Godwin’s Law is the observation — formulated by Mike Godwin, a participant in Internet discussion boards in the 1990s — that the longer an on-line conversation goes, the closer the probability gets to one that a comparison will be made between Nazism and one of the arguments being made.
This has the qualities of both a scientific and a moral law in that it is a description of reality, but also serves as a corrective to people who engage in spirited debate.
The law is a specific case of the general fallacy of faulty analogy. Analogies are useful for explaining difficult concepts in that we can say that the challenging relationship here is the same as the easily understood relationship over there. But the prerequisite is that the two relationships are the same, both in appearance and in essential character. Were the Cuban Missile Crisis or Saddam Hussein’s aggressions identical to those committed by Hitler in the lead-up to World War Two? Such a conclusion is tempting to assert if we enjoy hyperbole or are itching for a fight, while being harder to prove.
And yet, when the parallels do exist, it’s as much an error in thinking to refuse to see them on the grounds that we do not wish someone to invoke Godwin’s Law against us.
This brings me to Donald Trump. The opposition to his candidacy and presidency have been warning about what we see as fascist tendencies in what he’s said and done since the start, but we’re accused of being merely partisan. Is there evidence to support our conclusion?
I’ve recently completed working my way through William L. Shirer’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a detailed account of Hitler’s life and the movement that he led on a wild career to conquer most of Europe and then lose it all. And step by step, as if checking off boxes in a list, Trump’s political adventure looks like a bad apprentice’s effort to copy the master.
Both campaigned on a promise of making their nations great again. Both exploited racial tensions to enrage their bases of support. Both made wild demands in any negotiation, whether domestically or with other countries. Both were reckless, either in starting wars without a considered plan for victory in the case of Hitler — so far — or going many times into bankruptcy, in Trump’s history.
What are the differences? It’s increasingly clear that Trump is a racist, given his refusal to rent to blacks decades ago, his attacks on the Central Park Five, even after they had been proved innocent, and his accusations against Mexicans and Muslims starting on the day he announced his candidacy. His comment that we’d prefer to have immigrants from Norway instead of various “shithole” countries fits into the pattern of his life. And he’s willing to pander to other racists in the furtherance of his agenda.
But he lacks the coherent ideology that Hitler developed in his early adulthood. Trump blows with the wind, changing his mind almost in the space of 140 characters. While he generally goes where the Republicans in Congress drag him, his internal indifference to policy means that he can’t lead — mercifully so. He is also not nearly as intelligent as Hitler was, at least until the latter became increasingly paranoid as the pressures of war mounted. Trump showed signs of dementia even before he took office. Unlike Hitler, he has nuclear weapons at his disposal, making the worst of the potential consequences far worse, but also offering the small bit of hope that he won’t be able to push us in any consistent direction, mitigating the damage that he can do.
Donald Trump at the Iowa Republican Party's 2015 Lincoln Dinner. (Flickr / Gage Skidmore)
Admittedly, I’m whistling past the graveyard here, trying to find reasons to be hopeful. I’d like to believe that our much longer history of democratic institutions that we have and Germany did not will protect us, but that’s a mixed bag at present. Congress has been feckless throughout this century, allowing president after president to compromise our rights. But the Constitution is still the law of the land, including the Bill of Rights, as much as Trump would like to undermine the First and Fourth Amendments. Republicans forced Nixon to leave office after they couldn’t do otherwise, and they might eventually come to realize the danger that Trump poses.
What can ordinary people do? We can resist. We can speak out. Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach gave an example of this, responding to Trump’s threat to come after people who wouldn’t go along with his demands by saying, “Why don’t you come after me you fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!” We’re at the point in this country in which such things are still protected speech, no matter how much Trump wishes otherwise. If we speak out continually, maintaining the pressure of liberty against the growth of fascism, we can win. We’ve defended and promoted rights before — here in this country by ending slavery, expanding participation in the governance of society to more and more, and acknowledging the marriages of same-sex couples. And we’ve fought tyranny around the world. Having done it before, we have some cause to believe that we can do it again.
The history of Nazi Germany shows several times when Hitler’s plans could have been stopped — if only people of good will had had the combination of nerve and vision to do it. Would stopping him have been costly? Of course. But if he had been kept out of power in 1933 or brought down in 1936 by the French, in 1938 by the British, or at various stages by the German General Staff, millions who died could have lived.
History is replete with what ifs. We have the choice here of realizing one outcome and excluding others. In the time to come — and let us make sure that there is time to come, rather than the end of human life — it would be better for our descendants and reputations to have people speculate about what Trump might have done instead of regretting what he did. The good among us must make it so.🔷
(This piece was first published on The Blog!)