The Atlantic's scoop on Ohio House Republican candidate Rich Iott's penchant for dressing up as a German Waffen SS soldier has been a boon to progressives' rhetorical arsenal. No longer need they stand idly by as Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement tar liberal opponents as "fascists" and "Nazis," hijacking incendiary rhetoric that's traditionally belonged to the left. Beck (and his guests) have been especially prone to accusing the Obama administration of engaging in dangerous authoritarian rule comparable to Hitler's:
Dana Millbank points out in his new book that Beck, embracing Sarah Palin's "death panel" attack on health care reform, started raising alarms last year about Obama's purportedly Hitler-like plans that "should horrify America ... particularly if you're elderly, handicapped or have a very, very young child." It's not surprising, then, that Hitler mustaches began showing up on photos of Obama at Tea Party rallies (even if, ignoring the role of Fox News, some conservatives sought to discount those carrying them as isolated kooks, like the left's own fringe protesters). Millbank reports:
Beck, it seems, has a Nazi fetish. In his first 18 months on Fox News, from early 2009 through the middle of this year, he and his guests invoked Hitler 147 times. Nazis, an additional 202 times. Fascism or fascists, 193 times. The Holocaust got 76 mentions, and Joseph Goebbels got 24.
And these mentions are usually in reference to Obama. In August 2009, for example, Beck played an old tape of Obama making the case for a "single-payer" government-run health-care system. "I am not comparing him to this, but please, read 'Mein Kampf' for this reason," Beck told his radio listeners. "You see that Hitler told you what he was going to do. He told the Germans."
For decades, especially in the 1960s, it was common among the counter-culture left to refer to right-wingers, cops and Vietnam War supporters as "fascists" or "Nazis." In a famous dust-up during the August 1968 Democratic Party convention, Gore Vidal called William Buckley a "crypto-Nazi." (Buckley responded by threatening to punch Vidal in the face and calling him a "queer.")
Today, the more mainstream progressive pundits and websites don't usually refer to their opponents as Nazis, generally obeying the dictum of online guru Mike Godwin that virtually all Nazi analogies destroy rational discourse, or the Reductio ad Hitlerum. Of course, it may be common for progressives to make those comparisons in private conservations, or to voice them on hard-left websites, such as Democratic Underground. Still, influential liberals have always welcomed the chance to alert the public to the allegedly authoritarian, racist, militaristic tendencies of the GOP and the more radical elements in its base, from the fundamentalist Christian right to the Tea Partiers.
For example, Sara Robinson, a fellow with the Campaign for America's Future, wrote at the outset of the Tea Party's health care disruptions in August 2009:
We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.
Soon after, however, Beck and the Tea Party started appropriating the words "fascist" and "Nazi" for themselves. This intellectual property theft, as the left sees it, started with National Review's Jonah Goldberg, in his best-selling book Liberal Fascism. Goldberg attempted to show that because Nazis used the word socialism and spent on large-scale projects -- and, apparently, because Hitler was a vegetarian -- there were causal lines between the entire progressive tradition and the Holocaust.
But suddenly, just in time for the mid-terms, Republican Richard Iott enters from stage right, wearing a Nazi uniform. Now Democrats and liberals are free to suggest to voters once again, directly or indirectly, that Republicans are scarily similar to fascists and Nazis -- and to revive charges of shadowy GOP ties to Nazi sympathizers. For instance, one of the politically savviest progressive websites, Open Left, featured an article by Paul Rosenberg headlined, "Nazi re-enactor is just the tip of the iceberg: The GOP's long history with Nazi allies." The article, drawing on researcher Russ Bellant's book, Old Nazis, The New Right, and the Republican Party, highlighted the role of Eastern European emigres with ties to Nazis in the Republican campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. And for conspiracy-minded left-wingers, the Iott controversy is proving a useful way again to dredge up charges that Prescott Bush -- George W. Bush's grandfather -- profited from the rise of Nazism.
Whether the proto-fascist allegations have been made by those on the fringes or at the heart of the progressive movement, Republicans and their allies have obliged by sometimes fulfilling the caricature. In earlier years, GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan's Nazi-tolerating isolationism and defense of a concentration camp guard helped feed the liberal narrative line. These days, whether it's the proliferation of far-right extremist groups or the reluctance of GOP leaders to condemn open racism in the ranks of some Tea Party groups, Republicans have also reinforced the longstanding liberal meme that they can be compared to fascists.
Of course, what's new in the long tradition of over-the-top rhetorical mudslinging between conservatives and liberals is that, until the Beck and the Tea Party came along, the left had long relished the privilege of calling right-wingers fascists or Nazis. It was well understood that conservatives, from the era of Franklin Roosevelt through McCarthyism to now, have had dibs on calling liberals and their progressive initiatives, such as Medicare, "socialist" and "communist." In turn, liberals and progressives, ever since the Republican revolt against Democratic civil-rights initiatives of the 1960s and Great Society programs, have taken to claiming that Republicans were closet racists who wanted to destroy Medicare, the "third-rail" of American politics.
Yet in this tumultuous election year, even formerly sure-fire attacks against Republicans for wanting to privatize Social Security and Medicare have been blunted by largely unaddressed Republican claims that supporters of the president's health care plan voted to "cut $500 billion from Medicare." As Politifact recently reported, "The $500 billion in 'cuts' is really the reduction in the future growth of Medicare over 10 years, intended to make the program more efficient." But who listens to them? At this point, Democrats have fallen so far behind on messaging that regaining the rhetorical advantage on Medicare would likely take nothing short of breaking video footage of a Republican candidate throwing an aging woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, like a scene from the noir classic Kiss of Death.