Adolf Hitler and his part in the downfall of political insults

Americans are very unimaginative at being rude about people. As with Hillary Clinton last week, it always comes back to the Nazis


Well, that didn't take long. Another foreign crisis, and another depiction of the villain of the piece, in this case Vladimir Putin, as Adolf Hitler reincarnate. It's an ancient tradition in United States politics, although none of the recipients of the accolade have come close to the real thing.

At a pinch, maybe, you can understand the comparison in the case of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, even Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But to a tin-pot drug-runner like Manuel Noriega of Panama, or the Castros of Cuba? Yet when Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral, there was John McCain (who, readers will remember, was once nominee for the White House) likening the deed to Neville Chamberlain's handshake with Hitler at Munich. Absurd, but the moral is clear. If you want to rev up America against an enemy, then raise the spectre of the Fuhrer.

This time however there was one distinct surprise, in the person who most prominently drew the parallels between Putin's annexation of Crimea and Hitler's landgrabs before the Second World War. It wasn't McCain or some other Republican firebrand, but Hillary Clinton who, according to a new batch of polls last week, can already be crowned winner of the 2016 election here.

Her foray drew a predictable reaction – lots of learned articles about the correctness of the historical analogy, whether Putin is like, a bit like, or not at all like Hitler, plus much feverish speculation about why she spoke out as she did. The most popular theory is she had 2016 very much in mind, anxious to show she was "tough" on foreign policy, and thus atone for what might be seen as her naive efforts, when Secretary of State, to "reset" relations with Russia.

In truth though, Hillary's salvo was merely par for the course. We Britons are often accused of wallowing in the Second World War. But we're not a patch on the US. In American domestic politics and foreign affairs alike, that conflict and the run-up to it, provide the supreme metaphors of criticism and insult. For every foreign foe compared to Hitler, there's a Democratic president branded a latter-day Chamberlain, of spinelessly appeasing a tyrant and only making worse the inevitable confrontation to come.

Barack Obama, so often accused of leading an America in global retreat, offers opponents a particularly juicy target. Apart from the Raul handshake, the latest such supposed sell-out was last November's interim nuclear accord with that Third Reich reborn, Iran, held by opponents as a step towards Armageddon when a little more resolution would have stopped the bad guys in their tracks. If you seek the ghost of Munich, come to Washington DC.

As a rule of thumb, Republicans play the Hitler card against Democrats on foreign affairs, while on the domestic front it's usually the other way around, with jack-booted Republicans accused of marching over the poor and needy. There are exceptions of course, notably the extreme right's allegation that Obama's health care reform provided for "death panels" and euthanasia, along the lines of Nazi Germany.

All of which however only proves that if a debate gets really heated, the names of Adolf, Joseph (as in Goebbels) and Neville will surely crop up. Indeed, there's even a so-called "Godwin's law" to that effect, invented by the author and academic Richard Godwin back in 1990, in the very early days of the internet. The longer an online discussion continues, Godwin posited, the more likely a comparison with Hitler and the Nazis becomes. Peruse any comment thread on a remotely controversial topic, and you see how right he was. And these days, it's not just the internet.

But a deeper question arises. When it comes to political insults, why can't American politicians do better than evoke the Nazis? Indeed, the absence of quality insults is one of the reasons Washington DC can be such a dreary place. I've lamented before in this space about the woeful lack of a tabloid culture to cut pompous pols down to size, and spice up the bromide of party political cant.

The same goes for the good ad hominem insult. They aren't easy to pull off. They must be witty, imaginative, and make a point. But if they are seen as crude piling-on, they can do more damage to insulter than insulted. The best however are unforgettable, skewering a foe in a way that allusions to long-dead German chancellors and British prime ministers never can.

When it comes to the insult, Westminister leaves Capitol Hill standing. Who can forget Denis Healey's "savaged by a dead sheep" put-down of Geoffrey Howe, or Michael Foot's description of Norman Tebbit as a "semi-house trained polecat?" Or Vincent Cable's noting of prime minister Gordon Brown's "remarkable transformation … from Stalin to Mr Bean?" Insults yes, but they nailed, even created, perceptions that made politics.

Here such mots are conspicuous by their absence. Once it was different – a favourite of mine is the remark of the 19th-century Virginia Senator John Randolph about one rival, "a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight."

More recently there was the immortal put-down of the amiable, privileged and gaffe-prone first President Bush by Ann Richards, the late and much missed governor of Texas. "Poor George," she told the 1988 Democratic convention, "he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." And of course Lloyd Bentsen, in that year's vice-presidential debate, as he silenced Dan Quayle with his "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle never recovered.

But since then, next to nothing. Yes, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid once caused a fuss, when he called President George W Bush "a loser", and described then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as "one of the biggest political hacks in Washington". But this sort of schoolyard insult is as good as it gets. Otherwise, it's Hitler and the Nazis.

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