Over on Medium, Darren Hertenstein recently wrote a comparison of Donald Trump’s political rise and the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and early 1930s. In this comparison, he advises that while, “You shouldn’t call Donald Trump ‘Hitler’ — That doesn’t mean you should avoid discussing the correlations in their political movements”.
This tone is what has made 2016 the year in which Godwin’s Law has come undone.
A generation ago, when the Internet was just a baby, lawyer Mike Godwin crafted what he satirically labeled a “law” of online chat groups — declaring that the longer a discussion of politics continued, the closer the likelihood of someone comparing a political leader to Adolf Hitler would come to absolute certainty.
Literalists quickly seized upon Godwin’s Law, and began to bandy it about as if it were an actual law of nature. Ironically, these same people began to make up new versions of the so-called “law”. One new version declared that the first person to bring up Adolf Hitler in a political argument would automatically lose the argument.
So, before too long, Godwin’s Law morphed into a tool of censorship. It became a cultural taboo to compare present-day politicians to Adolf Hitler, or to the Nazis more generally.
As a result, political awareness of the dangers of the extreme nationalism exemplified by Nazi Germany began to fall out of American political culture. When it became rude to make Hitler comparisons, it also became rare to bring up the Holocaust at all, much less to discuss possible similarities between present-day politics and those of Weimar Germany, the flawed Republic that was the nest out of which Hitler rose.
The general refusal to talk about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust may have played some part in laying the groundwork for the crude presidential campaign of Donald Trump. A generation that hasn’t talked about Adolf Hitler can’t be aware of the warning signs of an extremist demagogue on the rise.
So it is that the brutal nationalism of Donald Trump’s campaign has made it necessary for Mike Godwin himself to come out against the application of Godwin’s Law as an absolute rule against making comparisons between today’s political leaders and Adolf Hitler. In his Washington Post op-ed, Sure, Call Trump a Nazi. Just Make Sure You Know What You’re Talking About Godwin explains that the point of Godwin’s Law was to note that some people slip too easily into Hitler comparisons or Nazi namecalling, and do so in a flippant way — as with Rush Limbaugh’s insults of “ecoNazi” and “femiNazi”.
Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. They’re two separate people, and there’s no such thing as a political carbon copy.
However, as Mark Twain pointed out, although history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme, and it’s worth considering whether Donald Trump rhymes with Adolf Hitler. We are capable of making a serious comparison between Trump and Hitler, based on historical context, rhetoric and policy. We can note the differences between the two figures, as well as the similarities that Hertenstein has brought to the table.
Responsible political discussion requires that we not leave recent political disasters — and it’s worth remembering that many Americans voting in the 2016 election were alive during World War II — off the table.