Reductio Ad Hitlerum

“From Hollywood to Holyrood, people think they are fighting the Nazis. But they’re not”

The Outsider's Diary
Pankaj Mishra: "Everyone who doesn’t agree with him is furious" (©Windham-Campbell Literature Prize)

What is a racist? Like many people, I had thought it was someone who believed a particular race (generally their own) to be innately superior to all (or some) others. But since almost everyone has now designated the new American President to be a racist, I am left wondering.

The central justification for labelling Donald Trump “a racist” is something he said on the campaign trail. In one typically free-wheeling speech he claimed that Mexico was not sending its “best” people to America: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re [their?] rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It is hard to transcribe Trump speeches accurately. But I think it would require an especially hostile attitude towards the speaker to ignore the fact that they are evidently meant to contain an element of humour and do not assert that all Mexicans are rapists.

Nevertheless, this has become the main evidence for the prosecution. And if few people want to investigate the validity of the charge it is because so many people benefit from making it. Recently, this advantage has been pressed by almost every famous actor and actress and by the Speaker of the House of Commons. But does nobody care about the currency devaluation they are engaging in?  Were someone to come along — in America or elsewhere — who actually held the racial views of Joseph Goebbels or Eugene Terreblanche, how might anyone signal this fact, the word having been used up on Donald Trump?

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Language devaluation aside, I must admit that I am slightly enjoying this new era. BBC Radio 3 invited me on to a discussion with, among others, Pankaj Mishra, who was publicising his new book The Age of Anger.  Though I say so myself, throughout the whole discussion the only person who didn’t seem remotely angry was me. By contrast, it was evident that Mishra himself is a very angry man: indeed, I would say, a sort of zealot. So it caused me some amusement that he should have written a book which — in an effort to deride all views he does not share — insists that everyone who doesn’t agree with him is furious. Even off-air, Mishra continued his ranting, insisting, for example, that there is now a “serial groper” in the White House. Even were this true, it would seem to me to be an improvement (so far, at least) on the behaviour of the last President to be accused of sexual impropriety, suggesting that there are specific, as well as general, improvements going on at present.

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Shortly after the Trump administration’s temporary travel ban on seven unstable states caused fury in civilised society, Chatham House carried out a poll of 10,000 people in 10 European states. The public were invited to agree or disagree with a statement far beyond the ambition of the Trump order, viz: “All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” A majority of the public in eight out of the ten countries agreed with the statement. In Britain “only” 47 per cent of the public wanted to stop all future Muslim migration.

Two things struck me. First, majority opinion across Europe had ended up being sterner than me on this subject. For a long time my own feelings have been that we need to reduce levels of immigration into Europe dramatically, especially from Muslim-majority societies. But I do not think that the number should be precisely “zero”. Nevertheless, I now accept that the public are less liberal than me on this issue. Second, one of the people who unveiled the poll was the politics professor and TV pundit Matthew Goodwin, who used to berate me publicly for pieces of mine in Standpoint on these very subjects. My articles back then were, among other things, a vain effort to avert the growing disconnect between the public and their representatives on the issues of Islam and immigration. Goodwin is one of those who, in his own little gatekeeperish way, should take a bow for helping to make matters worse than they needed to be across Europe.

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Which brings me back to Goebbels, or at least to his former secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who recently died at the age of 106. Reading the obituaries, I was particularly struck by Pomsel’s recent observation about the people who today claim that they would have done more for the “poor, persecuted Jews”. “I really believe that they sincerely mean it,” she said.  “But they wouldn’t have done it either.” I suppose that from Hollywood to Holyrood, people do think that they are fighting the Nazis at present. But they’re not. They’re fighting the people. And just calling them Nazis.  Which isn’t quite the same thing.