Comparing Trump

gettyimages-484797712-trump-alabama-rallyI learned the other day about something called Godwin’s Law: if an online discussion goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis. Without knowing that this rule is a “law,” I’ve consistently tried all my life not to compare anything to Hitler. But I guess that the pull of Godwin’s Law is too strong. Here goes:

Last Saturday, Donald Trump told a crowd of students at Dordt College in Sioux City, Iowa (yet another Christian college where I see strange things going on) that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue [in New York City] and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like, incredible.” As he spoke, he put his fingers into the shape of a gun and acted out pulling the trigger. How did the crowd react? Some Dordt students protested. But others laughed, and applauded. Someone in the audience shouted out love for Trump, and Trump responded, “We love you too, man.”

Watch here:

ABC News’ headline for Trump’s speech was “Donald Trump Jokes He Could ‘Shoot Somebody’ Without Losing Support.” Was this a joke? Well … some Dordt students did laugh. Right? What if Trump had proclaimed that he could perform an abortion in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing any support? Would any students at a Christian college have found that funny? Probably not. Would Trump’s audience find it funny if he’d talked about shooting children at an elementary school? Or shooting someone in his audience? Probably not. It’s hard to account for what some people find funny.

I do imagine that Trump must have been kidding the folks at Dordt, at least on some level. I understand that Trump owns a gun, and I know he built a tower more than 30 years ago on Fifth Avenue in New York City, so I guess he’s had plenty of opportunity to shoot someone there. To my knowledge, he’s never done so.

But I don’t think Trump is exactly kidding when he says that he could kill someone and still be elected President. Granted, I’m sure that some Trump supporters would be turned off if he actually murdered someone. But I think Trump imagines that he could say and do almost anything he wants to say and do, and his supporters would still vote for him. You can read below and elsewhere (and in an upcoming follow-up post here) about many of the things Trump has already said and done. I would have thought that just about any of these things would kill the candidacy of an ordinary person running for the Presidency, but Trump continues to lead all national polls for the Republican Presidential nomination, by a wide margin. Trump is not wrong to pause and marvel at this. He’s not exactly crazy to ask his supporters if there’s anything else he might try that would discourage them.

So if Trump is not exactly joking, I’m persuaded to take him seriously. At Dordt (a Christian college), Trump said in so many words that he could get away with murder. Could we imagine any of the widely acknowledged “great leaders” of the past 100 years saying such a thing? Churchill? FDR? Gandhi? Mandela? Fill in the name of any leader you admire, and ask whether he or she would claim the ability to do whatever they pleased without political consequences. Then make the list of those leaders who did get away with murder, at least for a while. Stalin. Mussolini. Franco. Mao. Pol Pot. And, naturally, Hitler.

There, Godwin. I said it. And I’m by far not the first to do so. Thomas Sowell (noted conservative and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution) has compared the crowds at a Trump rally to the “fervent emotions” of Germans at a Hitler rally. Glenn Beck worries that Trump’s combination of nationalism and populism contains the “makings of Adolf Hitler.” The Philadelphia Daily News has compared Trump to Hitler, on its front page. The Daily Telegraph has created an online quiz “to see if you can tell who said what: Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler.” For Trump’s part, he’s said that he doesn’t mind being compared to Hitler. Trump himself follows the tweets of Nazi sympathizer @WhiteGenocideTM, retweeting some of them. And rumors circulate that Trump once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside.

But look. Donald Trump is not Hitler. OK? I took the Daily Telegraph quiz, and I was mostly able to distinguish Trump from Hitler, getting 8 of 10 questions right, which is a lot better than the 5 questions I should have gotten right (on average) if Trump and Hitler could not be told apart. Even the Daily Telegraph points out that Trump hasn’t killed anyone, not yet anyway. Yes, Trump did talk at Dordt about killing someone, only he said there that he could kill someone. He didn’t say he’d actually do it. This is just like in an earlier speech, when Trump talked about killing journalists, in that he said that he would “never kill” journalists, then pretended to reconsider. And OK, yes, he did once promise to drop a man out of an airplane without a parachute, but he’s never actually done such a thing, even though (unlike most of us) he has an airplane with his name on it. (Heck, the man once bankrupted an entire airline!) Moreover, while Trump has promised to “bomb the shit” out of select areas of the world and then seize the oil there, he’s never indicated that he wants to conquer Poland or Czechoslovakia or anything like that. Moreover, while he’s threatened to round up and deport all immigrants illegally present in the United States (see more on this below), he hasn’t threatened to kill any of them. Yes, he’s compared his deportation plan to the so-called “Operation Wetback” implemented during the Eisenhower Administration, and the deportations during “Operation Wetback” took place under deplorable conditions that led to the death of many deportees. But no one compares “Operation Wetback” to the Shoah, and in any event, Trump promises to carry out his deportations in a humane way. So, please don’t get me wrong. Trump is not the second coming of Hitler.

It’s just that it’s possible to compare Trump to Hitler, and I think this makes Trump unique in terms of historic and popular candidates for the Presidency (none of whom, to my knowledge, ever mentioned shooting anyone or pushing anyone out of an airplane in flight). Trump’s Republican opponent, John Kasich, has already compared Trump to Hitler. Political commentator Roger Simon refers to Trump as “Der Donald.” Conservative David Boaz describes Trump as an “American Mussolini,” which is not the same thing as an “American Hitler,” though it’s uncomfortably close. Jeb Bush advisor John Noonan calls some of Trump’s policy proposals “fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it.” Max Boot, a conservative fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.” Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace wrote that “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is — creeping fascism.” And Hitler was a fascist.

Granted, not every fascist is Hitler. But like Hitler, Trump vilifies my neighbors on the basis of ethnicity (he’s called Mexican immigrants “rapists”) and religion (he’s said that a substantial minority of American Muslims advocate violence against other Americans as part of “global jihad”). Not to mention that a fringe political party founded by “racist Southern California skinheads that aims to deport immigrants and return the United States to white rule” is currently robocalling Iowa voters for Trump. Or to mention that Trump’s supporters have been heard shouting “Sieg heil” at Trump rallies. Or to mention that Trump has received the endorsement of many of America’s most prominent neo-Nazis.

Notwithstanding all of that … Trump is not Hitler. For one thing, Hitler set up concentration camps where millions were murdered, whereas Trump has said that he does not propose to set up internment camps for Muslims in the United States. It may blow your mind that a “serious” candidate for the Presidency of the United States actually has to take a stand against the establishment of internment camps, but the Trump Presidential campaign is breaking new ground. Trump has said that if he’d been alive during World War II, he might have supported the establishment of the camps used to imprison Japanese-Americans, but then again, maybe he wouldn’t have supported them, and I doubt that Hitler would have had any doubts on this point.

Then again, Trump wants to deport an approximate 11 million undocumented immigrants from the United States, and it’s hard to imagine how he’d achieve such a goal without placing captives into camps. Worse: Trump has proposed the creation of a “deportation force” to handle these deportations.  Such a force would require the establishment of a police state, according to both liberal and conservative Trump critics, and this sounds “horrifically similar to Nazi Germany” to some observers, me included. Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times that Trump’s deportation proposal “would prompt a million Hispanic Anne Franks—people hiding in the attics and basements of Donald Trump’s America.” But many observers think that Trump’s deportation proposal is impossible, that it can’t be done, so maybe we should view Trump’s deportation proposal as a to-be-broken campaign promise. In which case, perhaps we should not think of Trump as seriously intending to Nazify America. He’s just threatening to do so.

All of this means that Trump is not Hitler. OK? I’ll say it again for the record. Trump is deplorable, he has no business being seriously considered for the Presidency, and I think all decent and right-minded people should denounce him in the strongest possible terms. But is he the second coming of Hitler? No. Of course not. Hitler was a monster, a mass murderer that can and should be equated only with a handful of other like mass murderers.

So, I’ll say it one last time. Trump? Not Hitler. Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to remind you that I’m Jewish, and Jews can be wrong about such things.

But … this is not a blog about politics. This is a blog about religion, and inter-religious communication. So, let’s focus on Trump, religion and power … which brings up back to his speech at Dordt, where he spoke about this very subject. You can see it here (begins at 38:15):

We’re Christians … the power of our group of people together, I mean, if you add it up … how many Christians do you think? It could be 240, 250 million. And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have … the fact is that there is nothing the politicians can do to you if you band together. You have too much power. But the Christians don’t use their power [applause] … we don’t hear about strength, and we have to strengthen, because it’s death by a million cuts. We are getting less and less and less powerful in terms of a religion, and in terms of a force.

Trump then complained that big department stores do not say “merry Christmas” during the holidays.

When they don’t want to say “merry Christmas” in department stores anymore. I won’t shop at places that don’t say “merry Christmas.” Guess what? I don’t too much shopping. [applause] … I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected President, we’re going to be saying “merry Christmas” again, just remember that. [loud applause] And by the way, Christianity will have power, without having to form. Because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that. [applause]

I have more to say about Trump, and Christianity, and religion. But I’ve already said a lot. I’ll save the rest for an upcoming post. In the meantime, please read Anthony Le Donne’s thoughtful piece. And please, leave your comments below.

  • John Brantingham

    The very worst part about comparing anyone to Hitler is that we lose the ability to see the brand new ways that these people have become evil. We start to look for the Nazi manifestations of evil and miss the new problem such as the new ways that he is manipulating people through the internet, and that so much of the creeping evil is hidden in ways that Hitler could not have hidden it.

    • I don’t know if this is the worst part of comparing someone to Hitler. I’m not sure what the worst part is. The worst part might be that we trivialize Hitler, by saying that Hitlers are a common phenomenon. Instead of saying that Trump is as bad as Hitler, we end up saying that Hitler was no worse than Trump. We also threaten to turn comparisons to Hitler into cliches, so that eventually, a terrible movie or a lousy meal become “as bad as Hitler.” You’re right that we all, even the worst of us, deserve to be evaluated on our own merits (or lack thereof). In Trump’s case, for example, his exploitation and ostentatious display of personal wealth is not reminiscent of Hitler.

      But at a moment when many seem to have lost their moral bearings, and many others have been numbed into an acceptance of Trump and Trumpism, we may need to resort to comparisons with past examples of evil that are close to universally understood as such.

      • John Brantingham

        Let’s just say that it is dangerous then. If we keep looking for Hitler, we’ll miss the new brand of evil that is coming!

  • Claire Gebben

    Oh God, Dordt College is a similar college to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I attended undergraduate school. Christian Reformed students were always mentioning it. Calvin once had George Bush as a keynote speaker. This somehow strikes me as worse. Trump is just a guy in a suit spouting off. And hence, really really scary. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

    • Claire, I was thinking of Calvin College as I wrote about Dordt, and this helped me remember, not everyone at Dordt was cheering Trump on. You can read this from a Dordt professor, making it clear that Trump does not speak for Dordt.

      I feel compelled to ask the question, why are some professed Christians so devoted to Trump? But we’re talking about a minority.

      Thanks for posting.

      • Claire Gebben

        You’re right, I’m only focusing on a memory of a certain segment of the student body. Many of the economics professors at Calvin were essentially socialists, based on their respectful and intensive reflection on Christ’s teachings.Back in the 1970s, mind you, but still.It’s been quite a few decades since I could speak with any authority on the subject.

        Re: your question, it’s been my experience that some — especially Christian fundamentalists — have the notion that to profess belief in Christianity (and hence, swallow every word of Biblical scripture as factual) means to check one’s brains at the door. Hence, abandon reality for some trumped up (pun intended) view of the world. It means to take a side, and be loyal to that side, against all naysayers and persecutors. Certainly, what Trump professes from his “pulpit” isn’t Christian. We agree on that, right? So maybe Christian Trumpists don’t know what the Bible, and Christ, really have to say about justice, humility, mercy, compassion and love? My best guess re: the sincerely ignorant minority.

        • Claire, I admit it, I’m struggling to figure out what’s going on. But I hold a pretty high opinion of Christian evangelical and even fundamentalist understanding of scripture. It’s not MY understanding of scripture, as I’m not a literalist or an inerrantist. But I’m pretty sure most Christians get that Trump is not preaching Christianty. I mean, the students at Liberty University laughed at him when he tried to quote Scripture to them. Still, it seemed like many or most of Liberty’s students support Trump.

          Maybe I’ve spent too much time immersed in the intra-Christian debate over same-sex marriage, where both sides accused each other of not understanding the Bible. But I can’t go with the idea that it’s only ignorant Christians who support Trump.

          • Claire Gebben

            You’re right, that’s way too easy an answer. It’s my understanding that the Hitler phenomenon took hold because of his message of nationalist hope and pride. Once the Nazi party came to power, the surveillance kicked in, along with societal censure, and the fear that one had to sign on, or be left out (and disappeared). Right now, we’re just at the first half of that, with plenty of us laughing and pushing back at Trump. Yet the crowds are getting larger, and the polls are climbing. This pattern to sign on or be left out, come to think of it, seems to echo that persistent Christian theological sticking point — who will be saved, who won’t.