In the heat of America's many debates, "Nazi" and "fascist" are among the epithets too often hurled. Last week, for example, Rush Limbaugh compared Adolf Hitler to Pres. Barack Obama, saying each "ruled by dictate" and claimed to represent "the will of his people."
Limbaugh added that Hitler "was called the messiah. He said people spoke through him. Do you know the very first law that Hitler ordained? The very first law was about how to cook lobster. They were to be boiled. That was deemed to be the least painful way. . . . Now does this sound like what any conservative president has ever done, or does it sound like what liberals are doing all over this country?"
The logical flaw here: Concern for the welfare of lobsters is not an unfailing indicator of Nazi sympathies.
Not long after Limbaugh said that, I received an e-mail from Glenn Greenwald, the left-wing polemicist who writes for Salon. He pointedly reminded me that I had criticized MoveOn.org (and others) when they compared Bush to Hitler. Would I now be consistent and criticize Limbaugh on the same basis?
Comparisons with Hitler should be made only very rarely and very carefully. It was wrong, outrageous and damaging for MoveOn.org to compare Bush to Hitler. It is wrong, outrageous and damaging for Rush Limbaugh to compare Obama to Hitler. We must, to coin a phrase, never forget: Hitler's project was genocide. George Bush and Barack Obama are not genocidal. No elected American official of either major party is. Such hyperbole only serves to confuse and trivialize issues much more grave than tax rates and health-care plans.
Predictably — and dishonorably — Greenwald published only the bit about Limbaugh, omitting the rest. Next thing I knew, I was being praised by longtime Democratic operative Paul Begala on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN. (Can I again show my face in public after that?)
Greenwald also left out my criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She had complained of protestors "carrying swastikas . . . to a town meeting on health care." As Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto observed: "Who carries swastikas? Nazis. Pelosi did not complain that the protesters were comparing ObamaCare to Nazism; she insinuated that they are Nazis. . . . It is despicable for someone in her position to liken private citizens to Nazis."
Maybe something useful can come of this brouhaha: a chance to understand a little more about Nazism and other varieties of fascism, how they've threatened us in the past, and the form that threat has taken on in the present. Michael Ledeen, now the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spent many years studying fascism. He was perhaps the first to describe the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, as a "clerical fascist." With that in mind, consider:
Nazism was supremacist. Hitler preached that Germans and Aryans were a master race, born to rule the world. Militant Islamists — whether Shiite (like Khomeini) or Sunni (like Osama bin Laden) — also are supremacist, though they substitute religion for race, the "Nation of Islam" for the German nation. They claim Muslims — led by them — have a divine right to rule.
The Nazis believed their triumph would come through a glorious war. The Islamists believe their triumph will come through a glorious holy war — a jihad against infidels and the West.
The Nazis believed that only men, not women, are fit to lead and wield power. The Islamists concur.
Committed Nazis must be willing, as Ledeen phrased it, "to risk all, and sacrifice all, for the cause." Suicide bombers are only the most obvious expression of this belief among Islamists. Ledeen adds:
Just as fascist heroes were often men who had fallen in battle, for Osama and his ilk the greatest act for a Muslim warrior is sacrifice, and Khomeini too extolled martyrs over all others, even creating a fountain in central Tehran from which red waters bubbled. Khomeini's speeches were typically dramatic, and the exchanges between him — the Supreme Leader, a typically fascist construct — and the faithful were as carefully programmed as any between Mussolini and the Romans in Piazza Venezia.
Nazis despised both Communism and capitalism, seeing themselves as a third way. The same is true of Islamists. Iran's rulers promise that just as we now have a world without the Soviet Union, "a world without America is achievable."
German Nazis practiced genocide. Jews and other "inferior" groups were exterminated by the millions. Islamists vow to wipe Israel off the map.
Fascism, Ledeen has noted, tends to become "a form of civic religion." Similarly, some scholars refer to the doctrines of Khomeini and Osama bin Laden as "political Islam."
Ledeen also observes: "Hitler had his Reich, Osama wants his Caliphate, and Khomeini foresaw a global Islamic state in which all believers would be brought together in an irresistible unity."
Hitler, of course, fought a conventional rather than an asymmetrical war against the free nations of the West. But he quite specifically said that "terrorism is the best political weapon." With uncanny prescience, he said too: "Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future."
Nevertheless, Pres. George W. Bush only once referred to America's Islamist enemies as fascists, and then abandoned the term because, he was advised, it might insult moderate Muslims. (Why would it?) Pres. Barack Obama prefers to talk of "violent extremists." So we're left refusing to call a spade a spade but shouting "Nazi" at fellow Americans to score partisan points. Is this really the best we can do?