There’s an old adage about online conversation called Godwin’s Law: Stretched out over a sufficiently long timeline, every discussion on the Internet will eventually involve a commenter comparing someone to Hitler or the Nazis.
Following the coordinated attacks that took place Friday night in Paris, real estate mogul and 2016 Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested something that struck a lot of critics as particularly worthy of a Nazi comparison. When Trump was asked in an interview with Yahoo News how he would feel about requiring people of the Islamic faith to carry identification in the U.S., he didn’t rule it out. “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before,” Trump told Yahoo. “Some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule.” He later clarified in an NBC News interview that he “absolutely” would do it—citing it as “just good management.” On Thursday, Trump went ever one step further, proposing to register all American Muslims for tracking purposes.
Godwin’s Law may be a joke, but Trump shows us why this maxim is actually important.
If critics have suggested Trump has been drinking Third Reich-flavored Kool-Aid, there’s a reason his lips appear to be cherry-red. Requirements that Jews carry items identifying them by their religion was a precursor to the work camps developed to house and exterminate them. Godwin’s Law may be a joke—a way to point out the Web’s worst tendencies when you’re having debates with total strangers online—but Donald Trump shows us why this maxim is actually important.
As recounted in a 1994 essay in Wired, attorney Mike Godwin seeded his eponymous law as an Internet meme four years earlier. Godwin’s goal was twofold. First, he worried glibly comparing everything someone finds distasteful to the Holocaust disrespected the memory of the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Second, Godwin saw that invoking Hilter or Nazisim had a tendency to immediately shut down discussion on topics ranging from guns to birth control to government censorship. At the bottom of every overwrought slippery slope argument, Godwin argued, was Hitler’s iconic mustache crudely drawn on a face that almost certainly didn’t deserve it.
While studies have shown that Godwin’s Law isn’t as universally applicable as, say, Isaac Newton’s observations regarding thermodynamics, Godwin’s Law is a pretty effective effort to render the analogy ridiculous, to take that tactic off the Internet discussion board entirely. Nazism’s place in the cultural conversation is too loaded with baggage to trust the Internet’s commenting horde to use it responsibly. It’s certainly correct to be reticent when playing the Hitler card, but it’s also a mistake to pull it out of the deck entirely.
The mandate Donald Trump proposed sounds a lot like what the National Socialist German Workers’ Party instituted following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Mandating German Jews wear a yellow patch that resembled the Star of David became official policy following the 1939 invasion of Poland—when the Nazis imposed it on conquered populations. The edict wouldn’t follow the Jews home to Germany in 1941, following a ban on Jewish citizens using public transport. In December of 1941, the Nazis opened their first center for extermination in Poland—a site known as Chelmo.
It’s certainly correct to be reticent when playing the Hitler card, but it’s also a mistake to pull it out of the deck entirely.
This should highlight the grave perils of registering people of faith or minority populations. After all, the U.S. itself is not free from blame when it comes to internment: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the forced imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, a policy for which the U.S. government later formally apologized, agreeing during the Reagan administration to pay reparations to survivors. Earlier this week, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, approvingly invoked Japanese internment camps as a justification for not allowing refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war from settling among his constituents.
But despite those reparations, the surveillance of populations the government deems a “threat” is deeply ingrained into America’s own history—whether that’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO operation (which targeted black civil rights leaders for wiretapping) or a more recent program uncovered by the Washington Post. In 2012, the Post reported that the New York Police Department had been surveilling Muslims in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. As the Verge’s T.C. Sottek further explains, “the NYPD shut down that program, but the damage was done; subjects of the unwarranted surveillance came to fear the police and even regular people who might be police informants.”
These continued policies are what makes our lazy tendency to compare everything we dislike—such as Bush’s War in Iraq or Obama’s Affordable Care Act—to the Nazi regime so dangerous. Nazis have become an easy shorthand for cultural evil, whether that’s something truly pernicious (like destabilizing an entire region for access to oil) or that which annoys us (like someone being irritating about proper syntax). “Grammar Nazi” may have a certain ring to it, but the issue is that these devices make it more difficult to call things out that bear a chilling resemblance to the road to attempted genocide.
While Donald Trump might argue this worst-case scenario is “unthinkable,” the problem is that there’s a clear historical precedent. Although the sitting president, Barack Obama, has condemned reactionary prejudice against U.S. Muslims (including the Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.)—as did, it should be noted, his predecessor George W. Bush—he won’t be the commander-in-chief forever. It might be hard to fathom, but should Trump be the GOP’s nominee, there’s a 50-50 chance he could be the one making policy next year.
That’s why—Godwin’s Law aside—it’s important to call any suggestion about forcing American Muslims to register with the government or carry special identification cards what it is: racist fascism. To avoid repeating history, we need to be given the rhetorical tools to do so—used at the appropriate moment. You might feel weird comparing Donald Trump to Hitler, but what’s worse: Calling someone a Nazi or actually electing one?
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-sellingBOYS anthology series.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai