We have a Nazi analogy problem.
“Nazi,” in an argument, doesn’t buy quite as much as it used to. We have Godwin’s Law (as an online discussion goes on, the probability of a Nazi comparison approaches 1) and its corollaries (the first person to make a Hitler comparison in an argument should automatically lose it), but no one enforces them. Nazi comparisons don’t automatically end the discussion. They just embolden you to make more Nazi comparisons.
Online and off, everyone’s a Nazi, so no one’s a Nazi. We have grammar Nazis and soup Nazis. Nazis show up in our Broadway musicals as a matter of course (“Cabaret,” “The Producers,” and, of course, “The Sound of Music,” because nothing says “Christmas” like “Nazis.”) We can’t even agree on killing Baby Hitler.
The reason Nazi analogies are so tempting is that everyone can agree the Nazis were bad. They were a unique historical evil with very few shades of gray. This is what makes them so perfect to invoke in arguments. Nazi: bad. Fascist: bad. On this we can agree, regardless of how the rest of the argument was going. If you are acting like the Nazis, you are definitely on the wrong side of history.
But this loses force when you wheel them out for every argument, as Kurt Eichenwald noted back in 2014. You know who else imposed gun control? HITLER. (Ben Carson) You know what the fight against Obamacare is like? Like fighting the NAZIS! (Ted Cruz, Ted Nugent). Political correctness? “very much like Nazi Germany. . . . We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.” (Ben Carson, again.)
But last week the Internet found itself in the position of the boy who cried wolf. Accustomed, in the course of comments-sections arguments, to comparing anyone with whom we disagree to Hitler (“You know who ELSE didn’t think ‘Hello’ was the GREATEST VIDEO OF ALL TIME?”), we are now without a way of indicating that someone is actually advocating policies embraced by the Nazi regime.
“Donald Trump, this Muslim registry you said you supported is an actual Nazi policy,” we say. But everyone who hears just shrugs, even Trump.
“Sure,” they say, “right there with putting Oxford commas at the end of sentences.”
When reporters tried to press this point with Trump of how this would DIFFER from Nazi Germany, he replied. “You tell me.”
So now what do we do? What analogies are we left with? All our reckless flouting of Godwin’s Law means that we now have no way of indicating when something is literally a Nazi policy. “Literally” doesn’t mean much these days, either.