Why Use Political Analogies?

Étienne Plourde

Comparison and analogies are a key political tool: they insinuate a certain course of action will have the same outcome as another, or they create a hierarchy of events. As per the example cited by Gordon’s piece, comparing the camps along the contemporary American-Mexican border to the camps of Nazi Germany serves (for those making the comparison) to bind Trump’s immigration policy to Nazi horrors, while those opposing these comparisons argue they are preserving the ‘non-partisan’ status of the Holocaust as a metonym for ‘ultimate evil’.

I am particularly interested in the rhetorical value of making these accusations (when they are facile or politically motivated, and fail to conform to the intellectual honesty described by Moyn). Why is it not sufficient to debate the issue at hand purely on its own? There must be some special rhetorical value to this avenue of attack to justify its use, particularly given that the diminishing returns associated with this strategy.

As Moyn warns, use of analogies is itself analogous to ‘crying wolf’: if dire warnings of ‘existential threats’ are trotted out at every action, the population may simply become inured to these calls to action. Overuse of these analogies may also, as de Grazia describes Mussolini as doing, leave the accuser open to accusations of having no political platform other than sabotaging the accused. This tactic has certainly made a resurgence in the past four years of American politics, with criticism of the Administration being dismissed and mocked as the results of ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’.

The most obvious motivation, I think, is to tap into the power of whatever metonym is being invoked. By describing something as ‘Nazi-like’ or ‘quasi-fascist’, the accuser is hoping to clobber the accused with the already-settled societal value that ‘Nazi = bad’. The terms of the debate, with that accusation as an opening volley, are not built around the morality of the accused, but around the strength of the analogy. The power of this shorthand is revealed in the examples given by de Grazia, where the case for foreign intervention in Vietnam and Libya and Yugoslavia and Iraq is argued in terms of their similarity to the Third Reich; as well as the way in which political parties that may flirt with Nazi ideology will reject the labels.

Arguably, tainting a political actor with accusations of Nazi-likeness hopes to legitimate action against them in two ways. Firstly, there is what is mentioned above, in which the agreed-upon equation that ‘Nazi = valid target for violence’ is applied to the new target. Secondly, though, there is the insinuation that the target is following a foreign ideology, that it is acting in a way alien to the country and thus is an illegitimate ruler due to this imported creed.

By presenting fascism as this amorphous force that has inflicted pain across borders and eras, then, referencing it serves to build alliances. By claiming that a political actor is but the latest iteration of a fascist evil unbound by time or place, the accuser calls for all the others who have been victimized by its previous forms – of which there are countless alleged cases, as Allardyce and Finchelstein bemoan – to avenge themselves. It is a cry for allies, it paints the accused as an iredeemable pawn of a loathed movement that must be put down wherever it is found, and it allows the accuser to claim the moral virtue of Holocaustic victims, as they fight the same enemy.

While the individuals lobbing accusations of ‘fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ are presumably not plotting the specific appeals of this strategy, I believe the above serves to cover at least the basics. Calling the opponent a Nazi simplifies the argument by removing the need to argue morality; it delegitimizes the opponent by painting them as irredeemably evil and exogenous; and serves as a rallying cry for opposition, aligning the accuser with the societally-recognized victims of fascism and calling for those who care about those causes to take action regarding this one.

Works Referenced

Allardyce, G. (1979, April). What Fascism is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept. The American Historical Review, 84(2), 367-388.

de Grazia, V. (2020, August 13). What we don’t understand about Fascism: Using the word incorrectly oversimplifies history – and won’t help us address our current political crisis. ZOCALO. Retrieved from https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Finchelstein, F. (2017). Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past. In F. Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (pp. 1-30). Oakland: University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. (2020, January 7). Why Historical Analogy Matters. Retrieved from The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, S. (2020, May 19). The Trouble with Comparisons. Retrieved from The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

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