In 2009, investigative pundits, politicians, and protesters discovered that the United States of America was being overrun by a coalition of Nazis, communists, and remnants of the Romanov dynasty. The heavy breathing was largely bipartisan (though the "Tea Party" protesters sucked up most of the media oxygen) and wonderfully insane. Here are but a few notable examples from the year that was.
In August, Rush Limbaugh spotted similarities in the slick logo accompanying Obama administration's health care initiative (which features the caduceus, a symbol employed by medics and ambulance companies the world over) with the Nazi eagle clutching a swastika. Not to be outdone, the following day Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) said those venting their frustration at ObamaCare in town hall meetings were using "Brown Shirt tactics" to stifle debate. In case his constituents thought he was being hyperbolic, Baird underscored that he took the comparison "very seriously."
As I pointed out soon after Baird made his historically illiterate comparison, one cannot expect a congressman—a job for which the intellectual bar for entry is distressingly low—to know that Hitler's goons "disappeared" as many as 600 political enemies in the months following the Nazi seizure of power. During the tumultous town halls, an Obama supporter disappeared half of a protester's finger but no one, as far as I know, was murdered.
At Townhall.com, conservative writer Kevin McCullough warned that ours was to soon be a nation of unwilling Mengeles: "This week President Obama exercised for the first time a policy decision that shares a trait held in common with Adolf Hitler." Doctors, he argued, would be forced to perform abortions in Obama's reich, even if they were morally opposed to doing so: "In the 1930's and 40's as Hitler wished to use his captive 'lesser-humans' for 'experiments' in his final solution. He too forced doctors to do things they did not wish to do."
Even those denouncing facile Hitler comparisons were compelled to engage in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerum of their own. According to Vanity Fair writer James Walcott, the Tea Party participants "evoke Hitler not because they fear another Hitler, their very obsession with Nazi imagery betrays their attraction; no, they're longing for a Leader, a Hitler of their own." In case you missed the subtlety, Walcott identified former Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—criticized by others for displaying an Israeli flag in her office—as "Hitler in high heels."
In late 2008, both the New Yorker's Steve Coll and New York Times columnist Frank Rich argued that a Weimar-like atmosphere could be found at John McCain rallies. In 2009, Rich bested his previous low, writing that while Republican crowds were fascistic, the leadership was engaging in "Stalinism in full purge mode."
It was the contentious health care debate, though, which provoked the year's most hyperbolic political discourse, from Palin's now-infamous "death panel" post at Facebook (recently flagged as the "lie of the year" by the website PolitiFact) to Democratic Florida Rep. Alan Grayson's comment that opponents of ObamaCare wanted the uninsured to "die quickly." (When his comments were compared to the "You lie!" outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Grayson objected that his comments were more "like a Bob Dylan protest song.") MSNBC host Ed Schultz, frequently seen denouncing conservative "psycho talk," one-upped Grayson, bellowing that "[T]he Republicans lie! They want to see you dead!"
Nor was it just unknown congressmen and low-rated cable hosts accusing Obama's critics of wanting to kill Americans. Writing from his perch at The Washington Post, blogger Ezra Klein accused Joe Lieberman of being "willing to directly cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands in order to settle an old electoral score." In a rare in-house response, Post writer Charles Lane publicly rebuked Klein's "disgusting" argument, saying the he "essentially accuses Lieberman of mass murder because he disagrees with him on a policy issue about which there is considerable debate among people of good will across the political spectrum."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) went for the "throw a bucket of mud and see what sticks" approach, thundering that those opposed to the health care bill were, "The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups, it is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist." As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank later observed, Whitehouse also compared obstructionist Republicans "to Nazis on Kristallnacht, lynch mobs of the South, and bloodthirsty crowds of the French Revolution." Of course, it always comes back to the Nazis.
So here we find, in 2009, the defenders of reasonable, high-minded political discourse—from writers at the New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, mimicking the psychoses of their opponents. Indeed, when Census worker Bill Sparkman committed suicide, disguising it to look like a politically motivated murder, the left-wing blogosphere erupted with accusations that the death was the obvious result of anti-government nutjobs. "This is the kind of violent event that emerges from a culture of paranoia and unsubstantiated attacks," wrote Allison Kilkenny at The Huffington Post. But the paranoia and unsubstantiated claims were, in this case, inverted.
It is true that Palin's death panel comment, the birth certificate dog whistle, Michelle Bachmann's assorted lunacies, and Glenn Beck's bizarre argument that Diego Rivera's Leninist murals at Rockefeller Center demonstrate a corporate-communist conspiracy are worthy of scorn and mockery. But none of this unique in American politics, or to the right. Recall that just a few years ago, Naomi Wolf charted America's forthcoming fascist apocalypse. (It is usually at this point that one is required, by journalistic law, to insert a reference to Richard Hofstader.)
It isn't worth arguing with those who claim, with a frighting earnestness, that the Nazis provided Europe's blueprint for universal health care or with those who believe that Glenn Beck's fan base is one giant sleeper cell (Gawker's Alex Pareene recently wrote that "Glenn Beck is an actual terrorist, and the people attending his rally in DC…are al-Qaeda in America."). And it is distressing the number of "life-long conservatives" who told me that we were bearing witness to a communist takeover of Washington. I wondered if they had simply sat out the anti-communist conservatism of Whittaker Chambers and Malcolm Muggeridge, or if they had ever heard of the Gulag. Surely, these former cold warriors—the most noble of conservative causes in the previous century—knew the difference between crippling budget deficits and the Moscow purge trials; between the difficulties faced by Democratic heretics like Sens. Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson and the great chronicler of state-sponsored genocide Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
But this is bare-knuckle, or perhaps just knuckle-dragging, politics, not history. We cannot expect our elected officials, the broadcasters paid to gin up anger, the tea party rabble comparing Norwegian health care to Dachau and confusing Leninism with Tsarism, to abide the unwritten rules governing historical analogy. Hyperbole is part of a fine American political tradition—from denunciations of FDR as a Soviet stooge to charges that George W. Bush was part of Nazi collaborationist family—and it certainly didn't begin with the election of Barack Obama. And let us hope it is here to stay, for it is more stupid than pernicious, and terribly entertaining for those of us bored by 3,000-page health care bills.
Michael Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.