Sticks and Stones in the Age of Trump

By James Bonifield, Policy Director

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You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany… I’m not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I’m saying is there is the potential.”

“We are really… starting to look at Fascism [in this Country]”

With the recent selection of Donald Trump as Time’s Person of Year, the Hitler comparisons have been as ubiquitous as they have been odious. Many on the left have eagerly compared the President-elect to some of the other infamous figures to grace that cover such as Stalin and Putin, and, of course that infamous dictator of the Third Reich. The quotes above, however, were not said about the 45th President of United States but about the 44th, Barack Obama, by those on the right. Comparing American Presidents to Hitler and his ilk has been in vogue since Hitler murdered his way into the public eye; Herbert Hoover set the trend, calling elements of Roosevelt’s National Industry Recovery Act of 1933 “A prescription for Fascism” and comparing the New Deal to the contemporary fascism of Italy and Germany. While rhetoric like this is certainly not new, the line between fact checking and name calling continues to blur at an unprecedented level in the age of Twitter and Facebook, with one particularly poignant example coming from the Huffington Post which relegated Trump to the Entertainment section for much of the primary and ended every article about Trump with a note calling him “A serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully”. Does Trump deserve these labels? Did Barack Obama? Or George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Reagan before them deserve their respective Hitler comparisons?

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter if he is or isn’t the next Hitler, although he almost certainly is not. A far better question for those on the left or the right who are opposed to the President-elect would be to ask if it is wise to compare him to the very definition of evil so constantly and rigorously. I would suggest that it is not. If Trump continues to moderate his views on issues as he has with immigration, healthcare, and the prosecution of Hillary Clinton and governs from the center, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the image of him as a dictator. By demonizing him to an unprecedented degree, in a perverse way the media is giving Trump a pass by causing readers to gloss over the excessive hyperbole. A reasonably measured criticism of Trump could sway an undecided voter, but after a year of pure vitriol that coal miner in West Virginia or a suburban mother aren’t going to change their vote because of another article calling Trump Literally Hitler.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, however, I don’t believe that is the primary objective of those calling Trump all these terrible things (deservedly so as some, though not all, of these comparisons may be). Rather, these complaints of reductio ad Hitlerum are a form of virtue signaling, grandstanding to express their superlative disapproval with Trump. So then, what is effective against Trump? He seems to effortlessly weather any major scandal without lasting impact (and who has actually had fairly stable and slightly improved favorables over the last year, outside of the current post-election bump). I highly doubt accusing the Russian government of intervening in the electoral process to install its favored candidate, which is currently unsubstantiated, will provide the magic silver bullet that stops Trump where so many other scandals have failed to stop him.

History provides us with two recent examples of liberal opposition succeeding and failing against populist candidates on the right: Tip O’Neill against Ronald Reagan and the Italian center-left against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Although Reagan demolished Carter in the Electoral College, the Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives. Rather than pursue a goal of obstructionism, O’Neill decided to let Reagan dig his own grave, a strategy that paid off in the first midterm elections, where the Democratic majority was increased in the House after a recession that left Reagan without a scapegoat. In Italy, the election of Berlusconi in 2001 was met by mass protests and parliamentary resistance and obstruction, and although he mostly failed to provide the populist reform he promised he led Italy for nearly 10 years with only a brief break, a nearly unprecedented tenure in Italian politics. Berlusconi frequently assailed the media for bias and Parliament for obstructionism and, with a divided opposition, he survived not on the strength of his own ideas but the failure of his opponents for many years to focus on anything beyond frequent petty scandals.

Name-calling won’t defeat Trump in the 2018 midterms or in the 2020 presidential election. With a challenging 2018 electoral map and uncertain future, the Democrats are staring down not only 4-8 years of a Trump Presidency but a potential Republican Senate supermajority if the stars align in a big league way. To those who don’t support the President Elect the path forward is clear: give him the rope to hang himself instead of giving him a scapegoat, otherwise Trump won’t be the one on the scaffold in 2020.