Frustration, fear, anger, bewilderment. These are all perfectly legitimate reactions felt throughout the world by those whose lives have been upended, who’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and who have lost hope.
In the US, pandemic debates are raging across all 50 states as governors and mayors struggle to balance the need to reopen their states and cities while safeguarding public safety. Unfortunately, in the midst of these crucial debates, America is being deluged with examples of what the philosopher Leo Strauss, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, called “reductio ad Hitlerum.”
The latest example comes from Illinois where protesters want to reopen their state without delay, no matter the extended health risks from the coronavirus. There, Governor JB Pritzker, who is Jewish, was equated with Hitler in the capital Springfield by protesters carrying equal-sized pictures of Hitler and Pritzker as well as speakers making the Hitler-Prizker comparisons as they stood in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
One protester was asked, “Is it okay to have an anti-Semitic sign like this” equating the Nazi dictator who murdered millions with the democratically-elected governor of Illinois trying to protect its citizens? (Whether or not Pritzker is pursuing wise policies is a different question.) Doug Walter replied: “You bet it is. . . .He is Hitler. They are one in the same. They are one in the same.”
In Michigan, a protester held an American flag in one hand and in the other a poster, first line reading “Heil” with a swastika, second line reading “Whitmer” for Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer. Other protesters with a similar message besieged Michigan’s capital of Lansing carrying rifles.
In Alaska, Republican representative Ben Carpenter joked about a new health screening stickers: Are the stickers available as a yellow Star of David?” The backlash was swift: “Ben, this is disgusting,” one Jewish representative wrote back in emails first posted by the Alaska Landmine. “I don’t think a tag that we’re cleared to enter the building is akin to being shipped to a concentration camp,” responded another. The leader of the state House’s Republican delegation said Carpenter should apologize.
But Carpenter doubled down: “Can you or I—can we even say it is totally out of the realm of possibility that COVID-19 patients will be rounded up and taken somewhere? . . People want to say Hitler was a white supremacist. No. He was fearful of the Jewish nation, and that drove him into some unfathomable atrocities.”
Protests have now extended from Pennsylvania to California. Most, though not all such protesters tend to be conservative supporters of President Trump. Not too long ago, other mostly left-of-center protesters against the Iraq War threw around accusations that “Dubya equals Hitler.”
In our time, there are those who fully understand what Hitler stood for. Hitler’s vision of a world free of Jews continues to inspire the terrorist-sponsoring Iranian regime, even as it denigrates the victims of Nazism by denying there ever was a Holocaust.
Since World War II, on both sides of the Atlantic, Neo-Nazis and their like have toiled to keep Hitler’s vision—culminating in The Final Solution—alive. Seventy-five years later, collective memory is dimming in Europe, anti-Semitism is surging, Nazi-era crimes are being whitewashed by some xenophobic governments. Against this backdrop, now bolstered by COVID-19 fears, extremists are taking full advantage of the viral capabilities of social media to recast Hitler and Nazism in a positive light and to promote vile anti-Semitic conspiracies online.
To be sure, contemporary comparisons with Hitler and Hitler’s Germany are appropriate when analyzing Neo-Nazi or other authoritarian movements that seek to embrace Nazism. But not so when distorted comparisons poison debate over what policies the US should pursue to contain or defeat the coronavirus.
Adults who, knowingly or not, distort history by equating politicians or policies that they dislike with the Nazis are guilty of a dangerous fallacy poisoning our politics. Comparisons during the 2016 presidential campaign and since of Donald Trump with Hitler are wrong. At the same time, we need all Republicans, not only Democrats from Illinois, Michigan, Alaska, to denounce—in real time– the appearance of Swastika-toting protesters.
What during the 1960s historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” has never been the monopoly of right or left or one major party or the other. It is still with us today in this age of COVID-19. There is no vaccine that can cure it. The only protections are the American people’s basic decency and good sense and leaders from the right and left with the courage to denounce such tactics from within their own ranks.
The above was co-authored by historian Dr. Harold Brackman, who is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.