Can We Get a Grip?

The comparison on the website is arresting. A photograph of President Obama in unattractive blue jeans, preparing to throw the first ball at a baseball game. The caption: "You know who else wore funny pants?" Place the cursor on the image and it shifts to an older photograph, black and white, of a familiar evil figure clad in lederhosen. "Hitler!"

Nearby is a photograph of Barack Obama with Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley in the White House garden. "You know who else had beer summits?" Fade to an image of a Munich beer garden. "Hitler!

The website ( obviously joking. Or rather: One wishes it were obvious. The unfunny fact is, however, that Obama=Hitler analogies are spreading like wildfire on the political right.

"Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate," said Rush Limbaugh on his Aug. 6 radio program. That same day Limbaugh itemized "similarities between the Democrat party of today and the Nazi party in Germany." Among them: The Nazis mistrusted big business, worried about pollution, initiated make-work projects and condemned smoking. Limbaugh concluded: "It is liberalism that is the closest you can get to Nazism."

Fascism celebrated violence, anti-rationalism and hysterical devotion to an authoritarian leader. To date, the Obama administration has fallen rather short in these departments.

Fox News's newest star, Glenn Beck, has insisted repeatedly that Obama wishes to lead the United States to a "fascist state."

The House of Representatives' version of health care reform offered coverage for "end of life counseling." This legislation inspired Sarah Palin to accuse Obama of planning "death panels" to extinguish the old and the disabled--an accusation seized and repeated by Sean Hannity on Fox News.

My sent a reporter to a healthcare townhall in Maryland, hardly a conservative state. He wrote: "Twenty minutes into my two-hour wait to get a seat at Senator Ben Cardin's town hall event, I started keeping a 'Nazi tally' by counting references I overheard to Adolf Hitler, Germany, or the Nazi Party. . . . 'This is exactly how Nazi Germany began!' was a standard echo heard in line." There's a lot wrong with Barack Obama's healthcare plan, but no, this is not exactly how Nazi Germany began. Not even a little bit close. In fact, the analogy seems so self-evidently crazy that it may baffle outsiders as to how any conservative, no matter how irate, could possibly imagine such a thing.

The answer begins with the declining impact of the word "socialism," the seemingly more obvious term to apply to big, expensive government programs. Recent polling in the U. S. has found that voters are reacting less negatively to the word than they did a generation ago. Plus, support for Barack Obama from people like Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker has rendered that particular charge less credible. "Fascism" packs more voltage.

The Nazi talk also reflects the impact on Republican politics of supporters of Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. For their own internal ideological reasons, Paulistas use the term "fascism" very promiscuously. Paul did not win many votes, but he raised a lot of money and inspired intense enthusiasm. The Paulistas make a natural activist base for an opposition party--and an eager audience for angry talk radio. In order to gain their support, many Republicans have begun to talk their inflammatory language. The man who attended President Obama's Portsmouth, NH, event carrying a placard endorsing assassination and bearing a--legal--firearm strapped to his leg was a Ron Paul supporter.

Contra Rush Limbaugh, history's actual fascists were not primarily known for their anti-smoking policies or generous social welfare programs. Fascism celebrated violence, anti-rationalism and hysterical devotion to an authoritarian leader. To date, the Obama administration has fallen rather short in these departments. Perhaps uncomfortably aware of the shortcoming, the hardliners have developed--okay, invented really--their own mythology about Obama "brownshirts." (The popular conservative website literally uses the term.) The complaint rests on a single case---that of conservative activist Kenneth Gladney, who got into a scuffle at a townhall in St. Louis, Missouri. The altercation was captured on video and you can watch it on YouTube. What you'll see is a man, already on the ground, and another man stepping back in order to avoid tripping over him. The man on the ground is Gladney. Gladney walked away from the confrontation and later went to hospital, where he was treated for light injuries and released the same day. Whatever happened and whoever started it, this happily bloodless encounter bears not even the most glancing resemblance to the brutality that made Hitler's brownshirts notorious. And yet, look up Gladney's name online and he's suddenly a poignant martyr.

Can we get a grip here? It is possible to express opposition to a president's policies without preposterous name-calling--without diminishing and disparaging the unique experiences of those who did actually suffer from actual persecution by actual Nazis. After all, you know who else trafficked in hysterical exaggeration? That's right: Hitler!

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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