In recent weeks, left and right have employed the Vidal tactic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused town-hall protesters of “carrying swastikas,” leaving the impression they were proud Nazis — when, in fact, a few protesters carried signs accusing Barack Obama of having Nazi aims (bad enough). Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) declared the protesters guilty of “Brownshirt tactics.” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) compared America under Obama to Germany in the 1930s. Rush Limbaugh talked of “similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany.”
The accusation is a staple of American T-shirt and bumper-sticker political culture, found too often at liberal antiwar protests and conservative tea parties. Anyone with a black felt pen and the ability to draw a Hitler moustache on a poster can make this witty, trenchant political statement. Michael Moore compared the USA Patriot Act to “Mein Kampf.” Al Gore warned of “digital Brownshirts.”
Nazism is not a useful symbol for everything that makes us angry, from Iraq to abortion. It is a historical movement, unique in the ambitions of its cruelty. Those who doubt this uniqueness should read Saul Friedlander’s “Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 2: The Years of Extermination,” which records the Nazi terror with the same meticulousness that the Germans displayed in producing it. Nazism was the “beard game,” in which the beards and sidelocks of Jews were pulled off or set afire before audiences of cheering soldiers. It was the practice of making elderly Jews dance around a fire of burning Torah scrolls. It was whole orphanages deported to death camps, and pits full of corpses, and ancient communities erased from human memory, and death factories issuing a thick smoke of souls, and a mother trading her gold ring for a glass of water to give her dying child.
[The memories of Nazi atrocities] are trivialized when applied to Obama’s health insurance reform plan or the conduct of disorderly town-hall protesters. The burning of the Reichstag and Kristallnacht are not arguments against a single-payer health plan or against the Patriot Act.
The problem, of course, is that calling someone a Nazi has become a standard part of the American political lexicon. Invoke the Nazis and anyone who opposes you is automatically an appeaser of evil. It’s an easy way to shut down political debate even when legitimate questions need to be asked.
Which is why politicians resort to it so often.
Gerson is right, comparing everything to the most evil regime in history is wrong because it trivializes the evil that the Nazis did and insults the memory of their victims. The problem is that it’s become as common to the American political lexicon as calling someone a “jerk,” so it seems unlikely that it will end any time soon.
As for the “Vidal tactic” that Gerson refers to, that goes back to this exchange between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention:
Vidal: “the only pro or crypto-Nazi here is yourself.”
Buckley: “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”