At numerous times over the past three years, ever since Donald Trump announced his unlikely candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, my social media universe has become a paradigmatic proof of Godwin’s Law—that Internet adage attributed to the attorney Mike Godwin that states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
As new outrages emerge from the White House, my Facebook feed becomes swamped with declarations and memes comparing Trump’s every action to Hitler and his Final Solution. Fox News and the so-called Tea Party activists did the exact same thing during Obama’s administration, albeit by complaining about policies that I personally supported. Nevertheless, my Facebook universe, which is filled with scholars, activists, and other friends who tend to lean to the left of the political spectrum, seem to have forgotten how outrageous and ahistorical that Godwinesque rhetoric was and have decided what’s good for the goose is good for the orange gander.
There is much to dispute in these hyperbolic comparisons between Hitler’s Third Reich and Trump’s increasingly autocratic regime. To be up front about my personal biases, I believe these assertions callously equate undeniably terrible actions (e.g., the Muslim ban, the so-called zero tolerance policy and the consequent separation of children from their parents, etc.) with what I believe to be qualitatively and quantitatively worse historical events (i.e., the mass-slaughter of some ten million people). I recognize that some people disagree with me (including a few Holocaust survivors), but whether or not such posts are callous and unfeeling, to my mind they are surely problematic. Of prime importance, they ignore the very real and easily found comparisons between the words, policies and actions of Trump and events in our own past.
Put simply, Americans need not look to Hitler and his National Socialists to make sense of Trump and his ilk. Their nativism, exclusionary policies, and racism are an all too frequent component of our national history. Comparing Trump to Hitler lets us off the hook, if you will. It allows us to focus our outrage on foreign people and places rather than coming to terms with the most malignant aspects of our national history and identity. Below are just a few of the many stories of nativism, its attendant exclusion, and racism in the American past. They are not in any way comprehensive or encyclopedic, but they may give folks some new ideas for historically accurate memes in the Age of Trump.
Nativism and Exclusion: An American Habit of Mind and Its Policy Outcomes
In his 1955 classic, Strangers in the Land, the historian John Higham, convincingly argued that nativism, which he defined as an intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., ‘un-American’) connection,” was an American habit of mind. Nativism, Higham explains, followed a predictable pattern based on shifts in American politics, economics, and demography. As Americans faced some particular challenge or stressor, (e.g., economic depression, the social challenges of the second industrial revolution, crises abroad, etc.) they grew suspicious of the foreign born as an internal threat and sought legislation to reduce that threat and restrict the entrance of new and supposedly unassimilable immigrants into the country.
Such legislation began soon after the founding of the Republic, arguably starting with John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) and by Higham’s account reaching its apotheosis in the racially biased immigration restrictions of the National Origins Act of 1924, a nativist policy of such scope and influence that numerous historians both past and present believe it to be one of the most significant actions in the history of nativist politics and policy.
The historical circumstances, intent, and results of National Origins Act should seem eerily familiar to us today. Since the 1880s, large numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (Slavs, Poles, Jews, Italians, and others) had immigrated to the United States to find work in what seemed to be an ever-expanding industrial job market. Like today’s GOP politicians and their supporters, nativists in the 1920s believed that the nation was being overrun by people whose race religion, politics, and culture were incompatible with and even a threat to American values. This included President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the act into law and who in 1921 wrote that America could ill afford to allow “cheap manhood” to flow into the nation.
In that same piece, Coolidge expressed his belief in the supremacy of the Nordic race (a common expression of the age for whites of Northern and Western European descent). He warned that intermarriage between Nordics and others would lead to genetic deterioration in their resulting offspring, a sentiment shared by a number of prominent Americans of the era, including the primary author of the law, Albert Johnson. Indeed, in 1927 Johnson made clear his racist and exclusionary reasons for writing the law when he argued that “The United States is our [read: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’] land…We intend to maintain it so.”
It was from this anti-immigrant and racist mindset (which, again, is not that different from the beliefs of today’s white supremacists and anti-immigration advocates) that Congress passed the National Origins Act, which (in the most general terms) limited the number of immigrants entering the nation to 2% of the existing nationality currently in residence in the United States. In other words, if 100 Italians lived in the United States in, say, 1925, then only two Italians seeking entry into the U.S. could receive immigration visas in that year. This system favored those European nationalities with the longest histories and, therefore, largest extant populations in the United States (i.e., those of British or Western European descent). The scope and influence of the law proved powerful and significant. In subsequent years immigration numbers would plummet, and for the next forty years, America would close its doors to those most in need of its protection, including Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Holocaust.
Nativist actions and their attendant racism and exclusion have not been limited to immigration restriction. During the Great Depression—when America’s borders were effectively closed to large scale immigration—nativists and other racists directed their attention to “foreigners” inside their borders, one of the most notable examples being the so-called repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Repatriation is, of course, just a fancy name for deportation (another practice very much in keeping with Trump and his administration). At the federal and local level, through forced and voluntary means, the United States, deeply suspicious that Mexicans were stealing jobs and resources from American citizens, deported somewhere between 300,000-400,000 Mexican people. They achieved these numbers through truly frightening tactics. This despite the fact that crossing the border without papers was not a big deal in the early twentieth century. Typically people caught doing so were forced to pay the entry tax that they had failed to pay in the first place.
In his important study on repatriation in Los Angeles, the historian Abe Hoffman makes clear that the round-up process was overly broad and terribly intrusive. Government officials raided neighborhoods, work places, local prisons, and other sites on the off chance that they might find a few undocumented people. Hoffman notes that over a three-month period of time in 1931, police and other officials rounded up and interviewed somewhere between 3,000-4,000 people, ultimately detaining and deporting only 110 people of Mexican descent.
Imagine the fear such raids and roundups must have engendered! Such actions made America a very unwelcoming place to both Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans—something America’s modern conservative movement has publicly sought to do since Mitt Romney’s 2012 assertion that he wanted to make America so unwelcoming that immigrants from Mexico and Central America would choose to self-deport.
The truth is, that I could fill a book with examples of American nativism and nativist policies in the twentieth century alone (and of course many historians have). Such a volume would include the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans over nativist suspicions of divided loyalty, as well as similar suspicions—though far less repressive action—against those of German descent. The Zoot Suit Riots (1943) when white servicemen (and other white Angelenos) attacked Mexican-American men and women over obvious racism and a belief that people of Mexican descent did not contribute to the war effort. The postwar investigation of suspected communists in the entertainment industry (e.g., the HUAC hearings), an action that numerous historians (including Stephen J. Whitfield, Neal Gabler, and others) have linked to anti-Semitic suspicions of Eastern European Jews working in Hollywood.
These are not the actions of German National Socialists bent on world domination and racial purity. They are, instead, real, homegrown examples of an American habit of mind—one that I wish more people (or frankly ANY people) would recall, recount, and confront when protesting the actions of our current administration. I have yet to meet someone who expresses their outrage at the current administration by posting a meme that says, “This is just like Coolidge!” But they really should…
Racism: America’s Original Sin
Writing a section on racism in America seems redundant to me. Racism, imperialism, Native genocide, and chattel slavery should be obvious and well-known narratives in American history. Our nation was literally built on the assumption of white supremacy. The founders enshrined racism in our Constitution, refusing to recognize American Indians in the census, acknowledging and accepting chattel slavery, and reducing the statistical worth of an enslaved person to three-fifths that of a white person. If you don’t know these facts, you either know very little about American history or simply don’t care to learn. Indeed, these truths are so self-evident, so central to American history, that the Christian activist Jim Wallis has called racism America’s original sin. Nevertheless, I will offer an example or two from some recent studies.
In his 2016 book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, the historian Benjamin Madley convincingly argues that local, state, and federal policies and actions towards Native Californians, especially those located in and around the gold fields of Central California, are very much in keeping with the United Nations’ definition of genocide. His study documents how vigilante attacks on Native communities evolved into genocidal raids fully funded and staffed by local, state, and federal agencies (including the U.S. Army). The demographic results of such state sponsored violence (to say nothing of the social and cultural effects) were horrific.
Estimates over the loss of life vary, but at the very least we can say that the prior to the Gold Rush and the creation of American California, the Native population was around 150,000 people (already a significant drop from its pre-contact numbers) and by the 1870s that number had declined to around 30,000. We need not look to Hitler to learn about genocide. Indeed, as the Pulitzer Prize winning author John Toland has argued, Hitler looked to us.
At its core, the California genocide emerged from a mindset that viewed California Indians as a subhuman race who stood in the way of the nation’s progress. Examples of anti-Indian racism abound in the historical record, but I have always found this quote from the nineteenth-century California journalist Samuel Upham to be particularly repulsive and, therefore, instructive. Writing some thirty-one years after he came to California to partake in the Gold Rush, Upham observed the following of California Indians: “The Digger [Indian] eats very little animal food. Like his brother, the gorilla, he is a vegetarian…. In the winter he burrows in the earth like a prairie dog, and emerges from his den in the spring as fat as a grizzly.”
Two aspects of this quote are particularly disgusting and important. The first should be obvious. Upham clearly believed Native people to be another species of mammal; we have no reason to assume that he spoke metaphorically. To my mind, his words and intent were quite clear. By his account, California Indians were subhuman. The other point concerns the use of the word Digger. It rhymes with a well-known word that we simply don’t use in modern discourse anymore (the N-word, of course). This was a common expression for California Indians and that rhyme, which in some ways linked Native peoples with people of African descent, was absolutely intentional.
Clearly, men like Upham considered both Native peoples and African-Americans to be subhuman. When people observe that Trump refers to immigrants from Central America as vermin, they need not think about Hitler. At the very least, by doing so they ignore the very real, very American examples of such despicable rhetoric.
My other example comes from Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law: How U.S. Housing Policy Created Segregation. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s America experienced a housing boom, as developers, banks, and other investors built and banked on the creation of whole new suburbs to accommodate the needs of returning servicemen and their nascent families. Financial access to homeownership was made possible through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act or GI Bill (1944), which provided federal loan guarantees for returning servicemen, and the results were the largest growth in American prosperity and access to the middle class in the nation’s history. Indeed, the author Thomas Hine has called much of this era, the “greatest shopping spree in history.”
But Rothstein tells us that the federal government conspired to deny African-Americans access to suburban housing while simultaneously creating zoning regulations to concentrate the most undesirable urban infrastructure (waste plants, factories, etc.) in minority neighborhoods, thus reducing the economic value of homes in such places. Since homeownership is one of the prime ways in which Americans build wealth, the government’s actions literally denied countless African-Americans and others access to the American middle class.
Today, of course, the entire GOP bench dismisses such poverty as the results of personal choice and a failure of discipline. But as Rothstein makes clear, such claims ignore the very real ways in which our own government chose winners and losers in the twentieth and twenty-first century economy based on race. Such social engineering was not the product of German scientists envisioning lebensraum for the volk but was, instead, another homegrown example of racist policies and actions.
As I have tried to argue in this piece, hyperbolic comparisons between Trump and Hitler ignore the very real ways in which President Trump’s beliefs and the beliefs of those who support him are part of an American tradition of nativism, exclusion, and racism. To ignore that reality, or at least to make imprecise comparisons to Hitler and his Final Solution is problematic. I believe this nation can ill-afford to ignore the most unsavory aspects of its past for much longer. Our failure to pursue truth and foster reconciliation is tearing this country apart, and the only way that we can ever hope to be whole again, is through an informed reckoning about the ways that our past has contributed to the problems of the present. To be sure, those on the political right merely ignore and excuse these historical realities, but we also cannot address these challenges if those to the left (or anyone for that matter) continues to frame President Trump and Trumpism outside of its American context for the mere satisfaction of winning the Internet.
Finally, I think it’s time that people started to use the terms Nazi and Hitler with more thought and precision. The Internet and popular culture abound in references to Nazis, from grammar Nazis to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. In the 2000s, Democratic politicians and left-leaning entertainers called George W. Bush a Nazi. Right-wing pundits delighted in comparing Obama to Hitler. In 2000, practically every Republican politician called federal forces “Storm Troopers (not the Star Wars kind)” for taking Elian Gonzalez from his recalcitrant relatives in Florida and returning him to his father in Cuba.
All of this despite the fact that there are real Nazis out there who seek to impose a far darker and more exclusionary world order than Trump has yet to propose. I believe that the next time populists put forward a right-wing candidate, s/he will have to be more Trumpist than Trump! They may in fact be “just like Hitler,” and at that time we will need to make use of accurate rhetoric and the historical record to make that case. But if people keep crying Nazi the same way the little boy cried wolf …. well… who will bother to listen?
Erik Greenberg is a public historian based in Los Angeles, California. He is the Director of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Autry Museum–an institution dedicated to the study of the American West–a consultant for several museums and public history projects, and he has taught a wide range of courses on university and college campuses throughout Southern California. He holds a Ph.D. in American history from UCLA.