The Irrational Fear Behind Nazi Name-calling
Three examples of Nazi name-calling in the past week illustrate something peculiar about those insults. In the first example, the swarming of the U.S. Capitol was compared to the burning of the Reichstag -- the complete destruction by arson of the German Parliament four weeks after Hitler’s election which was used as a pretext to abolish freedom of speech, detain opposition politicians, and consolidate Nazi legislative power. Second, Biden compared Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to Nazi minister of propaganda Goebbels -- the person in control of German media and responsible for organizing the burning of books. Third, Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the trespass of the Capitol to Kristallnacht -- a Nazi government-organized mass arrest of Jews and destruction of Jewish-owned property.
What is odd is that each of these comparisons is being applied to the wrong people. First, the destruction in the U.S. Capitol was minimal (although the trespass and breaking of windows was shocking, it did not destroy the Capitol). That trespass is being used as a pretext by big tech to silence Trump and followers, and by Congress to try to exclude the opposition (those legislators who objected to election certification). Second, Cruz and Hawley are in no way in control of U.S. media, which is slanted against them. Today, the only people banning books and closing down social media accounts are opponents of Cruz and Hawley. Third, the only mass arrest in the past days has been of those who trespassed in the Capitol.
The Trump presidency saw a striking rise in Nazi name-calling by his opposition, despite these comparisons being as misplaced as the three above. Why so little concern about how applicable the insult is? Nazi insults tap into popular knowledge; everyone knows what happened, at least so far as fiction conveys the facts, and that what happened was horrible. In contrast, if someone tried to insult you by calling you Pol Pot, you would be less likely to understand the insult, because there are far fewer books and movies and thus no popular familiarity with the Cambodian genocide.
Another reason for the popularity of Nazi name-calling is that it is a clear and easily understood moral barometer. Everyone knows which side was Good and which was Evil. The Nazis have become the archetype of evil. In Nazi name-calling, no one is really calling someone else a Nazi; it’s a dead movement with a leader dead for seventy-five years, its ideas archaic and Germanic. Instead, the insults are really meant to accuse someone of traits such as racism and totalitarianism. But these are not exclusive to Nazis. One sees them in Stalin’s and Mao’s mass murders and famines, in the Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides.
These insults are often misplaced and purely symbolic because what lies behind them is a very specific fear -- the fear that all human beings are innately capable of evil. After the Nazis were defeated, popular questions to ask were, would you have been a Nazi, or, more generally, are human beings innately violent? The Milgram study of students inflicting electric shocks on others made popular the idea that anyone could be a Nazi, despite this experiment being discredited for having excluded those students who refused to take part. It seemed to confirm the idea that anyone, anywhere in the world, would have done what many Germans did during that time. A strange idea, given that it was Germany-specific economic, historic, and cultural circumstances which led to the rise of the Nazi party. Nonetheless, many people today have a deep mistrust of their fellow human beings, partly due to the belief that Nazism could happen anywhere at any time. Without this fear of their fellow human beings, people would not fear the return of Nazism.
This fear is exaggerated and the result of a single-minded focus. It sees people as needing to be controlled and protected from themselves. The fear is exaggerated because we live in a time when people are less violent to each other than at other times in history. (See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined) It is exaggerated because the United States was established with explicit recognition of human imperfections and their capacity for wrongdoing. The Founders set up methods expressly directed at keeping these imperfections under control, not through government force, but by exploiting the imperfect, very argumentative human character as a natural control. The many checks and balances were a method to manage human imperfection, in the same way that the scientific method compensates for human fallibility. These institutions and ideas include the checks and balances of tripartite government and federalism, the check of a democratic vote on the rulers, the check that free speech provides in not allowing bad actions to hide from dissent, the tolerance of this dissent, even if one strongly disagrees with it, and the rule of law which restrains rulers from arbitrary use of the power they wield.
These and other institutions are the reality, not the political conditions in Germany ninety years ago. Adhering to these ideas and institutions and so maintaining the protections from misuse of power which have been so visibly effective in this country for over 250 years is what will preserve democracy, not name-calling used to justify the use of power to control something that is irrationally feared.