Godwin’s Law Overturned on Appeal

Godwin’s Law Overturned on Appeal February 3, 2017

Godwin’s Law is, in the words of Wikipedia,

…an Internet adage which asserts that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1’—that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.

…there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned Hitler has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress. This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin’s law.

There has always been something that bothered me about that law. It is this: what if a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis is actually apt?

“Holy Moses – they are acting Like Nazis!”
“Ha! Godwin’s Law – you lose!”
“B-but… they are making Jews wear yellow stars and herding them onto railroad tr—“
“You’re still here?? You already lost the debate!”

Writing for Salon magazine in 2010, lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald zeroed in on why Godwin’s Law is deeply dangerous:

(T)he very notion that a major 20th Century event like German aggression is off-limits in political discussions is both arbitrary and anti-intellectual in the extreme. There simply are instances where such comparisons uniquely illuminate important truths: recall, for example, Andrew Sullivan’s consequential discovery of the stark similarities between the Bush/Cheney and Gestapo “enhanced interrogation” documents, both in terms of approved tactics and ‘justifications.’ To demand that German crimes be treated as sacred and unmentionable is to deprive our discourse of critical truths.

But this prohibition is even more odious than that. A primary point of the Nuremberg Trials was to seize on the extraordinary horror of what the Germans did in order to set forth general principles to be applied not only to the individual war criminals before the tribunal, but more important, to all countries in the future. As lead prosecutor Robert Jackson explained in his Opening Statement:

“What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. . . . . And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”

I bring all this up because while Donald Trump is a somewhat ridiculous figure – the last couple weeks seem almost like a Warner Brothers cartoon in which Yosemite Sam somehow becomes president – I believe there is something very ugly growing on the American political right. There are stirrings of an atavistic fascism that is becoming ever bolder and more explicit, and which needs to be firmly and clearly confronted.

Former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote last year of this aspect of Donald Trump’s appeal:

Fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment. The sociologist Émile Durkheim warned that the disenfranchisement of a class of people from the structures of society produced a state of “anomie”—a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals.” Those trapped in this “anomie,” he wrote, are easy prey to propaganda and emotionally driven mass movements. Hannah Arendt, echoing Durkheim, noted that “the chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

In fascism the politically disempowered and disengaged, ignored and reviled by the establishment, discover a voice and a sense of empowerment.

…Fascism is aided and advanced by the apathy of those who are tired of being conned and lied to by a bankrupt liberal establishment, whose only reason to vote for a politician or support a political party is to elect the least worst.

…Fascism expresses itself in familiar and comforting national and religious symbols, which is why it comes in various varieties and forms. Italian fascism, which looked back to the glory of the Roman Empire, for example, never shared the Nazis’ love of Teutonic and Nordic myths. American fascism too will reach back to traditional patriotic symbols, narratives and beliefs.

…There is only one way left to blunt the yearning for fascism coalescing around Trump. It is to build, as fast as possible, movements or parties that declare war on corporate power, engage in sustained acts of civil disobedience and seek to reintegrate the disenfranchised—the “losers”—back into the economy and political life of the country. This movement will never come out of the Democratic Party.

It is interesting that Hedges locates part of the responsibility for Trump in a “bankrupt liberal establishment.” I would agree with this assessment, as I will discuss in detail in future posts. The 70 percent of the country (of every race and ethnicity) that does not have a college degree has gotten steadily poorer over the last three to four decades, and neither party has done much about that.

Trump has promised to make the alleviation of the suffering of working class people (more specifically, that portion of the working class that is white) a priority of his administration, which is a large part of the reason he is the president today. His (and particularly White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s) tendency toward authoritarianism invite obvious comparisons to the way the Nazi Party’s initiatives promised the same thing (in fact, as a practical matter, the Nazis actually did end the Great Depression in Germany by the mid-1930s, far sooner than America did), as long as people went along with their authoritarianism: “Give us power, and we’ll fix things.”

I do not make that comparison lightly. The right-populism of Trump and Bannon is similar to the right-populism of Hitler’s Nazis: there is the same scapegoating of racial and cultural minorities, the same xenophobia, there is a non-trivial fraction of his supporters who are pretty openly anti-Semitic, the same disdain for democracy.

One encouraging sign that things may not get as dire as I fear is the absolutely massive reaction to the Trump administration’s executive orders regarding immigration and refugees this week. The left is finding its voice.


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  • ” I believe there is something very ugly growing on the American political right.”

    I completely agree, and I am shocked and demoralized by how many Christians have embraced it.

  • Julia Smucker

    I think the reason Godwin’s Law exists is in recognition that Nazi/Hitler references make for a facile go-to label for just about anyone one disagrees with, and as you say, such comparisons should not be made lightly.

    That said (and without even having to invoke Nazism, really), there is something I’ve been finding vaguely disturbing about the way the “democratic process” has been talked about since the election: as if any questioning of the legitimacy of Trump’s election, or even of his fitness for office (which of course is highly questionable; I think your Yosemite Sam analogy rather hits the nail on the head), is an undermining of that whole democratic process, possibly tantamount to treason. The phrase “peaceful transfer of power” was repeated almost like a mantra between the election and the inauguration from both sides of the aisle, including by Obama. Which seems to feed into, and maybe also stem from, the perennial false dichotomy between violent revolution and passive acceptance of the unacceptable.

    The thing is, it shouldn’t take a situation directly comparable to Nazi Germany to recognize that the democratic process is capable of producing some very bad, even undemocratic, leaders. The rise of Hitler is indeed one example of this, which ought to be able to serve as a lesson of history without descending into the childish mudslinging of calling each other Nazis or accusing each other of doing so out of hypersensitivity to every historical reference. There are other more contemporary examples, like the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines (who saved everyone the trouble by making his own self-comparison to Hitler), and the wave of nationalist movements in Europe (which Germany, it should be noted, has been the most hesitant to embrace).

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    I want to second Julia’s comment about the origins of Godwin’s law. The term fascist has been thrown around so casually on the left that it has ceased to have meaning: it boils down to “something political on the right that I don’t like.” My father, in his old age, used to mutter about “fascistas y communistas” but at least, to his credit, he had seen both in Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (according to family stories). Last year (fall 2015) there were thoughtful discussions about whether Trump really was a Fascist, with many experts in the history of Fascism were quick to say he was not. However, several of them finished by saying “he is an authoritarian nationalist” which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

    • Agellius

      It’s funny because people on the right have been seeing signs of fascism on the left for quite a while now too. As Julia notes, it has become a facile, go-to label, and therefore not very useful. Part of the problem is that there are multiple facets to fascism. Yes, it’s nationalistic, but also historically it has relied on violence and intimidation [http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/berkeley-riots-inside-the-campus-showdown-over-free-speech-w465151] to silence its opponents.

      • Mark VA


        Generally, under Communism it was occasionally permissible to criticize some of its minor aspects: inefficient rail transportation, poor agricultural planning, low quality of refrigerators, etc;

        However, it was never permissible to ridicule the Communist orthodoxy itself – this was an intrinsic and unforgivable sin, and carried the severest of penalties;

        Yiannopoulos is reviled on the informed Left because of this singular and unforgivable sin – all other accusations (fascism, hate, racism, sexism, etc) are b.s. for the gullible and uniformed Left:


        • Mark –

          Bannon’s White House is way closer to fascism than anyone on the mainstream American left is to communism. The current iteration of the Democratic Party is basically indistinguishable from the Republican Party of about 1960, in terms of where it is on the left/right scale.

        • Mark VA

          Mr. Talbot:

          Well, I’ve lived under communism. If you’ve lived under communism as well, I would be happy to compare notes.

          • My previous remark includes the Obama administration: he governed pretty much as a “country club Republican” like Nelson Rockefeller would have governed had he won the 1964 election. The mainstream American left is actually center-right by the standards of history and much of the rest of the world.