If you get a chance, today or perhaps tomorrow, do yourself a favor. Look up some file footage, perhaps on YouTube, of Adolf Hitler, addressing his followers. I know, it doesn’t sound like the best way to spend your day, or even a few minutes of it, but trust me, there’s a point to the recommendation. While you watch, notice the unhinged shouting, the wild eyes, the veins on his neck, the psychotic bodily gesticulations. Then, take a look at footage from yesterday’s town hall meeting, called by President Obama in New Hampshire, in which he sought to lay out his case for health care reform to an audience that included supporters and opponents of his plan. Notice: no shouting, no wild eyes, no bulging jugular vein, no apparent sociopathy whatsoever. Indeed notice as the President actually seeks out questions from people who disagree with him, and then thanks them for making good points and raising legitimate concerns, even when the premises of their questions are dead wrong, and largely originated in crazy town.
Then ask yourself, is this the man that much of right-wing talk radio would have us believe is a Nazi? The political reincarnation of Hitler–ya know, the lunatic I asked you to watch first? Really? Really? Wow. Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to begin.
On the one hand, the comparisons seem literally bat-shit insane. Especially when considering that at the same time folks are comparing Obama to the world’s most infamous right-wing fascist, they are at the same time calling him a Marxist, and a left-wing radical. Oh sure, they try and say that Hitler was really a leftist, ya know, because the Nazis were National Socialists. Of course. And hot dogs are made from puppies.
Anyway, it seems at first blush to make no sense. Any reading of the Nazi era makes it all too clear how far afield from the Third Reich the Obama administration is. After coming to power, the Nazis moved to outlaw all opposition parties, suspend the nation’s constitution, round up and detain their political adversaries (or better yet, kill them), and destroy the trade unions. All this, well before initiating the murderous campaigns against Jews, Romany, homosexuals and others deemed “life unworthy of life.” Needless to say, Obama has done none of this, has proposed none of this, and only the most truly unstable person could really believe such things were just around the corner. Although there are such persons to be found in the body politic, such as Ron Paul acolytes, Ayn Rand devotees and real estate agent/dentist/professional whack-a-doodle, Orly Taitz, surely even the most cynical would have to agree that the numbers of persons who seem to buy into this rhetoric far and away exceed the likely national percentages of the truly mentally ill.
And those propagating the comparisons–the Limbaughs and Becks and Savages, and Hannitys (who have the top four radio talk shows in the nation right now)–despite their fervent commitment to right-wing ideas, surely cannot believe that an American Reich is on the horizon. In short, they can’t possibly be serious.
So why then, do they keep saying it? It is this question that I’ve been pondering for the past few days. What could possibly be the purpose of making an argument that has so little intellectual validity; so little indeed that it can be easily shot down by the average 12th grade European history student (who, it should be noted, would have as much education as either Limbaugh or Hannity)? What would be the value, symbolically speaking, of putting forth on protest signs this Obama=Hitler meme, and visually representing that meme, straight down to the little mustache, side-swept hairdo and swastika adornment?
And then it struck me. This analogy, as absurd as it is factually, and as offensive as it is historically, makes almost perfect sense politically, to a movement that is trying desperately to create a groundswell of support behind the notion that white people are the new victims of massive discrimination, the new victims of the Obama era: the ones who don’t get picked first for the Supreme Court, and who can no longer take for granted their hegemonic power. And that is precisely the kind of movement they are trying to build, what with their equally facile rantings that white men, according to Limbaugh, are being sent to the “back of the bus” under Obama, because he literally hates white people, and that white men are now experiencing, to hear Pat Buchanan tell it, “exactly what black folks” experienced during the days of Jim Crow. Within a politics of white resentment and white victimology, the Hitler meme works. After all, Hitler was not just a fascist, but is understood to have been a racial fascist: one whose dictatorial and murderous schemes were directed at a distinctly racialized “other.” So to make the black man atop the U.S. political system into Hitler, is to plant the idea in white minds that he too will be a racial fascist. And if that is the case, the question is quite obviously begged, which race will he be coming for? Ah yes, white man, see? Now are you scared?
By playing upon white fears–fears of a black President with a funny name, fears of a country that within about 30 years will no longer be majority white, fears of the inability to take for granted that our Leave-it-to-Beaver, Norman Rockwell, Boy Scout-approved national narrative will continue to predominate–the right hopes to prove resurgent, and the GOP hopes to remain a living entity. They have all but abandoned any hopes of attracting large numbers of people of color. The writing in that regard is on the wall and they seem to very much know it. So they have retreated into the laager–South African imagery very much intended here–and decided to go all in as the party of nostalgia, a white nationalist party, in effect, whose only hope is to claim that the nation has lost its greatness, and that everything that made America, well, America (ya know, back in the days of segregation) has been lost. And that such a transformation, from a formal white supremacist state, to a multicultural society, is of course a bad thing.
In addition to rallying the troops of white backlash, the Obama/Hitler analogies also serve another function, one that would be immediately recognizable to most any psychologist. That function is called projection: when someone recognizes a trait within themselves, and then, ashamed of that trait seeks it out in others and locates it there, displacing the shame and self-hatred that might otherwise manifest onto someone else.
For these right-wing louts to accuse President Obama of being a racist, let alone a potentially genocidal one at that, is the ultimate in projection. After all, it is the right whose authors regularly publish books with hateful and prejudicial comments about racialized others, not Obama, whose own writing reveals a deep and abiding love for his family–all of it, including the white half.
It is the right that channels Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebells, every time they spew lies about the health care bill’s euthanasia provisions, or about how Obama is going to confiscate all the guns, or casting doubt on Obama’s citizenship, or about how Mexicans are looking to “reconquer” the American southwest, or about how illegal immigrants are a major source of leprosy and disease. All of these things have been debunked, time and again, and yet they are repeated daily, as if facts don’t matter. Because to anti-intellectual brownshirts, they don’t.
It is the right channeling the thuggishness of the Nazi bullies by sending folks to public forums to shout and disrupt, and to intimidate people by carrying weapons.
It is the right that would like to smash the trade unions.
It is the right that stood by while the last president circumvented the Constitution on such matters as wiretaps, torture, the primacy of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party, and the suspension of habeas corpus for suspected “terrorists.”
It is folks like Michael Savage–perhaps the most truly psychotic of the right-wing radio set–who has staked out positions of overt racism and even murderous intent. To wit, his comments of May 11 and 12, 2004, to the effect that Arab Muslims are “non humans,” who should be either forcibly converted to Christianity or slaughtered. Or his statement of April 17, 2006, to the effect that the United States should kill 100 million Muslims. Or his more recent comment to the effect that he hopes “far extreme, violent motorcycle gangs” show up at the health care town hall meetings around the country. Or his statement about liberal advocacy groups, suggesting “they have no place in America,” and that he would like to “round up every member of the ACLU and of the National Lawyers Guild and…put them in a prison in Guantánamo and…throw the key away” Or his pithy paraphrasing of a statement previously made by Nazi leader Hermann Goering, to the effect that when he “hears that someone is in the civil rights business,” he “oils up (his) AR-15,” and presumably not so as to have an intelligent conversation.
And speaking of Nazis, it was Pat Buchanan who said, in a 1977 column that the early Adolf Hitler–the one who suspended civil liberties, murdered his political opponents inside Germany, and set about to invade surrounding countries so as to broaden the boundaries of the Reich–was for all intent and purposes, a model leader. Prior to initiating the Holocaust of European Jewry, Hitler seems to have done little with which Buchanan could find fault, thus his claim: “If Hitler had died in 1937 on the fourth anniversary of his coming to power, he would undoubtedly have gone down as one of the greatest figures of German history.” Hitler was, to hear Pat tell it, “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first rank” whose “genius” was in having such an “intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.”
Yet Pat Buchanan, who also called for the U.S. to annex parts of Canada back in a 1989 column, so as to expand the size of our nation’s “white tribe”–an idea that Herr Hitler would have no doubt found exhilarating–remains a commentator in good standing on major networks. And so the right, which regularly espouses ideas resonant of the very fascism they would ascribe to Obama, gets a free pass, as they project their own darkest authoritarian desires onto others, with whom they cannot intellectually compete. And so they must bully. They must shout. They must drown out reason with volume.
And beneath it all, they hope that just enough people will listen. Just enough to build a movement rooted in white anger, white fear, white victimology, and the reassertion of white nationhood that they feel has been taken from them.
The question is–and it may be the only one that matters right now–what are we going to do about it, and by “we” I mean especially those of us called white? Are we going to let the hateful throngs define us, for us? Are we going to sit back while they seek to organize a politics of racial backlash in our name? Are we going to merely laugh at them and then move on, figuring that the threat they pose is minimal? Or will we stand up, demand that there are other ways to live in this skin, and choose to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our black and brown brothers and sisters who are, as they have long been, under such attack in this nation? Will we choose the road of antagonism or allyship?
Make no mistake, the future of the country may very well depend on how we answer.
Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His latest is, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (City Lights, 2009).