PC Culture

History as Nothing Much at All

Sign at an anti-Trump demonstration in New York City, May 23, 2018. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
If everything is like the Nazis, then the Nazis of history are no different from an ICE officer, a White House staffer, or . . . you and me.  

If you vote for Trump then you, the voter, you, not Donald Trump,
are standing at the border like Nazis, going: “You here, you here.”
— Donny Deutsche, MSNBC commentator

Former CIA director Michael Hayden recently tweeted a picture of a Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with his commentary: “Other governments have separated mothers from children.” The suggestion was that industrialized death on an unprecedented scale was somehow similar to the temporary detention of children once their parents have been detained for violating federal law.

Actor Peter Fonda recently advised the following about Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller: “Don’t let the pedophile Stephen Goebbels Miller near those girls separated from their parents.” Comedian Kathy Griffin has asserted that the Trump administration is “quite pro-Nazi.”

Fonda perhaps lacks the subtlety of a Bill Kristol, who implies rather than sledgehammers the Nazi comparisons. When Michael Anton, a writer whose articles often appeared in The Weekly Standard, went to work for the Trump administration, Kristol reduced Anton to the status of an infamous Nazi lawyer: “Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.”

Sounds slick, but Anton was working for an elected government in general and in particular for a National Security Council under Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster that was trying to reestablish U.S. deterrence. Stranger still, it is hard to understand how Carl Schmitt’s Nazi-party membership and advocacy (begun formally as early as 1933) were in any sense “tragic” rather than vile. And if the subordinate is supposedly Carl Schmitt, what then would Kristol call his boss, the iconic McMaster? Goebbels? Heydrich?

If Trump is worried that thousands of foreign citizens are illegally entering the U.S. without much worry over legal consequences, and if he clumsily uses the unfortunate word “infests” in the context of the MS-13 gang (“infest our Country, like MS-13”), then for Kristol, Trump becomes analogous to Nazi exterminators: “Trump’s statement that immigrants will ‘infest our country’ probably sounds better in the original German.”

Former CIA director Hayden should have remembered that the very Nazi slur he just used to smear Trump was often used against him, over the enhanced interrogations he oversaw as CIA director.

Perhaps Kristol forgets that his own past promotions of “national greatness” and his turn-of-the-century “Project for a New American Century” were once smeared by the Left, and some on Right, as proof that he was a crude and dangerous nationalist who was emulating Trotskyite doctrines, at best, and, worse, that he was a warmongering fascist.

Hayden too should have remembered that the very Nazi slur he just used to smear Trump was often used against him, over the enhanced interrogations he oversaw as CIA director.

Ditto the case of former first lady Laura Bush, who recently compared the temporary detention of children — after their parents had been apprehended for breaking U.S. immigration law — to the forced internment of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Mrs. Bush has apparently forgotten that the warped comparison to the Japanese interment was used as a slur against her husband during the Abu Ghraib mess and also after the announcement of the administration’s forced renditions of terrorist suspects to foreign countries. In her hierarchy of crimes, is temporarily housing children separately from their law-breaking parents a greater crime than enhanced interrogations, the “collateral damage” that accrues from drone strikes, or the use of the interrogation methods in foreign countries on suspects sent there by the U.S. government?

Unfortunately, these efforts to tar conservatives as Nazis, brown shirts, and fascists are not novel. Such slurs predate both Donald Trump and his policy of detaining minors accompanying their foreign-national parents who are illegally entering the United States.

Harry Truman claimed that his Republican opponent in the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey, was a “front man” for fascists. In 1964, California governor Pat Brown suggested that the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had “the stench of fascism.” Brown added, “All we need to hear was ‘Heil Hitler.’” After 1980, leftists used the Nazi slur frequently against Ronald Reagan.

“Nazi!” was also a familiar favorite of the Left during the George W. Bush administration, widely employed across the progressive spectrum. Folk singer Linda Ronstadt, dramatist Harold Pinter, cartoonist Ted Rall, and financier George Soros all tied George W. Bush either to Nazism in general or to Adolf Hitler in particular.

Mainstream Democratic politicians — including former vice president Al Gore and the late senators Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) and John Glenn (D., Ohio) — took delight in slurring George W. Bush or his supporters as Nazis or brown shirts.

The target of the Nazi smear, to avoid even the appearance of affinity with an odious monster and his regime, supposedly will offer psychological penance or policy concessions in hopes that his critics will curb their hysteria. If George W. Bush is Hitler, or Stephen Miller is Joseph Goebbels, or a German-accented Trump is sending Mexican nationals to Auschwitz-like death camps, then what is the patriotic thing for an American to do about them? One answer might be to take out Trump-Hitler, or take up arms to stop his Nazi takeover of the U.S., or force the target of such slurs to submit to reeducation to cleanse and reset his mind in a properly correct fashion.

Perhaps such logic is one reason we simultaneously see both the rise of Nazi slurs and the hyperbolic talk of killing a conservative president. Assassination chic also did not begin with Donald Trump, although David Crosby, Johnny Depp, Kamala Harris, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Snoop Dogg, Kathy Griffin, and the Free Shakespeare in the Park troupe have by now exhausted the methods by which to rhetorically liquidate Trump (incineration, shooting by pistol, death by elevator, explosives, jumping off a cliff, shooting by automatic weapon, beheading, and stabbing by a mob).

Yet we forget that in 2012, in an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, a model of the chopped-off head of George W. Bush turned up on a pike (“by accident”). During the acrimonious 2004 election, author Nicholson Baker published Checkpoint — little more than a monotonous dialogue of characters dreaming about how to assassinate the supposedly odious President Bush.

That same year, Guardian guest columnist Charlie Brooker — antedating Johnny Depp’s nasty John Wilkes Booth quip (“when was the last time an actor assassinated a president?”) — seemed saddened that there was no assassin around to kill Bush: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?” The Death of a President was a sick docudrama by director Gabriel Range, enacting, step-by-step, an imagined assassination of then-president George W. Bush.

But beside using such historical slurs for the partisan purposes of pressuring a political opponent to modify his agenda, or to create the sort of hysteria that leads to a climate of violent resistance and even death threats, the Nazi trope is a sin against history.

Were Hitler’s death camps and nightmarish slaughters merely temporary parent-child separations at the border?

If Nazism was once the equivalent of authorizing military action against the genocidal Saddam Hussein, on the consent of 23 separate congressional writs, or the same as temporarily separating foreign nationals who entered the U.S. illegally from the children they brought into the country, then what exactly are the 60 million dead of World War II, which Hitler started, or the 6 million who were gassed, starved, or shot in the Nazi extermination archipelago, or the 27 million Russian dead on the Eastern Front?

Answer? Their fates are all more or less analogous to those of the well-fed, clothed children temporarily separated from the parents who undertook a dangerous trip to bring them into the U.S. in violation of U.S. law and who may have used fraud to seek political asylum. What then were Treblinka, the siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, and the Warsaw Ghetto all about? Were Hitler’s death camps and nightmarish slaughters merely temporary parent-child separations at the border?

In the case of the once-Nazified George Bush, were the excesses at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib about the same as the murdering and starvation at Dachau? Are the halal diet, soccer balls, and multiple recreation facilities (including a $750K soccer field) at Guantanamo similar to the menus and exercise regimes at Treblinka?

If a Jewish Stephen Miller is really a Jew-hating Joseph Goebbels, who propagandized and empowered the Nazi cult of mass death and destruction, what, then, should we do to him? (Progressives are already answering that inquiry by hounding Miller 24/ 7.) And, in turn, was Goebbels then merely a partisan spokesman for an elected president subject to congressional and judicial oversight?

So the sick Nazi comparison works both ways: It elevates political opponents into homicidal criminals who deserve extreme punishment, while reducing real historical monsters into little more than petty partisan zealots.

We all understand that comparing a transparent, legal, relatively safe, clean, and well-stocked temporary detention center to Auschwitz is meant to put a stop to the detention of illegal-alien families. (And the hyperbole inadvertently sends the message that if single males are to find asylum in the U.S., then by all means they should cross the border illegally while accompanied by young children).

But do we also grasp that we have just made Auschwitz’s 1 million dead little more than temporary detainees? And by extension, is the treatment meted out to the more than 2 million American prisoners in federal, state, and local prisons and jails (many likely to have been cut off from their children) analogous to the mass slaughtering of innocents at the Mauthusen-Gusen concentration camp?

Most of the slanderers combine the worse of two modernist traits: ignorance and arrogance. Because they are so ill-informed about the wages of World War II and the nature of Nazi beastliness, and so haughty and self-righteous in advancing such exaggerations and fabrications (and to a generation whose knowledge of the past is often nonexistent), they are ever so insidiously redefining not only Bush and Trump but also the Holocaust and the Nazis themselves.

History is now following a sort of Gresham’s law: Lots of cheap, bad history drives out what is left of good history.

In other words, when almost everything and everyone is analogous to Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka and their architects, then Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka become almost nothing at all.

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