Last year Mike Godwin, the man whose name is most well known for his association with the rhetorical Reductio ad Hitlerum (more commonly known as Godwin’s Law) issued an exception to the “rule” inspired, no doubt, by the events he saw around him. Godwin’s Law has several iterations and extensions, but essentially the idea is that if an argument goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism, and at that point the discussion has effectively ended. That is, calling someone Hitler or a Nazi is so inflammatory and reductive that it means the conversation is over; there is no more meaningful debate to be had in the discussion.
But in December 2015 Godwin said, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”
It’s fascinating that the man whose actual name is on the “Law” itself would feel obligated not to just give that proviso, but name Donald Trump in particular. That’s because Donald Trump lends himself to that exception in a way that no other modern politician can… or should. His racial rhetoric; bizarre, rambling speeches; simplistic yet evasive language; and the tone of his campaign all evoke that comparison. Indeed, Trump has encouraged it with his regurgitation of misinformation that he apparently gleaned from white supremacist groups, his strange backhanded denials of David Duke and the KKK, and even his own bedside reading, which included an anthology of Hitler’s speeches.
But despite Godwin’s own exception to the law that bears his name, comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler fails on several important levels.
First of all, Adolf Hitler was not born with anything like the wealth and privilege that are so definitive of the circumstances of Donald Trump’s birth. Hitler was the son of a mid-level bureaucrat and his much younger wife, who by all accounts doted on #BabyHitler. Poverty would plague him throughout the formative period of his life. Donald Trump, despite amazing levels of business incompetence that nearly ruined him and his family financially, and which would appear to have only been resolved by a wide-ranging and systemic pattern of tax evasion, has never been poor. At certain points he may very well have been as much as billions in the red, but even at that time he had access to financial resources that assured he could never fall out of the economic Brahman class of America that exists in the rarefied world of tax shelters and financial support such that they are now, effectively, a permanent economic over-class. In comparison, Hitler struggled financially while trying and failing to become an artist in Vienna. He lived on the streets and in charitable hostels for war veterans, selling his artwork cheap. Hitler’s financial chicanery would have to wait until after he entered public life, and when it came to enriching himself it would never rival the personal billions (supposedly) that Trump has wrangled out of duping investors and gaming the tax code.
Second, Hitler served in the military. In fact, he wasn’t just in the military, he joyfully volunteered, and he served in combat with distinction. This isn’t important only in relation to the disdain that Trump has consistently shown towards those who serve in the military, or who have suffered as a result of their experience. Nor is it particularly significant that Trump dodged the draft through college deferments and falsified medical ailments. In those things he is not unlike many politicians of his generation. It’s the service itself that is at the heart of the matter. Theories abound about Hitler’s mental instability, but there’s a good argument to be made that Hitler’s psychological problems stemmed from the trauma he experienced as a soldier in the First World War. Hitler had at least one bout of hysterical blindness after a battle, had a life-long horror of biological weapons due to being wounded in a mustard gas attack, and his bond with his own people was in many ways predicated upon his personal sacrifice in that ill-fated conflict. Both Hitler’s physical and mental health were very much affected by his military experiences. Indeed, had he not served, Hitler may not have developed the ultimate levels of megalomania and pathology that he later exhibited. He certainly would not have had the resume to justify a position in national leadership of the militaristic German culture that pre-dated the Second World War.
Donald Trump has no such justification for his psychological problems. His issues all stem from his family situation, and the fact that he’s been so able to indulge them with his wealth. A megalomaniac is much more able to function as a megalomaniac if he surrounds himself with yes-men and sycophants, which Trump has clearly done. Further, his relationship with his family is that of petulant bully. His comments about his father all seem deeply rooted in a painfully obvious Freudian competition, making the few things he’s said about his mother seem all the more pointed.
Beside Hitler, pundits and observers have been relating Trump to a range of politicians including Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long and George Wallace, but there are merits and demerits to any of those comparisons. They all work in one way or another to reflect a facet or two of the public figure that is Donald Trump, mostly having to do with his populism, demagoguery or the way he plays the race card. However, they fail again on the particulars, especially when it comes to his background, and as such give us little to go on when trying to understand the man. The methods of populism, demagoguery and racism are not so different in any particular manifestation that they don’t serve as examples of one another, and if one puts any of those figures up next to Trump on a personal level, they contrast more than compare. McCarthy was the son of a farmer, and he went straight into government, dedicating his adult life to his political career rather than the accumulation of wealth. Huey Long was a middle-class child, and a good student (Trump’s education can be described in two words: expensive and lackluster) before he also dedicated his life to politics. McCarthy was also a farmer’s son, but he managed a law degree, and served as an officer in WWII. None of these men sought power through wealth first, most likely because none of them were born with the access to America’s financial institutions that Trump was born into. Where Trump was born on third base (but wants everyone to believe he hit a triple) the politicians to whom he is most often compared actually did, for better or for worst—or for even worse than that—earn their positions. Trump can make no such claim with anything like legitimacy.
But there is a figure from history that makes for an apt comparison to Trump, and it’s one that he probably wouldn’t object to if he had the wherewithal to consider it. (Self-reflection is not something he enjoys.)
Donald Trump is best understood by comparing him to Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The most obvious comparison, of course, is to their relative stations in life. Through nothing more than an accident of birth, both men were at the top of the social order in which they lived. Of course, Trump was certainly not royal in the sense that Wilhelm enjoyed, but given the system and society in which he lived he enjoyed a very comparable standard of living and influence. Further, that position was not all it was cracked up to be—from the point of view of either man, that is. Where other human beings in such circumstances would have to be viewed as occupying a position of unrivaled social privilege, both Trump and Wilhelm appear to feel they have been left out of some sort of upper-upper-upper crust club. They are the 1% of the 1% but only in terms of the objective reality, not the emotional one. Both men were or are the “poor cousins” of the family. Not poor in the financial sense, of course, but in the sense of not being “in with the in-crowd.” Wilhelm famously admired, envied and despised his English cousins, and had a strange relationship with his English mother that was straight out of the same Freudian textbook as Trump’s. Similarly, Trump has always been outside New York Society looking in, and has Nixon’s resentment of anyone whose blood runs bluer than his own, which—truth be told—is a rather thin shade of blue. Trump’s grandfather was the patriarch of his family, and it was he who put them on the path of wealth. There is no Mayflower or Civil War or even illustrious links back to the Old Country in his case. Two or three generations of wealth is still low on the vine in New York Society, and the Trumps remain nouveau riche in both style and character. From the tacky marble floors to the Casino style gilt ceilings, the nervous sweat of the social climber oozes from Trump’s every pore. Just observe his behavior and reception at one of New York’s social institutions, the Al Smith Dinner, to see how painfully and poignantly that relationship is felt. Trump himself seeks the limelight with all the zeal of a Las Vegas showgirl and half the charm. In doing so he commits the ultimate sin of aristocracy: he’s desperate. Desperation is the one unforgivable sin for these people, and bear in mind they can forgive just about anything. Murder? Cheating at cards? Marrying beneath one’s status? Sure. But the stink of desperation? Never.
Furthermore, Donald Trump is furiously and publicly abashed when it comes to his physical traits, in particular his hands. Some strange, life-long inferiority seems to have nestled in his mind until the index of hand to foot to penis size seems ingrained his is every expansive gesture. He’s defended his manhood on a national, even global forum. The Kaiser, by comparison, struggled throughout his life with a birth defect caused by a breached birth which paralyzed nerves in his upper arm. He spent his entire life hiding with clothes or by some affectation (a walking stick, a sword) that he had a withered left hand.
When it comes to character and demeanor, the two men share many characteristics. Bombastic and confident to the point of the ridiculous, one need only look at their certainty of their own genetic or racial superiority as justification for their nominal success. Both men espouse ideas of racial superiority unabashedly, and along with that supposed superiority comes the requisite racist comments and accusations. In Kaiser Wilhelm’s case, of course, he had his Teutonic heritage to draw on, and Trump has made no secret of his own belief that his station is life is justified by a comparable racial background. He believes his own wealth and success in particular stems not from the financial decisions made by his grandfather, but his own genetic development.
Both men dedicated much of their political lives to race, though their respective targets differed in some ways. Likely Kaiser Wilhelm’s only lasting contribution to racism was that he coined the term The Yellow Peril as European powers began to get involved in Asia, particularly China. Trump, of course, famously made Mexican immigrants as his target. But he also perks up at China nearly as regularly: Both China AND Mexico are taking American jobs. Chinese leaders are vastly superior to American leaders (as are any number of other authoritarians.) Further, China’s growing economic power is a fuel for his bizarre, late night tweet vomit:
Even with those similarities, however, it’s important to bear in mind one very important difference between the Kaiser and Trump. Trump was not born into royalty. He will not automatically assume leadership of the United States by birth, and it remains to be seen if he’ll make such a thing happen by election. As such, Donald Trump is no Kaiser Wilhelm II.
He just wants to be.