The latest use of the signifier was on the Sean Hannity show, where, in response to a description of town hall protesters as “brown shirts,” a guest made an earnest and laborious comparison
of the Obama administration with Nazism. “National socialism is very much what we see today in this administration…it’s the policy almost line for line,” said the guest, a disabled former Marine. “It’s the same economic policy, it’s the same political policy. So if they want to talk about Nazis, then they better be careful about that conversation, because they might find that the swastika is on their own arm.”
The other day a woman with a poster of Obama as Hitler confronted Barney Frank
at a health care bill town hall meeting—only to be tongue lashed by Frank (who was later the brunt of some gay-baiting
by Rush Limbaugh because of the incident).
While it’s the right wing that now seems to have a penchant for seeing Nazi ghosts, the left has often been just as guilty. To be a Nazi, for right or left, is to be the ultimate evil. The left, however, has traditionally identified racists and militarists as Nazis. To the right, it’s big government that’s the ultimate evil. That’s one reason for the strange “National Socialism” locution—it transforms the Nazis from monstrous killers to monstrous bureaucrats.
The Nazi business is more than a metaphor run amok. It’s become a kind of para-history. People who accuse other people of being Nazis seem to have an obsessive interest in the subject. (I once had an accountant who said he only read books with swastikas on the cover.) They may know nothing else about history, but they know their Nazi party. Conspiracy is at the heart of this history. The Nazis don’t turn out to be the Nazis—that is, evil incarnate—until it’s too late. The current Nazi hunters, with the benefit of their close reading, aren’t going to be fooled this time.
To compare the Obama administration to the Nazis is particularly weird. I suppose this has become part of the rhetorical jujitsu. The left—especially the European left—often turns Israel into a would-be Nazi state. In other words, the least likely to be Nazi turns out to be Nazi because…well, perhaps it is irony run amok (so far amok everybody forgets it’s irony).
While calling somebody a Nazi is meant to define someone else as an extremist, it more clearly singles out the person wielding the Nazi label as a little too angry, absolute, and fanatical.
Undoubtedly, there is something real here. So many things in modern life that seem scary, hence, well, it’s the return of the Nazis.
What we have is a paucity of language and expression and historical reference and context—as well as a fairly good indication of a borderline personality.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
What do we mean when we say Hitler and the Nazis?