Donald Trump, the doltish but thoroughly entertaining darling of recent press coverage, there being apparently nothing truly noteworthy to report, was recently compared to Hitler. While some of Trump’s ravings do verge on the fanatical, and while he does seem to be a magnet for a large number of serious fruitcakes, it seems a bit drastic, on that basis alone, to compare him to a monster unequaled in all of history. Trump just wants to turn eleven million people out of their homes, whereas Hitler deliberately sent to their deaths at least twice that number. After all, Trump did say that he didn’t like Hitler. So he has that going for him, which is nice.
Still, the accusation gives one cause to consider. Comparisons to Hitler are so commonplace that it has a name — reductio ad Hitlerum. The right-wing author Jonah Goldberg once compared liberalism to Hitlerism because it promoted healthy living. The ever-audacious Glen Beck once compared the National Endowment for the Arts to Hitlerism for promoting the collection of fine art. Republican congressmen and columnists have repeatedly compared Obama to Hitler for a variety of reasons, among which for promoting universal health care. These are, at best, just over-the-top ad hominem attacks. There is, however, a serious ground for making the comparison in the appropriate circumstance.
Slaughters and massacres, some of startling numbers, have occurred throughout history. The truly scary moment comes when those committing the atrocities accompany their unforgiveable conduct with a theory justifying it. Hitler and his cronies didn’t just slaughter millions of people. They justified it all with fantastical pseudo-scientific, political and even religious theories, theories that others, for whatever reason, actually espoused.
Recently the New York Times reported that ISIS members were kidnapping women, tying them down, and raping them. The most hideous part of it was that they were claiming to do it in the name of their warped notion of Allah. The article described one of them as tying down the woman and then getting down on his knees and praying before he raped the woman and then getting down on his knees after this outrageous crime and thanking Allah for having him do it.
Here is the real Hitlerism — crime performed under the color of justification. Here is what we need to uncover and denounce — abominable conduct done while claiming that it is in accord with an ideal or even with the will of God. Far worse than doing slaughter and rape, ISIS is Hitlerism for justifying war and rape.
This Hitler-like justification for crime and abject immorality is far more common in history than one would like to admit. America’s persistence in allowing slavery had those markings, as did its national policy of genocide of native Americans. The colonialism of Britain and other nations purported to justify the reduction of whole native populations to subservience. Witness the imperialism in India, Southeast Asia and South Africa. Even in our private lives, we are never far from this outrageous sin, of seeking to hide our crimes by justifying them.
The Roman playwright Terence once wrote, “I am a human being, and nothing human is alien to me.” There is, in me, the power to be Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King. There is also in me the power to be Hitler. I approach it every time I hide my misdoings in justification. I suppose Trump is doing a bit of that. The real tragedy would be if we believed him.