By Doctor Comrade
Reductio ad Hitlerum is a logical fallacy like ad hominem attacks, where a person's character or surface-level beliefs are impugned for resembling Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's. Unfortunately, many critiques of Donald Trump have used this sort of attack, comparing the GOP candidate to Hitler in the 1930s.
Let's get it straight: Trump is not Hitler. That seems painfully obvious. But these kinds of spurious attacks on Trump undermine the actual anti-fascist critiques of Trump and his supporters. We don't need to invoke the image of Adolf Hitler to attack Trump, and doing so only makes protesters look uninformed and stupid.
I wrote an article in January in which I analyzed the fascist rhetoric and tendencies of Trump supporters: "why are Trump’s followers so scary? It’s because they have fallen victim to the fascist impulse: the appealing idea of 'making America great again,' as in taking back power from the Democrats, the immigrants, the blacks, the women, the UN, and the Chinese." Then I compared our election to the political climate of Weimar Germany. However, any Trump-Hitler comparison was strictly historical and philosophical, not personal. But therein lies the most significant problem: Trump's rhetoric is clearly fascist in nature, but it takes a nuanced and subtle critique of Trump to demonstrate the important differences between Trump in 2016 and Hitler in 1933.
Trump represents a very particular manifestation of fascism made for 21st-century America, and so it contrasts significantly with 1930s Germany. For one, Nazism advocated a right-wing revolution that was fundamentally anti-capitalist and nationalist in a racial sense. On the other hand, Trump advocates a right-wing revolution that is fundamentally hyper-capitalist and nationalist in a nation-state sense. These two critical distinctions highlight why fascism, according to philosopher Umberto Eco, suffers from the "philosophical weakness of its ideology." Fascism is a loosely defined conglomeration of many contradictory beliefs that, in essence, results from a nationalist backlash against a perceived outside enemy. However, many countries that were fascist tended to resemble each other only in passing, in their totalitarianism or racial regime or economic philosophies, and never in totality. Even the quintessential fascist countries, Italy and Germany, were dissimilar enough to cause historians and sociologists trouble when categorizing fascism, hence Eco's attempt to provide a clear and robust definition.
The only way that Trump specifically resembles Hitler is in rhetoric. For example, replace "Mexican" or "immigrant" or "Chinese" with "Jew" and suddenly Trump's speeches begin to sound like Nazi propaganda. For another example, from the beginning of his campaign, he has declared the US "doesn't win anymore," that the US is militarily and economically weak, and that there are numerous international conspiracies against the US. Replace "Chinese" or "international" with "French" and again, Trump starts to sound like a Nazi speech.
That is where the comparisons should end. Trump is ultra-rich and hyper-capitalist, but Hitler was middle-class and anti-capitalist. Trump inherited his fortune from his rich father and has spent his career in real estate and other money-making endeavors. Hitler was an art student, then a soldier, then a party organizer, and then a government official. Trump sells steaks, Hitler was a vegetarian. You get it: Trump is clearly more evil.
With regards to nationalism, we have to recall that Hitler openly advocated a racial definition of citizenship based on who belonged to the Germanic peoples. Trump, on the other hand, has advocated a definition of citizenship which is racist in its effects but is based on the sanctity of the nation-state more than racial markers. Trump is clearly racist against Latinos and Asians and Blacks. His immigration policies target people of color for deportation. But more importantly, he sees "illegal immigration" as the true threat to the US because it is against the law. He argues, they are not Americans, therefore they do not belong in America. Of course this is racially framed and highly offensive. But Hitler's genocide of Jews was partially against Jews who were German citizens. Trump is also attempting to purify the US by deporting people who are not citizens in the legal sense. Trump wants "good" immigrants, those who are educated and talented and bring skills with them, and who will apply for visas and citizenship legally. He sees the possibility of improving the US with immigrants because it will bolster American economic and scientific competitiveness. Hitler imprisoned Jewish business owners and gave their goods to Aryans; he caused Jewish scientists to flee or lose their professorships. It's an extremely fine line, but it demonstrates an important difference between 1930s Germany and 2016 America: it's the difference between a racially-pure nation-state and a racially-apathetic nation-state.
Trump's messaging, ethos, and rhetoric are clearly fascist in nature. His policy proposals are racist and based on fabricated threats to America's sovereignty and security. But equating Trump with Hitler is a way to undermine how fascist Trump really is. Invoking Hitler and the symbolism of the Nazi Party is an intellectually lazy and dishonest comparison. Many people already fear Trump, and many people are on the fence as to whether they will vote for him or not. Using pictures of Hitler will only alienate people who don't want to be associated with so-called extremists who oppose Trump.
This is a situation that calls for caution. We have an opportunity to oppose Trump and fascism in the US. We must carefully calculate our strategies for maximum effectiveness. Mass demonstrations, like those in Chicago, have been successful because thousands of pro-democracy, anti-racist, and anti-fascist forces have worked in conjunction to shut him down. We should build a broad base of support that is built on a deep understanding of how dangerous Trump is.