As is well known, the Hitler comparison is a standard trope among the Internet commentariat. The standard rhetorical reply is to evoke the Godwin’s law, which says that once the Hitler comparison is reached, all further argument is reduced to absurdity or repetition.
Godwin’s law may be right as far as the measurement of information is concerned. However, there is more to say about the insistent use of Hitler, at least from the semi-Freudian/Marxy p.o.v.
Freud introduced the useful concept of the “screen memory” quite early in his career, in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss. In an essay in his “Small Writings” about a childhood memory in Goethe’s autobiography, written in the midst of the horrors of World War I, 1917, he condenses the notion down to its essence:
“Obviously, the important value of such childhood memories is only rarely evident. Mostly they seem indifferent, even nugatory, and it seems incomprehensible that it is just these memories that succeeded in defying our amnesia; thus those, who retain them as their memory properties over the course of many years, know as little how to measure their importance as the people to whom they recount them. In order to recognize their significance, it requires a certain art of interpretation, that either shows how their content was substituted through another, or shows their relationship to some other unrecognized but important experience, for which they have emerged as so-called “screen memories’”.
It is, of course, an enormous step from the memories of an individual to the collective memories of a culture. But I’ll leap it here, to ask, what screen memory is “Hitler” the name for?
My theory is that it is the screen memory that allows Americans to project on a completely foreign leader, and events that happened in Europe, a chain of events that were located firmly in the New World, from the ethnic cleansing of the Indian nations to slavery to post Civil War apartheid all the way up to the mass incarcerations that have marked our last thirty years. In other words, the correct comparison for evils that happen in America is not Nazi Germany, but the American past, with all of its complexities. The correct comparison for Trump, for instance, is evidently and obviously George Bush, whose footsteps he is following pretty closely. When the absurd editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, writes about Trump as a “Nero”, I have to laugh, since this same Remnick was all too happy to publish fakey news accounts about how closely Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were bound together in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq – the bloodiness and awfulness of which is being softened to nothing by the same American amnesia that has now made the war in Vietnam a question of heroic American P.O.W.s, instead of say the multiply more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese P.O.W.s who faced much worse conditions in camps in the South.
You would think that 9/11 would have made us think a bit about how a society treats people who bomb it, but then, that would be a little too much thinking.
In any case, the Hitler comparison and in general the fascist comparisons that are continually thrown up in political discourse in this country are products not of solemn historical reflection, and not of deep and vigorous resistance to Trump, but, just the opposite, of a resistance to see how Trump fits into our national narrative. Trump, as H. Rap Brown mighta put it, is as American as apple pie.