Friday, May 26, 2017

Hitler, Trump, and Assad

Since the ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency, I’ve been mostly quiet on this blog. Some of that is due to a personal shift toward social media (I’ve taken to sharing articles and passing observations on my Twitter account) but it’s also due to an inability to keep up. It feels like every day brings a new scandal or the impression of one. The volume of incompetence and corruption is bad enough but what really makes it overwhelming. is the shrill and panicked tone with which this news is delivered.
 
For eight years, Republicans and other right-wingers suffered through Obama Derangement Syndrome in which the President’s every action was cause for hysterical claims that he was a socialist, a black nationalist, a Kenyan, a Muslim, and all manner of meaningless labels and baseless accusations. In truth, Obama was none of these things. He was just another mediocre politician. But he was on the other team and in this age of political tribalism that is enough to call someone a traitor to the country.

In the age of Trump, we are witnessing the same unhinged reaction but this time from the left. Trump Derangement Syndrome has overtaken the President’s opposition and it has paralyzed critical thought and careful analysis. Calls for Trump’s impeachment are made with the same mindless furor that fed the anti-Hillary Clinton “Lock her up!” chants during the 2016 election.

Please do not mistake this as a defense of Donald Trump or his administration. The man is intellectually, experientially, and psychologically unfit for office and he has appointed people to his cabinet with those same qualities. Unlike the accusations against President Obama, there is actually reason to believe Trump is a kleptocrat whose policies are primarily driven by personal enrichment. And the facts in the Russia scandal must be pursued to their conclusion, wherever they might lead.

My concern here is about tone. And tone matters.

Among the President’s detractors, it’s been taken as an article of faith that Donald Trump is the worst Chief Executive in the history of the republic—despite being in office for less than six months. This accusation is short sighted. He has not, for instance, invaded a sovereign nation based on falsified evidence and started a war that killed thousands of American service people and hundreds of thousands of civilians while setting the stage for the rise of one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups. Trump has not authorized torture (although he has bragged that he will). He has not ignored a major city while it drowned in the aftermath of a hurricane and then overseen a botched emergency response. And, to the best of our knowledge, none of his employees are trading drugs and sexual favors with lobbyists of the industries they are supposed to be regulating.

Trump is also frequently compared to Adolf Hitler. Again, this parallels the rhetoric during the Obama years in which the forty-fourth president was often caricatured as somehow akin to the leader of the Third Reich. The Hitler analogies are part of a broader context of uncivil and stupid discourse. We live in a culture in which Godwin’s Law has come to define all political discussions in any medium, whether it is among strangers on Twitter or between family members around the dinner table.

No, Donald Trump is not Hitler. He’s not even George W. Bush.

These meaningless analogies occur while another world leader is actually deserving of comparison to Hitler or at least to Slobodan Milošević and Idi Amin. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has engaged in a litany of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians, and news recently broke that one of Syria’s military prisons now includes a crematorium to conceal atrocities.

Our inability to confront Assad or grapple with this travesty is at least partly due to our frenzied rhetoric. When everyone is Hitler, then no one is. A consistently hysterical tone degrades our ability to make distinctions or present compelling moral arguments.

Hysteria also makes it impossible to have a rational discussion about the President’s actual faults. The arguments made by those afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome are saturated in outrage and dissent is treated with indignancy. That’s no way to build the kind of political movement required to remove a world leader from office. Confronted with such browbeating, Trump’s supporters are more likely to double down than be swayed.

Moving forward, it is incumbent upon Trump’s opposition to hold firm but they must also measure their tone and temper the expectations of their constituents. To listen to the rancor on cable news, liberal websites, and from some Democratic leaders, it would seem that President Trump’s impeachment is going to happen any day now. That’s unlikely. There have been plenty of terrible Presidents but only two of them were ever impeached – and neither of them were actually removed from office. The chain of events that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon took years and that occurred in a very different political, cultural, and media environment than the one we live in now.

But should he get impeached, the short-term joy of seeing Donald Trump get fired will inevitably give way to accusations that Mike Pence is the new Hitler. And meanwhile, actual dictators and war criminals will benefit from the cover of our shrill political discourse. That just seems to be the world we live in now.