Getting Hit with the Hitler Card

I've condemned comparisons of both Bush and Obama to Hitler, but this week the author of Liberal Fascism and a peer tried to tangle me up in their one-sided outrage over Nazi comparisons. I’d like to set the record straight.

04.01.10 6:37 AM ET

Let's talk about Hitler. Because everybody seems to be doing it.

We've seen an ugly rise in Hitler comparisons over the past few years in American politics.

Bush-as-Hitler comparisons erupted at unhinged anti-Bush protests during the last presidency, repeated by liberal elites like Nobel Prize Winner Harold Pinter, who declared W.'s administration "more dangerous than Nazi Germany because of the range and depth of its activities and intentions worldwide." It's a sordid tale I detail at length in my book Wingnuts.

"If you only object to the president of your party being compared to Hitler, then you're part of the problem."

Obama-as-Hitler comparisons have become almost a cottage industry over the past 15 months, starting in earnest with signs handed out by Lyndon LaRouche's cultish minions over the summer of '08 but gaining traction with the conservative talk radio crowd like Glenn Beck ("Fascism is on the rise") and Rush Limbaugh ("When you're dealing with a guy like Obama and the Democrat Party, who are going to impose Nazi-like socialism policies on this country, you've got to say it. And the same time you say it, you have to go out and point [out] we're not talking about the genocide—that's at the tail end of Hitler.") By the time of the 9/12 march on Washington, I saw multiple posters comparing President Obama to Hitler—the idea had tricked down to the grassroots for some. [For a fuller look at the Obama-as-Hitler phenomenon from Wingnuts click here.]

• More From John Avlon: Bush Derangement Syndrome

Now, it used to be that conservative presidents were reflexively compared to Hitler by angry protesters while liberal presidents were called communists. Only President Obama has managed to be tagged as both simultaneously in modern history. The intellectual groundwork for this role-reversal was provided by a popular and thoughtful anti-big government treatise written by conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg called Liberal Fascism. It attempted to delink Hitler and his fascist cronies from the right by pointing out that the Nazis were National Socialists—and therefore arrogant nanny state liberals were the true inheritors of Hitler's legacy.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 Pages. Beast Books. $15.95.

But this week the author of Liberal Fascism accused me of engaging in the Nazi equivalency game because of a reference to Kristallnacht I made in relation to the online exhortations of a militia leader who called on his supporters to smash windows after the healthcare vote—which Goldberg mildly characterized as "a rallying cry, combined with some threats and broken windows."

Here is the full quote from militia leader Mike Vanderbough, which was not reprinted in Goldberg's article: "If we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary."

Given that in the same article, I detailed how Vanderboegh had raised the specter of a "race war" to me in an interview (a detail also omitted from Goldberg's column), this call to break "thousands" of windows in a prelude to armed insurrection brought to mind echoes of Kristallnacht—an incautious but not entirely irrational connection when race wars and calls to smash thousands of windows are combined. Out of an abundance of concern at mischaracterizing the Hatriot leader's comments, I even added a caveat, saying that the parallels might be "intentional or not." But one line in the middle of an 875-word column about militias was suddenly mischaracterized as my main message. This is an occupational hazard in our business.

Goldberg at least had the intellectual honesty to put the Kristallnacht comment in some context—not so with the online column by James Taranto which first plucked the line out of obscurity a few days before in a column primarily devoted to questioning the methodology of the Harris poll inspired by my book Wingnuts. Without ever mentioning militias or the Vanderboegh quote, Taranto misrepresented the comparison as my blanket assessment of the incidents of smashed windows in the aftermath of the healthcare vote. This would look especially "obscene" indeed if, as Taranto stated, it referred only to "small-scale acts of vandalism spurred by impotent rage against the party in power." (Taranto's reference to a deleted bold-faced "dek," always written by online editors, as "the first line" in my piece was also, at best, sloppy).

The implication was even worse if readers assumed that I was comparing Tea Party protesters or anti-healthcare activists to the Nazi thugs who committed Kristallnacht. I was doing no such thing—in fact, I have repeatedly said that the Tea Party's started as a principled fiscal conservative protest against unprecedented government spending and congressional Democrat's misreading the election as a liberal ideological mandate, before a dose of Obama Derangement Syndrome got baked in the cake. Taranto could have cleared up any questions by simply inquiring about this line, but he did not.

I usually avoid engaging in cross-columnist disputes because they seem petty and self-indulgent. I try not to engage in personal attacks. But this record needs to be corrected, because it is being used to undermine the credibility of my work calling out extremism and the corrosive effect of hyper-partisanship on our politics.

I condemn both Bush-as-Hitler and Obama-as-Hitler comparisons in my book and subsequent speeches. Liberals frequently object to my invocation of Bush Derangement Syndrome, just as conservatives bristle at my detailing of Obama Derangement Syndrome. Centrists are used to liberals calling them conservative and conservatives calling them liberal. This impulse is designed to discredit independents and reinforces the left/right divide.

But what's most striking to me is the way committed partisans miss the broader moral equivalency behind these two syndromes: If you only object to the president of your party being compared to Hitler, then you're part of the problem.

Goldberg is quick to dismiss the militia leader Vanderboegh as an "idiot" but then focuses most of his attention on allegedly liberal critics rather than the ugliness of the militia movement itself. Likewise, Taranto perfunctorily says he does not condone political violence but then states that the real outrage is a misplaced historical comparison presented without context.

The larger issue is that when prominent conservative commentators like Rush or Beck play the Obama-as-Nazi card there is no outrage from the right. If pressed, some of their fellow conservatives may issue sober statements about how these comparisons are "not condoned"—but that is very different than outright condemnation. One real test of political courage is condemning extremism when it comes from your side of the aisle. Its absence is another sign of how partisanship too often outweighs principle in today's political debates.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.