In recent weeks, a single idea seems to have united a shockingly diverse group of people. From comedian and maybe-serial-sex-offender Louis CK to moderate Republican and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman; from at-best-partially-sane talk show host Bill Maher to at-best-partially-sane talk show host, Glenn Beck; from former Mexican President Vicente Fox and current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson; from the Huffington Post to The Times of Israel, everyone seems to agree: Donald Trump is like Adolf Hitler. In particular, they draw an equivalence between Trump’s statements about the dangers of certain immigrants, particularly those of Latin America or Islamic backgrounds, and Hitler’s early xenophobic and racist statements directed towards Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. All these people are wrong, but not for the reason that you might think.
Comparisons to Hitler – the very paragon of evil in our contemporary imagination – are, as a rule, inflammatory, offensive, de rigueur and invariably inaccurate. It was back in June 2005, when Barack Obama was a newly seated Senator from Illinois, and Donald Trump was busy hosting Season 2 of the Apprentice, that Jon Stewart pleaded for bringing an end to the many Hitler comparisons in American politics, noting that such comparisons inevitably demean the speaker, the subject, and even Hitler, who Stewart said, “worked too many years, too hard, to be that evil, to have any Tom, Dick and Harry come along and say, ‘you’re being like Hitler.’” But, in this case, the Trump and Hitler comparisons raise an interesting issue, one that is at the center of a continuing academic debate on Hitler, and one that actually underlies a critical distinction between Trump and Hitler. But, first, a quick aside on the meaning of evil.
While an old proverb tells us that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” both our common sense and the law generally disagree. To commit a crime, the legal equivalent of a sin, takes both an action causing some harmful effect (the actus reus, to use the needlessly complicated legal terminology) and a correspondingly bad state of mind (the mens rea). Now that state of mind needn’t necessarily be a specific intention to harm someone else; reckless behavior and general awareness of the potential consequences of one’s actions can be sufficient in many cases. But the point remains that the law generally does not penalize even the worst of actions, if they are caused by a person acting with innocent intentions.
An example will illustrate this: your friend is driving his car to work one morning. He or she is behaving exactly as a good driver should, obeying the speed limit, checking his or her mirrors, looking both ways at intersections, and listening to The Life of Pablo at a reasonable volume. When, suddenly, out of nowhere, a young child who has broken free of his mother’s grasp darts in front of the car. Your friend does everything humanly possible to avoid the collision, but it’s impossible to do so. Jeff Gordon couldn’t have avoided it. The child, sadly, dies.
Your friend is, naturally, devastated and you wish to console him or her. “There was nothing you could do,” you say. “This was not your fault.” Do you believe what you’re saying, or do you believe your friend to now be evil? After all, his actions have led to the death of an innocent child, and there’s hardly an act that people or the law find more damnable than infanticide. If you’re like me, the law, or the vast majority of people, however, you understand that your friend was a victim of circumstance. He or she is no more an evil person after that accident than he or she was before it.
Consider a second, perhaps murkier, example. You are walking alone in a bad part of town at night. Crossing through a dark alley, you hear footsteps behind you. Your heart races. Slowly, a figure emerges from the shadow, a wild-eyed large man. “You are going to die,” he intones ominously, as he reaches towards his pants pocket… With only a split second to react, you pull out a gun you carry for self-defense and fire a single shot. The man falls, dead. As a passing car illuminates the alley, you finally get a clear look at what is in his hand: not a gun, but a pamphlet: “We Are All Going to Die,” it reads, “So Make Sure You Get To Heaven. Visit Your Local Church and Repent.”
Are you a murderer? Most people would say no, and the law agrees. If one has an actual and reasonable belief that his life is in imminent danger, he is entitled to defend himself with deadly force. Even if that reasonable belief – reasonable, by the way, meaning that the typical person in your situation would have believed that his or her life was in jeopardy – was wrong, as it was in the example above, the law would still exonerate you. In fact, the law even recognizes a lesser version of self-defense, sometimes called “imperfect self-defense” where a person has an unreasonable but honest belief that their life is in jeopardy. Imperfect self-defense is not a complete defense, but where it exists, it will reduce the crime from murder to the lesser offense of manslaughter.
The bottom line is this: our society as a general matter will not classify as evil that which is done with innocent intentions, even if those intentions are misguided. Now, hold onto that thought as we turn to perhaps the most despised human being to have ever walked the Earth.
Adolf Hitler is likely responsible for human suffering on a level unmatched by any other single individual in history. Not only did he preside over the Holocaust, but he almost single-handedly precipitated the deadliest conflict of all time. Everything about him is so immediately offensive to our sensibilities that the mere sight of it triggers disgust and loathing. His name; the swastika, the symbol of his regime; hell, even his signature mustache, are viscerally upsetting to decent people everywhere. So one can easily understand why being compared to him, as Trump so frequently is, is a bad thing.
The question of how Hitler came to commit such evil has long been debated. Was Hitler truly the source of the Holocaust and World War II, or was he merely the individual whom circumstances chose to place there. After all, anti-Semitism, German right wing nationalism, and resentment over the Treaty of Versailles, were widespread before Hitler capitalized on those feelings to launch himself into power. Had Hitler not come along, would there have been another who simply took his place and rode these pre-existing currents to the same destiny? In other words, was Hitler uniquely evil in history, or was Hitler unique only in that circumstances enabled him to exploit a set of widely held sentiments in a way that permitted them to have global implications?
To some, even confronting this question is offensive. To search for a root cause for Hitler’s evil, they argue, is tantamount to searching for an excuse for his behavior. And if his behavior can be explained, or traced to some root cause – an event, a scapegoat, a mental disorder – is it, on some level, something less than pure, unadulterated and inexplicable evil (surely the classification that our minds prefer when faced with such a horrific crime against humanity)? This is the subject of Ron Rosenbaum’s epic investigation, Explaining Hitler, in which the author speaks to many of the world’s authorities on Hitler to try to come to some understanding of his pathology.
One of the most challenging and controversial questions with which Rosenbaum wrestles is whether Hitler truly believed his own rhetoric. Alan Bullock, author of the most important biography of Hitler, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, and eminent theologian Emil Fackenheim, thought not. Hitler was, in their view, a “mountebank,” a con artist more concerned with accumulating power than a true believer in his philosophy. Fackenheim believed that all of Hitler’s actions were those an actor giving a grand performance. Fackenheim’s evidence for this claim is largely drawn by analogy to certain theatrical elements of Hitler’s public persona: the dramatic gestures that became so symbolic of Hitler’s speeches were carefully rehearsed in advance, as was Hitler’s habit of beginning his speech quietly, haltingly, and slowly working himself into an emotional frenzy that seemed almost possessed. He also accords weight to numerous theatrical actions in Hitler’s life, none of which Fackenheim seems to ridicule more than his marriage to longtime mistress Eva Braun only hours before the two committed suicide. In this view, Hitler was a performer who embraced anti-Semitism not because he was himself necessarily anti-Semitic, or because he believed the Jews to be the cause of Germany’s suffering, but because it was a useful tool for galvanizing his followers.
Other experts disagree. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Oxford historian whom British intelligence dispatched to Berlin to confirm reports of Hitler’s death, and one of the most accomplished biographers of Hitler believes that Hitler was “convinced of his own rectitude.” In this belief, Rosenbaum notes, Trevor-Roper echoes that of Socrates in Protagoras, who argued that no one engages in evil intentionally – rather, that they are deluded or ignorant of the evil of their actions but believe in the moment that they are doing right. More colorfully, Rosenbaum quotes Efraim Zuroff, “a big, tough, outspoken Brooklyn-born Israeli,” who served as the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter in Israel, and who vehemently shot down any question about Hitler’s anti-Semitic bona fides.
Hitler thought he was a doctor! Killing germs! That’s all Jews were to him! He believed he was doing good, not evil.
(emphasis in original).
While the debate continues, suffice it to say, the weight of evidence sides with Trevor-Roper and Zuroff. Hitler’s political philosophy seems to have been more or less fixed by the time he became active in politics in the early 1920s. He maintained the same hardline philosophy that he spouted in Munich beer halls as a political neophyte, through his failed Putsch attempt in 1923, even remaining unrepentant at his subsequent trial for treason, through his short time in Landsberg prison during which he codified his philosophy in Mein Kampf, through Germany’s economic recovery in the late 1920s that sapped the Nazis of all but a handful of their seats in the Reichstag, to his resurgence in popularity after the Great Depression plunged Germany back into a state of desperation and eventually through his ascension to Fuhrer.
Hitler’s actions as Fuhrer further cement this conclusion. Hitler’s repeated decisions to prioritize the slaughter of the Jews over the successful prosecution of the war, even diverting trains that could have carried troops to the collapsing front lines on the East to be used instead to carry Jews to death camps, make little sense if Hitler’s anti-Semitism was merely a theatrical device used to accumulate power.
Why this debate matters, and why it is so central to the comparisons to Trump, is the logical implication of Trevor-Roper and Zuroff’s position. If Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, if Hitler’s intentions were not to do what he knew to be evil but rather to do what he believed was good, is he somehow less culpable than he would be if he knew that he was committing one of the worst crimes in human history but did so anyway to further his personal ambitions? In the course of his investigation, Rosenbaum discovered that even the most accomplished scholars on Hitler had a “pronounced reluctance” to simply label him evil. If Hitler – demented as it may have been – believed he was a latter-day Jonas Salk, eradicating a disease that was devastating his people, would he not be classified more akin to someone who had engaged in imperfect self-defense than the unprecedentedly heartless serial killer of our popular conception? It is a challenging thought, because of how monumentally evil Hitler’s crimes were, but it is nevertheless an idea that cannot casually be dismissed.
With Trump, however, we face no such dilemma, because Trump so clearly is the mountebank described by Bullock and Fackenheim. While it’s easy enough to believe that Trump possesses the sort of xenophobia and casual indifference to the plight of others that is all too prevalent today, and which has underlain almost all of his campaign rhetoric, it’s equally easy to demonstrate that his rhetoric is not a reflection of his core beliefs, but rather a carefully calculated tactic to attract attention (of course, it’s possible that his rhetoric occasionally overlaps with what Trump actually believes but this would be, at best, a happy coincidence). To do so, one need only review Trump’s entire life.
It’s no secret that Donald Trump has long thrown himself in front of any willing camera lens with the same sort of reckless enthusiasm with which Wile E. Coyote pursued the Road Runner. It’s how he wound up the punchline in an Ali G bit (he later tried to salvage some dignity by claiming he caught on quicker than other celebrities), and with cameos on shows like Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and in movies like Ghosts Can’t Do It, a bizarre 1990 film with a wretched 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in which the ghost of an elderly man (Anthony Quinn) possesses the body of a much better looking younger man in order to make love to his sexy, much younger, wife (played by Bo Derek, whose real life husband wrote and directed). Even the movie can’t seem to believe Trump’s willingness to debase himself by appearing in it – the credits read “Yes, that really was Donald Trump.”
Moreover, he has slapped his name on anything and everything, whether or not it bore any connection to him, and with a reckless disregard for consistency. He has endorsed competitors, like Pizza Hut and Dominos (although he took Sarah Palin to a third pizzeria when the two ate pizza with forks during her vice presidential campaign). He launched Trump Vodka, even though he never drinks alcohol and advises others not to drink. He has lent his name and imprimatur to countless real estate developments and then vanished when the project later went belly up, as he did when his casino empire folded in Atlantic City. He is, as anyone following the election is surely aware, currently a defendant in a fraud class action lawsuit brought by the former “students” of Trump University, a group that was promised they would receive a bespoke educational course reflecting Trump’s insider knowledge, and instead were given a Wikipedia level introduction to real estate accompanied by a chance to have their photo taken with a cardboard cutout of Trump.
Trump is such an accomplished fabulist that he didn’t even realize when Vice Sports writer David Roth was mocking him by tweeting fictional quotes to non-existent books supposedly authored by Trump, and retweeted one of Roth’s most absurdly Trumpian quotes. Can you imagine Hitler failing to recognize a fake quote supposedly attributed to him from a sequel to Mein Kampf that he’d never even composed?
Perhaps the most telling example of Trump’s willingness to say anything to get attention, regardless of its obvious falsity, was Trump’s multi-year campaign as a “birther,” the fringe movement obsessed with proving that President Obama was actually born in Kenya. From the outset, the claims were absurd and easily debunked. Not only had Obama already released his official Hawaiian birth records, a Certificate of Live Birth, but his parents placed a birth announcement in the Honolulu Advertiser on August 13, 1961 (a week after his birth). The claims were so ridiculous in 2008 that Factcheck.org, the widely-respected, non-partisan equivalent of Consumer Reports for political claims, suggested that anyone interested in pursuing them should “first equip themselves with a high-quality tinfoil hat.” Apparently, an obvious combover worked just as well, because it was long after that seemingly-dispositive report that Trump began his crusade.
Beginning in March 2011, and continuing for at least the next four years, Trump relentlessly flogged disproved claims about Obama’s origins. He claimed to have done research (where, he did not say, as specifics are never a strength of Trump’s) that proved Obama was not born in the USA. Later that year, in response to Trump’s campaign, Obama released his long form birth certificate. This was something of a non-event, the Certificate of Live Birth was after all the official document, but it was nevertheless a further and unimpeachable bit of evidence proving that Obama’s birth was unremarkable as he’d always claimed. Trump, however, found a way to crow about it, claiming he’d “accomplished something that nobody else was able to accomplish,” even if that accomplishment had demolished his already-untenable hypothesis. Alas, Trump’s sense of satisfaction with the accomplishment was short lived. As recently as last year, Trump made statements questioning where the President was born.
The important thing to take away from this is that Trump did not believe – could not have believed – that President Obama was born in Kenya. By the time Trump claimed to have conducted research on Obama’s birth, every reputable news source of any political stripe had concluded, unequivocally, that Obama was born in Honolulu and that no other scenario was even remotely colorable. Whatever else you may think about Trump, he is not a fool (just ask Merv Griffin, or if you’re under 30, ask your grandparents who Merv Griffin was). But Trump was aware that, at a time when his Apprentice ratings were lagging, he had stumbled onto a formula that gained him consistent attention. Perhaps more importantly, he’d been able to use that attention to manipulate the President into doing something, albeit a meaningless thing that only served to make Trump look like a buffoon. Nevertheless, his willingness to loudly flog a false narrative had given him exactly the sort of power and influence he’d always sought.
Trump’s extreme rhetoric on immigration is merely the latest iteration of his continuing performance. Having realized early in the campaign that his outrageous statements about Mexican immigrants were galvanizing his supporters and creating additional publicity for his self-funded-but-not-really campaign, he doubled down on them, and even walked back seemingly inconsistent statements he’d initially made about welcoming refugees from Syria. Was he being sincere? Had his position truly evolved, as he claimed it had done on abortion, where he’d once been vocally pro-choice but was now claiming to be ardently pro-life? The answer, once again, is no. And to so conclude one need not rely on Trump’s history of backtracking on positions that later became disadvantageous, or even his own history of hiring Mexican immigrants when it was financially advantageous, Trump apparently admitted it himself, in an off-the-record interview with the New York Times editorial board. Faced with a team of journalists who were both politically liberal and also highly relevant to his own financial interests in New York City, Trump once again said the most expedient thing: that his campaign positions on immigration were bluster, typically political posturing, that might at best serve as the opening for negotiations on immigration reform. It was, in sum, a performance. Trump was, is, and will continue to be, a mountebank.
Perhaps that conclusion is a relief to those who fear he’d actually pursue those policies as President. It shouldn’t be. Trump has shown time and time again that he will do whatever furthers his ambitions, regardless of its morality or intellectual consistency. And while it certainly is always a positive that one can distinguish him or herself from Hitler, don’t forget the earlier lesson about evil. After all, who is more morally contemptible: a person who does wrong thinking he is doing right, or a person who knows what he’s doing is wrong but who carries on anyway?