The creator of Godwin’s law says the comparison to Hitler is apt

By | December 19, 2023

Whenever people start fighting on the internet, someone will inevitably reach for the Hitler comparison. It’s a virtually unbreakable rule known as “Godwin’s Law.” Mike Godwinan early internet enthusiast who came up with it in 1990. It is also clear that the side that mentions Hitler or the Nazis often loses the argument, even though that is not part of the law itself.

This weekend Godwin’s law was invoked President Joe Biden‘s campaign said former president Donald Trump had ‘parroted Adolf Hitler’ when he accused undocumented immigrants of ‘poisoning the blood of our country’.

But according to Godwin himself, that does not mean that Biden loses the discussion.

“Trump is opening himself up to the Hitler comparison,” Godwin said in an interview. And according to him, Trump is actively trying to evoke the parallel.

Trump made almost identical comments in an interview with the far-right website The National Pulse in November, around the same time, Trump also called his political opponents “vermin” – all rhetoric Hitler used to discredit Jews.

“You could say the ‘vermin’ comment or the ‘poison the blood’ comment, maybe one of them would be a coincidence,” Godwin said. “But they both pretty much make it clear that there’s something thematically going on, and I can’t believe it is coincidental.”

Comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis occur constantly, especially in online discourse, but are often dismissed as ridiculous or clumsy. When public figures or their associates mention the H-word, it can provoke ridicule. But the Biden campaign has made a deadly serious statement, and a political bet that the public will not dismiss the accusation as an exaggeration.

In an interview with POLITICO Magazine, Godwin, now an attorney specializing in privacy and internet law, discussed whether he thinks the Biden team is right and why his rule has had such lasting power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By comparing Trump to Hitler, is the Biden campaign losing the argument based on Godwin’s Law?

I never said you lose the argument just because you invoke the Nazis. If you’re going to compare someone to Hitler or the Nazis or raise the specter of the Holocaust, make sure you have the right facts. But there’s nothing categorically wrong with Biden’s — or anyone else’s — comparison of Trump calling people vermin or talking to Hitler about blood poisoning.

I wasn’t previously a particular scholar of Hitler or the Nazis, and I still don’t count as such, but I always made an effort to know enough history to know if a comparison was valid. And in general, dehumanizing rhetoric is a hallmark of Hitler’s rhetoric. So Trump opens himself up to the Hitler comparison.

So to be clear, do you think it’s fair to compare Trump’s rhetoric to Hitler’s or Nazi’s ideology?

I would go further than that. I think it would be fair to say that Trump knows what he is doing. I think he chose that rhetoric on purpose. But yes, there are some real similarities. If you have read Hitler’s own writings – which I do not recommend to anyone, by the way – you will see an inhuman dimension everywhere, but the speeches are an even more interesting case.

What we have of Hitler’s speeches are largely recorded, and they are not always particularly coherent. What you see in the efforts to put together his speeches are scholars trying to summarize what they sounded like. So it’s a bit like watching a stand-up comedian singing all his great lyrics. You see Hitler repeating himself again and again. He repeats the same lines or sentiment on different occasions.

Whatever Trump says, whatever else you say about him, he knows what kinds of statements get the reactions he wants. The purpose of the rallies is to have applause lines because that creates good media, that creates video. And if he repeats his lines over and over again, it increases the likelihood that a particular line will be repeated in media coverage. So that’s straight out of the playbook.

You could say the comment “vermin” or the comment “poison the blood”, maybe one of them would be a coincidence. But they both pretty much make it clear that there’s something thematically going on, and I can’t believe it’s a coincidence.

The question is why you do this on purpose. Well, my view is that Trump, for whatever reason, believes that some of his base really wants to hear this message that way, and he’s caving in to them. He finds it both personally rewarding for himself and he believes it is necessary to motivate people to help him get re-elected.

What made you come up with the law in the first place?

At the time, I was studying law, and when I took a break from my studies, I started going to online communities very early on. I saw a lot of discussions taking place and I saw the rhetoric escalating – people were getting angrier with each other. They said something like, “That’s exactly what Hitler would say,” and I found that quite disturbing, because here I was in law school, studying international law and legal philosophy, and I thought if we kept calling everyone Hitler or Nazis, we will forget what that period in history really meant.

Does anyone ever quote Godwin’s law to you without knowing that you are Godwin?

Oh yeah. That has happened many times. A man I had worked with for two full years came into my office and said, “You created Godwin’s Law?” He had known me for two years and had no idea that the creator of Godwin’s Law was around and working away from him.

Is it strange to be essentially an ordinary citizen who created this highly influential internet law?

I wanted to prove that it was possible for an individual to influence media culture. And so I came up with Godwin’s law and I put it in a pseudo-objective way so that it became funny. [Officially, it’s: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”]

If I had said, ‘You know, you really shouldn’t make that comparison, because there are still people alive who remember the Holocaust,’ it wouldn’t have had any effect. But by suggesting to people that they act with no more deliberateness than a rock rolling down a hill, it gets people to pay attention.

For decades, some Americans have compared presidents to Hitler or a Nazi. And your original law makes the point that if people on the internet talk long enough, bringing up Hitler or Nazis is statistically certain to happen. Have decades of rushed comparisons familiarized the public with a moment when the comparison is justified? Are we now in a ‘boy who cried wolf’ type situation?

In the US, we have an incredibly diverse population with people from all over the political spectrum, and people from all different demographics and backgrounds. So you can always find people who respond to a certain kind of inflammatory rhetoric. But I don’t think the population generally got used to it.

I think the reason something like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld is funny is because it’s absurd. And anyone watching that episode can see that it’s absurd, and that means knowing that there’s a context in which that wouldn’t be the case.

Growing up and learning the American system of government, we were always taught that the American government has checks and balances in its design, so you can’t take over with a sentiment of the moment. But I think what we’ve learned is that the institutions that protect us are fragile. History shows that all democracies are vulnerable. So we must be alert to political movements that seek to undermine democratic institutions, because the purpose of democratic institutions is not to put the best people in power, but to maintain democracy even when the worst people are in power . That’s a big lift.

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