Rob Reiner, the Hollywood director often mistaken for a political pundit, appeared on Bill Maher's celebrity panel program this weekend to explain how these Tea Party types, with their constant invocation of the Founding Fathers, "don't know the Constitution, they don't know history." According to Reiner, candidates like Christine O'Donnell don't just disagree with him (he, after all, knows quite a bit about the Constitution) but are actively "selling stupidity and ignorance." Never have I seen, Reiner thundered, an "election cycle with more ignorance than this one." Clap, clap, hoot, holler. Rob Reiner gets it.
And now, for all you rubes out there, he's going to give us a history lesson. A few flat reductio ad Hitlerum jokes followed by a terribly serious exposition of National Socialism's early history, of course, because of all those obvious modern parallels. Jabbing a finger towards the audience, Reiner starts by busting some myths. "Hitler, by the way, never got more than 33 percent of the vote—ever in Germany."
[Hitler] wasn't a majority guy, but he was charismatic and they were having bad economic times – just like we are now – people were out of work, they needed jobs and a guy came along and rallied the troops. My fear is that the Tea Party gets a charismatic leader, because all they're selling is fear and anger and that's all Hitler sold. "I'm angry and I'm frightened and you should hate that guy over there."
Watch the clip here.
The blogosphere has already done a number on Reiner's facile, predictable Tea Partiers-as-Nazis comparison, while ignoring the junk history he's peddling. Sorry to pick nits, but when starting a segment by denouncing the ignorance of both the American voter and the American candidate, you should probably get your facts straight.
First, the National Socialists (not "Hitler"; elections in Germany weren't referenda on a single candidate) did get more that 33 percent of the vote, topping out at 38 percent in the July 1932 Reichstag elections. The next election, in November, saw a precipitous decline in support for fascism (the NSDAP lost 34 seats and ended up at around 33 percent) and an increase in votes for the Communist Party. Either way, fascism controlled the Reichstag because pluralities, not majorities, matter in a parliamentary democracy made up of dozens of political parties. So Reiner's emphatic point about Hitler not being a "majority guy" tells us nothing about the political climate in Weimar Germany—and I'm still unsure what it is supposed to tell us about the Tea Party movement.
Nor did National Socialism gain voters by saying that the economic problems crippling Germany could be blamed on "that guy over there" (i.e. Jews). In fact, the party made its most significant electoral gains when it moderated its anti-Semitism. And if one can "rally the troops" by merely blaming some shadowy "other," why did none of the other radical, völkisch parties see a corresponding increase in popularity? And again, what does any of this say about the United States in 2010?
So Reiner parades a bit of knowledge—which, in this case, turns out to be wrong—to demonstrate that, unlike those Tea Party rubes, he knows history, has learned the lessons of history. Nie wieder faschismus! But this hyperventilating about American fascism is just another brand of Beckism, but of the variety that produces applause from the Real Time audience and vigorous head nodding from its celebrity host. To believe that fear mongering from the Tea Party (and it does exists, but they invoke Chinese communism and the Soviet Union) will produce a genocidal demagogue in the mold of Hitler is—guess what?—fear mongering. Those nuts think Obama is a communist, these nuts think the Tea Party is fascist.
The lesson is this: No one has a monopoly on bad, but apparently irresistible, historical allusion. And the minute a mouth-foaming Mormon or a finger-wagging Hollywood director invokes some horrible event in our recent past, do a bit of Googling before packing up and moving the family to Canada.
And before Rob Reiner, there was Andy Kaufmann.