Godwin’s Law, one of the funniest and most incisive principles of the digital age, posits that the longer an online discussion continues, the higher the likelihood things will escalate to a point where one or another party mentions Hitler or the Nazis. I recognize that with the title “Worse Than Hitler,” I may lose some readers. Out of the gate, I’m already an egregious case-study in Godwin’s Law. But I am prepared to take that risk. For me, the stakes of remaining silent are too high.
My father fled Nazi Germany in 1939 at the age of six, coming to America where he met my mother, whose own family had fled Czarist Russia a half-century before. They married in 1957 and, born of refugeeism, my siblings and I were taught to see the world through a lens of flight, the ominous awareness that societies can turn monstrous overnight. As a filmmaker, I’ve sought to advance the cause of human dignity, with a particular focus on America and its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, America has always been an imperfect experiment in democracy. Yet for all its faults, it has nonetheless proved a staging ground for some crucial advances in the long arc of the moral universe, which Martin Luther King reminds us, “bends toward justice.” As a result, even during America’s worst moments, I have always rejected comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis. I recognize that ill-placed analogies risk instrumentalizing history and catapulting discussion into unproductive hyperbole.
But this time it’s different.
I can’t begin to fathom the content of Donald Trump’s character. Nor for that matter Adolf Hitler’s. The clouds of propaganda surrounding any public figure make it impossible for any outsider to really know what makes them tick. But what I do know, though, is that the actions of the Trump administration have taken on an increasingly authoritarian character over time: voluminous lies, admiration and kinship with recognized strongmen, brazen racism and sexism in public remarks including the endorsement of eugenic beliefs like “racehorse theory,” encouragement of racial and subversive violence, actions to undermine the independence of state institutions, threats to lock up opponents and detractors, an aggressively adversarial posture toward a free press, unapologetic self-dealing, and, most recently, expressions of contempt toward the Constitution’s separation of powers and free and fair elections. Where Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf of the power of the “big lie,” Donald Trump engages in something new and more fitting to the social media age: a hurricane of smaller lies that inflict a thousand little cuts on the regard for truth itself. That he has also publicly toyed with the idea of remaining in power beyond two terms and being succeeded by his children only underscores the evidence, at minimum, of authoritarian inclinations.
As an heir to the legacy of the Holocaust, I was taught that “Never Again” means it is incumbent on all of us to remain vigilant that fascism never be allowed to rise again anywhere in the world. Hard as it may be to swallow, I believe the full implications of an American turn toward authoritarian fascism pose a greater danger than that the world faced in 1939. Some may view this as hyperbole. There is an impulse, reflected in Godwin’s Law, to dismiss comparisons with the Holocaust out of hand. It’s understandable, given the unimaginable scale of the Nazi atrocity, to imagine that nothing may be compared with it. But “Never Again,” by its very nature, actually requires us to compare where we are with the past, in order to assess the magnitude of the warning signs we perceive. “Never Again” demands that we not just respond to fascism when its full potential for atrocity has been realized, but rather to work to stop it at the root. The fact that aspects of Donald Trump’s public conduct evoke concerns about fascism is by now commonly accepted. The question only is where might this lead?
Imagine for a moment that Hitler’s Germany, like contemporary America, had had nuclear weapons. Where would the world be now? Imagine if Hitler had had the internet, Facebook, GPS, drones, artificial intelligence, digitally-interconnected global markets, or deep fake at his disposal. Nazi architect Albert Speer once told art critic Robert Hughes in an interview, “If Hitler had had television, there would have been no stopping him.” Watching the president’s loyal, unquestioning pundits online and on Fox News, one has to wonder: in an authoritarian state, how would the coverage look any different?
To make matters more ominous, remember that Hitler was ultimately outstripped by the superior military forces of the Allies and the Soviet Union. He did not expect, for example, that, at the height of the conflict, the Ford Motor Company would be producing a B-24 bomber every 63 minutes for use against him. So there was in 1939 a growing alliance of powers that could ultimately thwart his authoritarian designs. What fighting force exists today that could overpower the largest military on earth, subordinate to a bellicose and intemperate impulsive commander-in-chief? China and Russia are candidates, but the former is already run by a lifetime ruler and the latter seems headed for the same. So while they might wish to stem American imperialism, it’s doubtful either would do so for reasons conducive to greater democracy or international morality.
Beyond this, the global community has recently seen a broader shift toward authoritarianism in such places as Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Brazil, and India. With growing disunion also inside post-Brexit Europe, it becomes harder to imagine a viable counterweight to an America pivot to fascism. Addressing climate change and the unpredictable future of the pandemic, too, will require extensive international cooperation, a task imperiled by an administration that has made itself singularly uncooperative with America’s customary allies in times of crisis.
Remember, too, that Hitler was an original. That may sound glib, but as the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson once told me, “The Holocaust was just the usual pogrom we’d seen throughout history, plus railroads.” Racial oppression and wholesale murder had happened before. But it was the systematic, industrial scale of the Third Reich that set it apart and compelled the formation of the United Nations and other institutions devoted to govern international morality. For America to descend into a repetition of fascist authoritarianism, with full knowledge of its potential consequences, seems even more egregious than it was for Germany to pioneer doing so in 1939.
There is no way to predict whether beyond Donald Trump’s authoritarian saber-rattling lies any potential, in a second term, for him to actively pursue mass death. (Full disclosure: I am the person behind the Trump Death Clock — a public tally of fatalities directly attributable to the president’s COVID-19 inaction.) Yet his administration has already demonstrated several worrisome tendencies in this regard. Beyond Trump’s early campaign joke that he could shoot a person in the street and his voters would remain faithful to him, there are: his endorsement of violence on the part of his supporters, including his recurring habit at rallies and speeches of expressing tacit support for white supremacist and other hate groups; his encouragement of vigilantism while demonizing those “on the Left”; his persistent racist policies and pronouncements, including his obsession with constructing a border wall against immigrants; his subversion of NATO and willingness to sever time-honored alliances; his defense of and advocacy for strongmen like Duterte, Putin, Orban, Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, and Mohammed bin Salman; his almost daily attacks on the freedom of the press and on journalists; his promotion of slanderous conspiracy theories about his adversaries reminiscent of the ideas in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion promoted by Hitler; and finally, his reckless handling of the coronavirus pandemic, denying science, politicizing a crisis, and leading America to become the global leader in COVID-19 deaths. While this may not meet the legal definition of murder, it is a form of mass manslaughter arising from the Trump administration’s willingness to play politics at the expense of human life.
In fairness, nowhere in his bestselling book The Art of the Deal (or any other public communications) has Donald Trump explicitly endorsed, as Hitler did in Mein Kampf, the need to exterminate a targeted group of human beings. The Trump presidency has also proven less inclined toward bellicose militarism than many of its predecessors. But what we have seen over time is, if not a design for mass death, a willingness to incur extensive loss of life for political gain. Most recently, at the President’s super spreader campaign rallies, he has brazenly engaged in what seems a macabre reelection tactic when he encourages people to reject the recommendations of medical experts. What he is doing, in effect, is dog-whistling to his followers that, if reelected, he will protect them from the restrictions and impositions placed on them by eggheads in the scientific community. This basically says it’s okay if others — the elderly, communities of color, frontline workers, etc. — are imperiled so long as he and his followers prosper. This deploys the coronavirus as a kind of biological weapon against certain segments of the population for the theoretical benefit of another.
None of this is an openly-stated campaign of mass-killing, but it bears remembering that the full genocidal endgame to which German fascism led, when the Final Solution was formalized in 1942, was not entirely clear in 1939. All my life, I’ve heard the question asked of Germans, “didn’t you know?” It seems somehow implausible that a democracy could have transitioned into a murderous, racist, killing machine without anyone noticing the steps that led to that. But if the Trump years have given Americans anything, it has been a vivid glimpse at how we, too, can remain largely oblivious to atrocities committed on our own soil until shocking images make their way onto the internet. Who among us could have imagined that, beyond the welcome offered by the Statue of Liberty, we would see children violently separated from their mothers, then denied due process and housed in brutal, traumatizing conditions? Who among us might have imagined that we would watch police kill African-Americans in broad daylight on national television and then violently abuse anguished protesters for exercising their right to assemble and protest? Perhaps some of us did know that such things take place every day in America, but this is almost worse. For if we knew and we were not engaged every minute in crying out against such horrors, are we in any position to ask the Germans “didn’t you know?”
This year, as the election approached, I could not help but see it in stark historical terms. So, in April, I co-founded the Election Super Centers Project, an initiative to turn stadiums and arenas across America into secure and pandemic-safe locations for voting. Today, some 70 professional and college venues have opened their doors, offering greater voter access to millions of Americans. I helped launch and steer this effort, because I believe that as long as they are given unfettered voting access, Americans’ fundamental belief in democracy will make them vote to reject the rise of authoritarian fascism.
One need not be a Democrat or a Republican (I am neither) to oppose the current president and his authoritarian inclinations. One must only be a human being who has read history and understands that “Never Again” must truly mean “Never Again” anywhere. No matter what certain polls may suggest, we must not take the urgency of this moment for granted. We must be clear-eyed about what is at stake and then, as more and more people every day are indicating they will do regardless of party, vote accordingly. Beyond this election, we must then commit ourselves to the real work of addressing the wounds and fissures in American society that brought us to this point. For Donald Trump and Trumpism were not born overnight, and the forces that enabled their rise have deep and tangled roots in America’s history.