Mar
01
2010

Playing the Nazi Card

Comparing Obama to Hitler becomes a standard right-wing trope

Comparing anyone to Hitler is egregious. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale released a letter that Ronald Reagan had written to Richard Nixon 20 years earlier, in which Reagan compared John F. Kennedy to Hitler and Karl Marx—though Reagan contended he was only speaking of Kennedy’s economic proposals (UPI, 10/23/84). In 2004, the Bush camp created a video juxtaposing “Wild-Eyed” Democrats like John Kerry and Al Gore with Hitler (Slate, 6/28/04).

Obama-Hitler signThe frequency of such thoughtless comparisons popping up online prompted author and attorney Mike Godwin to coin Godwin’s Law (Wired, 10/94): “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Meant to deter people from invoking such analogies, Godwin’s Law affirms that people use the discussion-ending hyperbole when overly frustrated or angry. Godwin’s Law, however, has evolved, leaping from the Net to the corporate media megaphones of the extreme right in their attempt to invalidate Obama and his policies, while simultaneously trivializing the Holocaust, one of humankind’s most heinous crimes.

Last year, extremists disrupted town hall meetings as they marched in carrying Obama’s picture defaced with Hitler’s mustache. Tea Party protesters rallied against Obama’s healthcare plan, brandishing a huge banner depicting corpses piled up, absurdly equating healthcare to the death camp Dachau. But these radicals were not the innovators behind the comparisons. They received their fury and Fuehrer analogies mainly from right-wing radio and television commentators (though cult leader Lyndon LaRouche was responsible for some of the Obama-as-Hitler posters at town halls).

Fox News Radio’s Tom Sullivan played a side-by-side comparison of a Hitler speech and an Obama speech (2/11/08), and Clear Channel’s Bill Cunningham, who has made similar comparisons (10/28/08), declared on his Cincinnati-based radio show (10/30/08) that “Jews [were] for McCain because Obama wants to gas the Jews, like the PLO wants to gas the Jews, like the Nazis gassed the Jews.” (The website of the group Media Matters, which extensively monitors right-wing electronic media, documents many of these examples.) Ann Coulter, as a guest on Hannity and Colmes (4/3/08), called Obama’s autobiography a “dime store Mein Kampf.” When Alan Colmes asked her if Obama was a “two-bit Hitler,” Coulter agreed. Colmes then asked: “We should be as wary of Obama as they should have been of Hitler in Nazi Germany?” Coulter admonished, “If only people had read Mein Kampf.”

The host of ABC Network’s Mark Levin Show (12/16/09) called the healthcare plan “Hitleresque.” Nothing new for Levin, who has been comparing Obama to Hitler since the campaign (10/29/08): “[Obama’s] really into these big German-like events that he creates in this country.”

When the president wanted to speak to students early in September, Michael Savage, host of Talk Radio Network’s Savage Nation, cried indoctrination: “Hitler had the Hitler Youth and Obama would like to have the Obama Youth,” Savage said (11/25/08), adding that our country is “50 leagues below the degeneracy that brought about Hitler.” Savage (8/10/09) has fomented conspiracies of “internment camps,” claiming Obama plans to round up American citizens.

Top conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, the self-proclaimed “Mobfather” of Premiere Radio Networks, celebrated as his minions stormed the town halls (8/19/09): “It’s fabulous and fantastic and hilarious that a woman shows up at a Barney Frank town hall meeting with an Obama-as-Hitler poster and the Nazi stuff.” Days earlier, when protesters were dismissed from town halls, Limbaugh (8/6/09) accused Obama of “sending out his brown shirts.... This is the president of the United States who is mobilizing against over half the people in his own country.”

On the same day, Limbaugh asked, “What are the similarities between the Democratic Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany?” He claimed that “the Obama healthcare logo is damn close to a Nazi swastika logo” (because each had eagle wings above a circle) and was therefore “right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook.” Another connection was that “they were insanely, irrationally against pollution”; “they banned smoking” was another.

By August 13, Limbaugh announced there were “gazillions of similarities between National Socialism in Germany and Obama’s healthcare plan.” “Nobody is saying that Obama is Hitler,” said Limbaugh—before asserting: “What we’re saying is that this healthcare plan mirrors Nazi Germany’s. And the Nazi Germany healthcare plan was the foundation from which they built the rest of their socialist paradise.”

Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism and editor-at-large of the National Review Online, seems to enjoy shock value—after all, the cover for his book features the iconic yellow smiley face stamped with a Hitler moustache. Liberal Fascism, as the title suggests, attempts to draw parallels between fascism and modern liberalism, speciously claiming that the two movements are both derived from the early-20th-century progressive movement (History News Network, 1/25/10). The 2008 book, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, has been lauded by conservatives and serves as a template for those who wish to link Obama to Hitler.

For example, Goldberg’s book inspired Jeffrey Kuhner of the Washington Times (7/11/09) to add to the polemic against Obama. Kuhner likened Hitler and Mussolini’s rule to the policies of the left, claiming that it “explains Mr. Obama’s...consolidation of power.” He was careful to say that “Mr. Obama is not a Hitler or a Mussolini.... But Hitler and Mussolini were men of a different age, time and national culture.”

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 8/18/09) hinted that Obama’s healthcare reform would lead us down the same path that brought about Hitler’s 1933 Sterilization Law, which targeted those deemed to have “genetic disorders.” Thomas (Myrtle Beach Sun-News, 3/13/09) also took aim at Obama’s executive order expanding federal funding for stem cell research: “At the extreme, unrestrained science has the capacity to produce a Josef Mengele,” Thomas said. “The Third Reich ‘scientist’ and doctor was given the green light to do whatever he wished with Jews, twins, the physically deformed, the mentally challenged, all in the name of ‘science’ and progress.” Of course, this “extreme” point is an extremist’s analogy: Hitler gave Mengele free rein, as Obama is supposedly doing with his executive order.

But Goldberg’s most prominent disciple has been Fox’s (and Premiere Radio Networks’) Glenn Beck, who declared (Fox News, 6/1/09) that Liberal Fascism “is the book that began to open my eyes.” Beck has welcomed Goldberg on his program at least 17 times during his relatively short tenure; in one such appearance Goldberg said (2/20/08) that Obama was offering himself up as a “silver bullet” just as FDR and Hitler did.

When Beck was with CNN, he hosted monotone sensationalist Ben Stein (7/23/08), who criticized Obama’s plan to deliver his acceptance speech of the Democratic presidential nomination at Denver’s Invesco Field: “Seventy-five thousand people at an outdoor sports palace, well, that’s something the Fuehrer would have done.” Beck echoed Stein’s point, though he took it down a historical notch: “I’ve been saying that we’re headed towards a Mussolini-style presidency forever.”

After Fox News welcomed Beck on board the day before Obama’s inauguration, he ramped up his analogies. As Media Matters pointed out (4/2/09), on April 2 he teased his next show by asking viewers, “Is this where we’re headed?” and then running photographs of Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown juxtaposed with images of Hitler, Stalin and Lenin; on June 10 he compared the Germans living under Hitler to Americans with Obama as president.

Beck’s escalation could certainly have something to do with his bosses; Fox News has generally been a welcoming place for the Hitler comparison. When Obama spoke in Germany during his 2008 campaign, neo-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer (7/28/08) told Brit Hume: “You don’t get a bounce [in the polls] out of standing in front of 200,000 Germans at a [Berlin] rally who are chanting your name. Bad vibes sometimes, historically.” Sean Hannity offered anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry a platform on Hannity (5/15/09) to talk about Notre Dame inviting Obama to speak. “Could you imagine somebody saying, let’s have one of the leaders of Germany come in?” Terry asked. “We don’t really like what he did with that Jewish thing, but they build great roads and they gave people hope and they helped rebuild the economy.” Neither Hume nor Hannity admonished their guests.

In any case, with nearly every presidential proposal, Beck and his researchers seem to run for the World War II books to skim for similarities. Hence the bailout of the auto industry was similar to “the early days of Adolf Hitler” when citizens “were very happy to line up for help there as well” (4/1/09), and after the president called for an expansion of programs like Peace Corps and Americorps, Beck declared (8/27/09), “This is what Hitler did with the SS.” On May 26 he compared Obama’s saying that “empathy” was a valuable trait in a Supreme Court nominee to Hitler’s use of “empathy” in deciding to euthanize a disabled child, “which led to genocide everywhere.... Empathy leads you to very bad decisions many times.” Beck even exploited his daughter (8/11/09), linking her disability under Obama’s health plan to a disabled man under the Nazis, inducing fear with a Nazi-era propaganda poster.

On his Premiere Radio Networks radio show (8/6/09), Beck likened Obama’s healthcare reform to the Nazi eugenics program, suggesting the elderly, young and disabled would be killed. Six days later, Beck (8/12/09) said that he was not comparing Obama to Hitler, but asked his listeners to read Mein Kampf:

If you read it now, you see that Hitler told you what he was going to do. He told the Germans. It outsold the Bible. Germans read Mein Kampf, but what did they do? They didn’t listen. “Oh, he doesn’t mean that.” “Oh, he’s just saying that to appeal to X, Y, Z.” All of the same lies we’re telling to ourselves. “No, that’s crazy. Nobody would actually do that.” They buried their heads in the sand, and then it became too late. Please, America, take this man for what he says.

When the White House ridiculed the Fox News Network, Beck (10/13/09) compared the criticism against Fox to the destruction of European Jewry. He adapted Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famed poem, “First They Came...” as he pleaded with “the good journalists” to stand up for Fox against the White House: “When they’re done with Fox, and you decide to speak out on something—the old first-they-came-for-the-Jews-and-I-wasn’t-Jewish....”Beck said.* He then equated Obama with a “brutal dictator” and added, this is “how they start.”

* The original poem actually begins, “First they came for the communists....”