Hitler Envy

Comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis are pervasive in our media environment. What is this reductio ad hitlerum doing for us?

Hitler Envy
The generation immediately following had spent most of its time making incredibly bigoted jokes in order to laugh at the idiots who were stupid enough to think they meant it. Except after a whole they did mean it, and then somehow at the end of it they were Nazis. Was this always how it happened? - Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking about This
Whatever fascism is, we are not and we are against it. - Klaus Mann

In this age of tribalizing institutions, siloed discourses, and Elon Musk, let us take comfort in the fact that there is one issue we can all agree to continue debating like adults: I mean whether Donald Trump is (like) Hitler. Or maybe just (like) a Nazi. Or perhaps more generally (like) a fascist. Or (to give the issue more nuance) a semi-fascist. Or maybe sort of more (like) Joseph Goebbels. Or at any rate (like) an antisemite.

This reductio ad hitlerum is nothing new. Many American presidents and prominent politicians have been subject to it. I came of political age with protestors chanting “Bushitler” in the streets with posters of George W. Bush drawn with a little ’stache. It is likewise the case that, while there are plenty of Biden-Hitler comparisons on the Right, there are good reasons for it to be a stock slur from the Left—not least because sectors of the alt-Right openly avow white supremacy.

One might have thought that we have pushed the H-button so often that it no longer plays. Yet it does, all the same. Trump himself, like Biden and Hillary Clinton, agrees that this is a matter worthy of our serious attention. Considering the monotony with which this happens, considering how predictably Kanye (or anyone) can get on the front page by saying that Hitler brought some good stuff to the table, it is striking to see the regularity with which this continues to thrill us into polemic. The question of whether X is Hitler arrests our attention in each instance as if for the first time—as if it is not just a nerve, but the nerve of our moral panic itself that is thereby activated. “Hitler” and “Nazi” are deployed with a surplus sense that outstrips their historical reference. They are keywords to the larger system that makes up our digital meanings.

Let it be said that I am not confused about why Hitler counts as the epitome of evil or why we hold the Holocaust to be an unspeakably bad stain on European and human civilization. This was an evil that, as Zygmunt Bauman argued, revealed a possibility everywhere inherent in our apparent progress: that we might turn our technological capacities just as well to the task of processing human beings out of existence, that nothing in our Whiggish notion of “progress” guards us from this outcome, and that we are only ever a step or two from repeating such an event.

What remains remarkable, however, is that our moral compass should be so meager as to contain precisely this one point. I have over the years asked classes of undergraduates to identify people whom they would be willing to denounce as evil without qualification. Common candidates include Pol Pot, Stalin, Genghis Khan, antebellum slave owners, Osama Bin Laden, and school shooters—all of which prove controversial. The only two answers that will be reliably and unanimously agreed upon by the whole class are serial killers (like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy) and the head Nazis. And the notable difference between serial killers and Nazis is that the former are always lone one-offs, while only the latter are exemplars of political violence. Organized evil and “Nazis” remain mutually defining.

Any discourse about good and evil requires a bestiary of heroes and villains from which to draw, a common standard of what counts as praiseworthy or blameworthy. That “Hitler” and the “Nazis” are evil itself functions for us as an axiom of moral thought at a time in which there are no other common references for it. We are not sure just who counts as Hitler, but we at least widely agree that it would be quite bad to count as such. The spectacle of Russia justifying its invasion of Ukraine as a campaign of “denazification”—even as Ukrainians are nearly unanimous in viewing Vladimir Putin as the new Hitler—only confirms the importance of the term as uniquely identified with evil, or perhaps as a sort of empty referent for where there used to be such a category. (History is this farce whereby a nation once minced up by two noxious antisemites—Hitler and Stalin—and now led by a Jewish president can come to be invaded precisely on the grounds of being Nazi.) Underlying the historical Hitler, there is a mythic one that embodies evil itself for us—such that “Holocaust denial” is something much more threatening to us than would be “Crusades denial” or “transatlantic slave-trade denial.” To deny the Holocaust is to deny that there is such a thing as good and evil at all—to place oneself beyond them.

Part of our attendant moral panic at whether someone is (like) Hitler derives from our disorientation about the meaning of our time, as well as from a fear that we might be about to devolve into Nazi-level evils but might not fully realize it until it is too late. We have all heard about the fact that most Germans did not or preferred not to know what was going on at the time. We have all heard about the frog that did not realize it was boiling. What is the line? Where are we headed? What will history say?

Yet we have no way of adding up the data into coherent narrative—hence our worries about slippery slopes, about “normalizing” things that just might lead to ultimate others, about whether we are acting in such a way as will be damned by history in retrospect. Some of my vegetarian friends worry that we will one day come to see that killing animals for their meat was like the Holocaust. (This comparison is a whole thing.) Giorgio Agamben’s writings on the pandemic are based on the comparison between the Third Reich’s state of exception and state responses to Covid-19. Just about every soupçon of government trespass is treated as a step toward the worst thing we can possibly figure.

What if history should afford us no such conclusion, though? What’s peculiar about all these comparisons to the Nazis is that they stake a claim from a meta-vantage beyond the present. Since we cannot rationally decide whether this new thing is bad, we try to appropriate some notional future point to vindicate it for us. We thereby betray our longing for a situation in which good and evil were unambiguous—a moral certainty in the face of which we could abdicate the burden of judgment, since what is “Nazi” is (by definition) evil beyond the shadow of a doubt.

We also thereby mask an even more frightening truth: that there is scarcely anything that could count as “history” in the traditional sense anymore—some widely agreed-upon account of what the past meant and of how we should respond to it. It is because we don’t know where we now stand that we have invented this limit case of idealized historical narrative in order to judge it retrospectively—or to feel as if we could, if only we could still agree on who “we” are.

But if we might already be Nazis from one angle, from another we postulate a version of them such as could never be, as if they concertedly, intelligently, and sadistically set out to do murderous evil for its own sake. This is akin to reading the Nazis as orcs or zombies or stormtroopers transposed into period costume: a myth that relies on the moral simplifications of childhood. For one, it presents us with people so plainly bad that there is no risk that they will become our problem ever again. So it is that Nazis remain uncontroversial choices for bad guys to indiscriminately liquidate in video games, or that films about “the good war” have long been just about the closest we could come to envisioning the struggle between good and evil as actually historical. But it is also to imagine their leader as a sort of Final Boss—a heroically lone figure to which we could attribute ultimate guilt.

This latent incentive to overread culpability and responsibility is a form of what Mark Fisher (following Judith Butler) called “responsibilization” or (following David Smail) “magical voluntarism.” We find it preferable to exaggerate the power to do good or evil of particular agents because this allows us to overlook the fact that we have built a world in which individual responsibility is tenuous, diluted, uncertain, or meaningless—a world careening toward the brink because there is no one at the wheel. The individual evildoer is a comfort to us because he can be isolated, attacked, and exorcised like any monster. The thought of a world in which no one in particular is to blame for anything is far more unbearable to regard. The banal social media habits that promote the presence of Trump on the national stage—the bored and idle scrolling that keeps things interesting for us from hour to hour—is worlds away from the ascetic, aggressive, programmatic versions of last century’s fascism (themselves nostalgic movements). It is in this sense that we long for “Hitler” to be real. We are haunted by nostalgia for the outright power to act and effect that no one now has. “Hitler” thus shows us the shape of our moral commitments—or the reverberation of the empty spaces they once occupied.

But there is another sense in which the uses of Hitler are the envy of our age and increasingly so: our desire to summon the absolute worst in order to compel some external shape to our post-ideological shapelessness; that is, to learn what we are for by first reacting to what we are definitely against, to feel at stake in the flame wars, owning the libs, melting the snowflakes, doing it for the meme, and all ways in which outrageous shitstorms pay per view. Trump is, in contrast with Hitler, but a mental flatulent with a knack for turning his lack of self-control into a political position. He is no more Hitler than these cats are. But wouldn’t it be very exciting and kinda funny, if he actually were? Keep refreshing the page; we are creating it into being.

Consider the predictability—approaching necessity—with which Hitler and the Nazis are invoked in online discussion of Trump. Not simply because Trump may or may not be actually (like) the Führer. But because this is the whole point of Trump—to force the question of his likeness to The Worst. We scroll through the comments section basically already knowing what they will say: all positions are mapped out and exhausted in advance. But here we go again, watching our own thoughts unfold before us—a ritual observance, a fatal bias to a compulsive process out of mind. You know that this is a bit over the top, you realize that you are enacting Godwin’s Law, but you find yourself going there all the same: a vertigo of senselessness into which we cannot but plummet headlong—as if within the abyss of online chat, the only way to try to make sense to each other is by blowing the whole discussion up, or the only way to speak is to call up the unspeakable.

Just as Trump has often been compared to a sort of bot—someone with algorithmic sensitivity for triggering impact and reaction—so our own responses to him tend to mimic the lowest level of automatism. He viralizes discourse, pushes our buttons, and possesses us to host it as our own, such that the question of whether to cover him is itself a main part of the coverage. (Ron DeSantis claims that he is Trump without the drama; that is, chocolate cake without the chocolate.) What digital and totalitarian discourses have in common is that they aim not at all to persuade or win over, but to oblige others to repeat the same words again and again, to secure their terms as irresistible. This “system” is none other than our passing interest, none other than our scrolling through the comments section, consuming what consumes us.

Digital polarization is not simply the process whereby views tend toward extremes, but that which sorts us against our better judgment to commit to a stance of binary opposition. In other words, the process by which politics is hollowed out into opinionating and by which it converges with consumption and entertainment. “Hitler” is the extreme wrong we congratulate ourselves for not being—the absolute “dislike” or “thumbs down,” the touchstone zero in reference to which we put ourselves at square one. But he is also the black hole around and toward which online speech inexorably trends, the nihilism latent at the dead center of digital discourse. We need him there, just as media of all stripes are coaxing Trump to stay in view, to run again, to keep at the eye of attention, to entail the Worst for us—in order to feel that something is still going on, that we could still collectively respond within the terms of good and evil.  

Antón Barba-Kay is Robert B. Aird Professor of Humanities at Deep Springs College. He is the author of A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation, just out with Cambridge University Press.