The first known Obama-Hitler comparison occurred in February 2008, when Fox News radio host Tom Sullivan offered on-air side-by-side comparisons of Obama’s speech at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner and a Hitler speech. After Obama’s address in Germany outside the Brandenburg Gate, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer dryly made the same point: “Standing in front of 200,000 Germans at a rally who are chanting your name—Bad vibes sometimes, historically.” “Seventy-five-thousand people at an outdoor sports palace, well, that’s something the Führer would have done,” concurred conservative economist (and sometime actor—“… Bueller? Bueller?”) Ben Stein after Obama’s August nomination acceptance speech at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. Ann Coulter reached for another form of literary comparison, casting “B. Hussein’s” memoir Dreams From My Father as “a dime store Mein Kampf.”
“When you’re dealing with a guy like Obama and the Democrat Party, who are going to impose Nazi-like socialism policies on this country,” states Limbaugh, “you’ve got to say it.”
Soon the comparison started gaining currency at the grassroots. A sign drawn up by a volunteer in one of the McCain campaign’s Florida field offices compared “Barack Hussein Obama” to a litany of dictators from Hitler to Stalin to Mussolini to Castro. “Who else called for change in this fashion?” the sign asked. “Each and every one called on youth movements. And you want Obama for president? Are you nuts!”
The designer of the sign, a self-identified “12th-generation” American named Robert E.J. Driscoll was dismissed from volunteering for the campaign but refused to apologize. He said he had been offended by the way activists on the left had compared Bush to Hitler without mainstream media criticism. In any case, he told the Sun-Sentinel, “Clinically and morally there is nothing wrong with the poster.… If I compare the oration ability of Senator Obama with that of Adolf Hitler (both quite good in communicating), does that mean I am suggesting Obama will be a mass murderer? Of course not.”
Congressman Paul Broun’s post-election outburst comparing Obama to Hitler offered a similar qualification: “I’m not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I’m saying is there is the potential of going down that road.” 7
The delicate politics of this differentiation was explained in fuller detail by the master of political-attack-as-entertainment, Rush Limbaugh: “When you’re dealing with a guy like Obama and the Democrat Party, who are going to impose Nazi-like socialism policies on this country, you’ve got to say it. And the same time you say it, you have to go out and point we’re not talking about the genocide—that’s at the tail end of Hitler.”
Right. So the Wingnut argument is that they are not comparing Obama to Hitler the genocidal dictator, but they’re comparing Obama to Hitler the political leader—those six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are just a detail people keep getting hung up on.
In April ’09, as the Republican Party’s officials tried to regroup, Michigan party chair Saul Anuzis—an ambitious if unsuccessful aspirant for national RNC chairman—advanced the ball by advising the GOP to characterize Obama’s policies as “economic fascism.” “We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Anuzis reasoned. “Fascism—everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”
Later that month, Glenn Beck obligingly picked up the talking point: “They’re marching us to a non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they’re marching us to 1984. Big Brother. Like it or not, fascism is on the rise.” 10 Fox producers partnered the commentary with a minute’s worth of goose-stepping Nazi b-roll.
The message was received loud and clear. In June, the president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, fired off this email complete with the requisite paranoid capital letters: “Obama and Hitler have a great deal in common in my view. Obama and Hitler use the ‘blitzkrieg’ method to overwhelm their enemies. FAST, CARPET BOMBING intent on destruction. Hitler’s blitzkrieg bombing destroyed many European cities—quickly and effectively. Obama is systematically destroying the American economy and with it AMERICA.” 11
Prefab Obama-as-Hitler signs began to pop up at August health-care town halls, featuring the president with a narrow mustache, bearing the slogan: “I’ve changed.” They were the product of the conspiracy theory cult of Lyndon LaRouche. It was a LaRouche aide named Anton Chaitkin who stiffened the Obama-as-Hitler attack in response to what he called “a propaganda movement for euthanasia.” Soon pamphlets were produced: “Act Now to Stop Obama’s Nazi Health Plan!”
In Massachusetts, Congressman Barney Frank’s town hall was disrupted by a young glassy-eyed LaRouche-ite who asked, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy, as Obama has?”
In Nevada, at a Las Vegas town hall, an Israeli American was defending Israel’s national health care to reporters when a woman named Pamela Pigler shouted, “Heil Hitler!” and then proceeded to make whining sounds mocking him when he took offense. Pigler later explained, “I’m a conservative and I just believe in biblical values.” It remains unclear how shouting “Heil Hitler” is consistent with biblical values.
In Iowa, a World War II vet named Tom Eisenhower (presumably no relation to the late president) proclaimed to the crowd at Senator Chuck Grassley’s town hall, “The president of the United States, that’s who you should be concerned about. Because he’s acting like a little Hitler. … I’d take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me.” 13
By the 9/12 march on Washington, dozens of homemade Obama-as-Hitler signs were a prominent part of the scenery. I saw side-by-side portraits of the president next to Hitler and Lenin, with the tag, “In troubled times the fearful and naïve are always drawn to charismatic radicals. We will never allow this Change to happen.” There was iconic Nazi-era imagery with President Obama pasted in as “the new face of national socialism.”
The seeds of the association had blossomed into full-fledged acceptance by some people on Main Street. An Ohio couple didn’t understand why they were denied a permit to drive a float through the annual Fredricktown Tomato Show Parade that showed President Obama with a swastika armband beside a Nazi flag. Richard and Jacqueline Ruhl said they found “strong parallels between what President Obama is doing and Adolf Hitler” and proposed the float as a way to get their neighbors to “wake up.”
“It was the swastikas that seemed to be turning off most people,” reflected Jackie. “We are not extremists and we have not done anything like this before. … He denied us our First Amendment right. He is an extremist,” Jackie said, referring to President Obama. “If anyone thinks I like pulling a swastika around, they are crazy,” said Richard. “I hated it just as much as anybody.”
With the growing use of the Obama-as-Hitler comparison, a few GOP leaders started indulging as well.
Former Bush administration official Ellen Sauerbrey, who served as assistant secretary of State and was a two-time GOP nominee for governor in Maryland, reportedly told a September Lincoln/Reagan dinner audience that the president was surrounded by “a cult-like following edging toward those of past dictators like Juan Perón and even Adolf Hitler.” 16 When subsequently asked to clarify her comments by the County Times, Sauerbrey denied having dropped the H-bomb but acknowledged: “I think that we have a government that is following policies that are socialistic and fascist.”
Georgia Congressman John Linder, of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, decided to make his Hitler comparisons in op-ed form, penning a condemnation of progressivism for Politico that tied together Robespierre, Woodrow Wilson, Hitler, Mussolini, and Obama: “All believed in the minimum wage, state control of private property for the public good, unionization and environmentalism. And they believed in eugenics to purify the gene pool.”
All these Nazi comparisons made me wonder what actual Nazis thought of the hype—it must be bittersweet for them to have the first African-American president referred to as Hitler, a curious mix of pride and prejudice. I hunted down the phone number of the northeast Nazi chapter (apparently, they are fussy about being called the American National Socialist Party) and got someone who called himself SS Corporal Schneider on the line.
“The people who are referring to him as a Nazi know very little or nothing about authentic Nazi-ism,” said Schneider. “I’d laugh if it wasn’t so ludicrous. The last thing in the world I would ever call President Obama—and I hesitate to call him president—is a Nazi. I most certainly would not refer to him as a Nazi. It seems to me that if he was successful at what he was doing, he’d be more of a communist than a Nazi. A Nazi is completely at the opposite end of the spectrum where he is concerned … and his is not a Nazi health plan, not by any stretch of the imagination.” So we’ve got that creepily cleared up…
Perhaps the best response to all this Wingnut distortion of history came from one 70-year-old man, a classically trained musician by the name of Henry Gasparian. His family had experienced real Nazis—not metaphorical ones—in Armenia during the Second World War.
They’d killed his uncles and sent a cousin to die in a concentration camp. When he saw the Obama-as-Hitler posters at a sidewalk protest near his home in Seattle, his reaction was “personal and emotional.” A heated conversation turned into a shoving match, and the cops came and took Gasparian away. His son, who bailed him out of jail eight hours later, was shocked, saying his father had never received more than a speeding ticket. But Henry was unrepentant. “I saw Hitler’s soldiers. I saw swastikas every day,” he said. “To call Obama stupid, even criminal—OK, that’s politics. But Hitler? It’s hurting to anyone no matter who is president.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.