I know that some find it odious to compare Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler, that doing so violates what’s known as Godwin’s Law. That’s the idea first put forward in 1990 by author Mike Godwin that morphed into the notion that in an argument, whoever first compares someone or something to Hitler, loses.
But, hey, even Godwin has relented, writing in The Washington Post a couple of years ago, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”
Besides, the prism through which I’m looking right now is that most absurd lens of all, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the genius 1967 comedy that posits making a fortune by putting on the worst Broadway show in history and running off with the investors’ cash when it flops. The show is Springtime for Hitler, described by its lunatic playwright as, “A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva in Berchtesgarten.”
You probably know the rest. Despite their best—or worst—efforts, Springtime for Hitler is a smash hit and our two producers are doomed. But as I watched it again for the umpteenth time the other night, what struck me as especially relevant to our current malaise was a moment on stage when the actor playing Joseph Goebbels tells the actor playing Hitler, “I just laid the morning propaganda programs on the people . . . I told the people we invaded England!”
“How’d we do?” Hitler asks.
Goebbels replies, “We beat ‘em, baby!”
In the movie, this blatant falsehood is a joke. In the Trump administration it’s standard operating procedure, with thousands of his fabrications flooding the zone—an average 7.6 “false or misleading” claims a day, according to the Post’s most recent Fact Checker tally, more than 4200 since taking office.
Over the course of United States history we’ve gone from our first president who, legend tells us, could not tell a lie, to the current incumbent who can do nothing but. As we’ve said before, Donald Trump would lie about what he had for breakfast, or, in the words of EJ Dionne, “He believes that reality itself can be denied and that big lies can sow enough confusion to keep the truth from taking hold.”
Sadly, Dionne may be right. A mere glance at Trump’s daily fusillades on Twitter as he tries to destroy the special counsel’s investigation and every probe that comes anywhere near him, including the trial of former campaign manager Paul Manafort, backs up the big lie/confuse-the-truth scenario. It’s unhinged yet effective.
Still, with all this skittering through social media and madhouse campaign rallies, as my colleague, journalist Steve Greenhouse asks, “Doesn’t Trump have some real work to do? Like raising wages for American workers, as he promised. Or bringing excellent health coverage to all Americans, as he promised. Or implementing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, as he promised.”
Good point. But for now, instead of making any further comparisons to Der Fuhrer—say, the monumental deceits, the unhinged cruelty, the craven disregard for humanity—let’s compare Trump to someone else, maybe a personage who’s not as profoundly malign.
How about Mayhem, the character played by Dean Winters in all those TV commercials for Allstate Insurance? In each of the iconic ads, Mayhem sows chaos. He’s the source of all the wretched things that beset automobile and home owners: a distracted teenage driver, baseball-sized hail pounding on your car, a raccoon in the attic chewing power cables, and lately, an obstinate child ring bearer who swallows a couple’s wedding bands.
Mayhem is our president, a manchild at the wheel, a raccoon gnawing at the nation’s wires, a walking calamity that lurks around every corner.
I know it already seems an eternity away in Trump world, but in just the month of July, the president trashed the member nations of NATO (except for Turkey and its dictator Recep Erdogan who, Trump declared, “does things the right way”). He then insulted Prime Minister Theresa May in a British newspaper interview published just as she was receiving him for a fancy dinner at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace. He bullied Iran, tweeting threats of violence in ALL CAPS. And all the while, he and his minions continued the overall trashing of American democracy, the deregulatory collapse, trade wars and an immigration policy that still keeps hundreds of children separated from their parents.
The piece de resistance, of course, was his Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, using the post-summit press conference as another rant platform to attack the credibility of US intelligence on Russian election interference and brag once again about his 2016 victory—all this as a bemused Putin looked on.
The next day, after a stunned world responded, Trump tried to walk his comments back but pulled a Charlottesville “Both Sides Now” move, reading from a prepared statement, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” then ad libbing, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
You’ll recall that he then claimed he had misspoken in Helsinki when he said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia and that he had instead meant “wouldn’t,” an act of verbal acrobatics reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s ”It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Or the indelible image of Richard Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods taking the fall for her boss and attempting to demonstrate how she allegedly had erased eighteen and a half minutes of the White House tapes by accident. Her awkward, contorted stretch was painful to see.
Not as painful as what we’re seeing now. And let us not forget Trump’s initial embrace of allowing Russian intelligence to interrogate Americans, including former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul in exchange for special counsel Robert Mueller observing Russian interrogation of the dozen or so hackers he indicted just before the Helsinki meeting. This was like telling Alphonse Capone, apparently the president’s favorite gangster, to go ahead and interrogate Eliot Ness and the Untouchables—and, Al, make sure they get to see your collection of blood-smeared baseball bats.
The fatal combination of ignorance, moral equivocation and the arrogance that listens to no one (except for the Brainiacs at Fox News) is killing us. Mayhem rules, shamelessly indulged by his party and egged on by a segment of the electorate that continues to fall for the big con and increasingly embraces conspiracy theories that see the deep state conspiring to overthrow Dear Leader and create a land of liberal weenies.
Believe me, if the deep state really existed in the way Donald Trump and his fans believe, if it was as effective and all-powerful as it is in their fever dreams and fantasies, our Mayhem-in-Chief would be back in Queens by now, lucky to find a job selling aluminum siding and timeshares in the Rockaways.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.