Godwin’s Law is a witty and powerful statement about our urge to replace meaningful argument with name-calling. Formulated by internet pioneer Mike Godwin, his law states, “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.”
In our civic religion, Hitler is Satan. Very few people understand who Hitler was, what the Nazis did, or the history behind their rise and fall. Everyone, however, knows this political equation: Hitler=evil. By the transitive property, anyone who displays a characteristic “like Hitler” is similarly evil, therefore they may be subjected to righteous scorn and their arguments disregarded. Godwin’s Law explains this habit as a logical flaw in which any comparison to the Nazis amounts to a confession of rhetorical bankruptcy. Resorting to a Nazi comparison is an escape valve by which I can I refuse to engage an idea I find challenging.
Hitler was extraordinary and the Nazis were an extreme social pathology. Godwin’s law is relevant because in the most literal sense, no one is Hitler but Hitler and no one is a Nazi except for a collection of dark historical figures who wore snappy uniforms with armbands.
What happens, then, when the unthinkable unfolds? We may need an amendment to Godwin’s Law. Call it the Plato’s Republic Corollary: As a democratic society continues, the probability of facing an existential threat from something like Fascism approaches 1. What do we do when the threat is real?
It would probably be helpful for us to have a better understanding of the meaning of Fascism in our history. What we must guard against is not so much Nazism or Fascism specifically. Nazism was a product of a specific historical context, one that will not be repeated elsewhere. Our contemporary danger is almost never literally Nazism or Fascism. We are threatened by our urge to unleash our culture’s dark side, whatever form that may take.
Sometimes a people decide to throw open a dank, basement closet full of surprises, releasing whatever lives there to emerge and wreak havoc. Germans who voted for the Nazis in 1933 were not voting to invade Poland. They didn’t vote to send Einstein into exile. They were not voting for Auschwitz. They were voting to make Germany great again at any cost to others, at any cost in moral or humane terms. They made a calloused, ignorant, lethal decision to deliver a blank political check to an evil force.
Germans in 1933 were not voting for the Hitler we know and revile today. They were making a desperate decision to unleash their nation’s darkest impulses. Nobody makes a contemporary decision to elect a Hitler. They make a decision to ignore warnings, set aside morality, devalue empathy, and discover what evil their culture can deploy.
When a nation makes this leap, sometimes they get a Franco. Sometimes they get a Hitler or a Mussolini. Sometimes they catch a lucky break and get someone no more harmless than a Berlusconi. They don’t get to choose what dragon emerges from that dark place. They don’t get to choose how long it will roam or what damage it may inflict. They don’t get decide how it will be tamed or destroyed. They only get to decide whether that unknown should be unleashed.
No one is Hitler except Hitler. What makes Trump like Hitler is what makes all of these situations similar, from Spain under Franco to Venezuela under Chavez. Trump and Chavez and Duterte and their kind are what happens when decency fails, when a people collectively fall under the sway of their most inhumane impulses.
For the Germans, darkness unleashed took the form of maniacal anti-Semitism and pointless, delusional, self-immolating wars. For the Spanish, their dragon was a fundamentalist Catholic Fascism that devastated basic human rights, strangling the country economically and culturally. While there may be some correlation between these scenarios from country to country and era to era, what happens when a country opens their box of horrors is as particular as each nation.
We are seeing what happens when America descends into darkness. Our uniquely ingrained racism is normalized and even celebrated. Violence against immigrants hardly warrants notice. Intimidation of minority groups becomes ordinary. Instead of the ruthless efficiency of the Nazi machine, we get a leadership class who can’t operate fancy light switches; people who gaze in awestruck wonder at the incomprehensible complexity of a health care system. America’s great political implosion looks less like Schindler’s List or 1984 and more like Idiocracy.
Trump is not Hitler. Hitler was someone else’s sin, someone else’s dragon unleashed. Trump is what Hitler represents, the embodiment of our nightmares, a living vision of a nation at her lowest, darkest, and most suicidally dangerous. Darkness that we once confined in our collective national basement we’ve now loosed on the world. Godwin’s Law has been trumped by Godwin’s President, toward an uncertain end.