culture during the Iraq War, when George W. Bush’s actions were repeatedly compared to those of Hitler. In January 2011, Democratic Senator Steve Cohen invoked the Nazi “big lie” strategy when discussing Republican opposition to healthcare reform: ”They say it’s a government takeover of health care. A big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough and you repeat the lie, repeat the lie, repeat the lie until eventually people believe it. Like blood libel, that’s the same kind of thing.” Stephen Colbert, in his typical satiric manner, noted that at least Cohen didn’t compare Republicans to Hitler himself.
Most offensively ridiculous, however, are the statements made by John Raese, who is running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in West Virginia. Besides referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “Fidel Roosevelt,” Raese claimed that the government requiring smoke-free signs on buildings is the “same thing” as Jews being forced to wear Stars of David in Nazi Germany.
It’s disconcerting that our national discourse has sunk so low that such analogies have become common. Not that the political discourse has even been particularly nice, but that flippantly comparing one’s opponents to the most evil men in history has become so mundane is just sad. It’d be nice if a little class was returned to Washington.