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Reclaim Political Discourse: Don't Call Your Opponent "Hitler"

Godwin’s Law says “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Turns out, it’s also applicable offline.

Nearly everyone is discussing Donald Trump this election cycle — and yes, some have compared him to Hitler. Comedian Louis C.K. wrote to his fans and compared this election cycle to German politics in the 1930's:

“Hitler was just some hilarious and refreshing dude with a weird comb over who would say anything at all,” he wrote.

Glenn Beck made the same point on ABC’s This Week. Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s 86-year-old stepsister, told Newsweek that Trump’s presidency would be a “complete disaster” during remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day last month.

“I think he is acting like another Hitler by inciting racism,” Schloss said.

Moral reasoning, balkanized as it is, divides further and more rapidly when taken to social media. Anyone can be an author. Anyone can be a pundit. Anyone can be a moralist, a theologian, a petty expert. The sheer number of voices makes distillation of argument and intent difficult, and extreme polemics get more attention.

Attempts to argue against Trump are often apoplectic, hyperbolic. They are universal in scope and complete in their condemnation. It’s not simply that those opposing him disagree with his policies; they disagree so vehemently as to make the possibility of his presidency unconscionable. This means that “you’re wrong” gets replaced by “you’re bad.” It’s snappier. It’s more effective. It takes less effort to argue. And it’s happened before.

Salvaging moral and political speech alike will be possible only if we consistently distinguish between “you’re wrong” and “you’re bad” arguments. Expressing condemnation is not the same thing as expressing disagreement. Telling everyone who thinks differently from you that they’re evil makes it difficult to address someone who is indeed morally contemptible when they arrive. Loyal opposition allows that the other party is still working from some shared premises, and can be integrated into the political order by means short of warfare or exile.

Abraham Lincoln was called many nasty things in his time, the “Illinois Ape” being one (though not the worst) of them. That doesn’t mean this language, being old, is any less perverse. It crowds out the possibility of discourse, an essential part of the American political process — so precious, in fact, that our right to conduct it freely is enshrined in the First Amendment.

But discourse assumes a common culture, language, and place. It assumes a shared value of enduring things and a similar commitment to their preservation — if not to the means, then at least to the ends. Resolving disagreement is a matter of working out how to best preserve what both parties hold dear.

The only thing our fractured polis shares is the ubiquitous cry of “I.” Loyal opposition is gone, largely because we have abandoned any attempt to remain loyal to a system of ideas or commitments that lies behind (and above) politics. Political hyperbole is endemic to the American political process, but it becomes dangerous when deployed in a morally-fractured society. Moral reasoning becomes egotistic and tribal. Your opponents deserve to be shouted down or removed from power. And so the shouting begins.

Restoring the republic will first require smoothing many a moralist's petticoats and returning to the sober, difficult task of working out the good of its citizens. Calling your political opposition “Hitler” or condemning them as evil when, in reality, they simply disagree with you, is infantile and destructive of the very order and moral goods you presumably seek to protect.

Sarah is from Mississippi (near Elvis’ birthplace, for those who care) and studies politics, journalism, and philosophy at Hillsdale College. She is hoping to either go into journalism or continue her studies in graduate school, working on new natural law theory.


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