On Sunday, dozens of world leaders joined French citizens in a march in Paris to honor the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. Absent from the crowd were major American leaders. Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden joined the march; instead, the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.
It’s only natural that this sparked criticism, with tough treatment from Republicans like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who wrote in Time, “The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous.”
This criticism isn’t especially fair, but it lives within the world of reality. That’s more than you can say for the critique from Rep. Randy Weber, a backbench Republican congressman from Texas. “Even Adolph Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris. (For all of the wrong reasons),” wrote Weber on Twitter, “Obama couldn’t do it for [the] right reasons.”
So much of this is hard to understand. Are we supposed to draw an analogy between the infamous dictator and the president of the United States? And are we supposed to think there’s something comparable about Hitler’s wartime drive to conquer Paris and Obama’s decision to stay home and support the marchers from afar?
Nothing in this attack makes sense, but—in choosing Hitler as his point of comparison—Weber has revived an erstwhile tradition of American politics: Comparing the president to Adolf Hitler. This was a part of life during the George W. Bush administration, and it picked up steam with Obama’s arrival on the national stage. Of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of examples, here are a few of my favorites.
Who thinks Obama is Hitler? Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell. A few days before the 2008 presidential election, Sowell penned a broadside against then–Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s call for “change” in American life. Warning that it could mean anything, Sowell pointed to examples of “change” that claimed millions of lives. “[M]any today seem to assume that if things are bad, “change” will make them better. Specifics don’t interest them nearly as much as inspiring rhetoric and a confident style. But many 20th-century leaders with inspiring rhetoric and great self-confidence led their followers or their countries into utter disasters. These ranged from Jim Jones who led hundreds to their deaths in Jonestown to Hitler and Mao who led millions to their deaths.”
There’s still time, but thus far, President Obama has not led hundreds of his followers to suicide or condemned millions of Americans to death.
Who thinks Obama and Hitler are pals? The Republican Women of Anne Arundel County, Maryland. In June 2009, the GOP group published a letter from its president, who explicitly compared the recently elected president to the Nazi leader. “Obama and Hitler have a great deal in common in my view,” she wrote. “Obama and Hitler use the “blitzkrieg” method to overwhelm their enemies. FAST, CARPET BOMBING intent on destruction. Hitler’s blitzkrieg bombing destroyed many European cities—quickly and effectively. Obama is systematically destroying the American economy and with it AMERICA.”
As of December 2014, United States unemployment has fallen to 5.6 percent after 58 months of consecutive private sector job gains. What’s more, economy-wide growth has hit a healthy pace, reaching 5 percent in the third quarter of last year.
Who paid cash to call Obama “Hitler?” The North Iowa Tea Party. In summer 2010, just a few months after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, a Tea Party group near Mason City, Iowa purchased a billboard meant to “draw attention to socialism.” The sign—which warned that “Radical leaders prey on the fearful & naive”—showed large photographs of Obama, Hitler, and communist leader Vladimir Lenin beneath the labels “Democrat Socialism,” “National Socialism,” and “Marxist Socialism.”
National Tea Party leaders condemned the billboard—“That’s just a waste of money, time, resources, and it’s not going to further our cause,” said one spokesperson from the Tea Party Patriots—and the leader of the Iowa group that purchased the sign later expressed his regrets. “The purpose of the billboard was to draw attention to the socialism. It seems to have been lost in the visuals,” said Bob Johnson.
Which country music singer made an awkward Hitler quip? Hank Williams Jr. In a 2011 interview with Fox and Friends, Williams attacked a “golf summit” President Obama had held with House Speaker John Boehner. It was “one of the biggest political mistakes ever,” said the singer, most famous for his presence in the Monday Night Football broadcasts. “It would be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu, OK?”
When a confused Brian Kilmeade asked Williams to clarify the statement—“Yeah, I don’t understand that analogy, actually”—Williams snapped back. “Well, I’m glad you don’t, brother, because a lot of people do,” Williams said. “You know, they’re the enemy. They’re the enemy," he said, referring to the president.
Williams later apologized—“I have always respected the office of the President”—but he lost his spot with the NFL and ESPN, which pulled his contract.
Whose sermon compared health care reform to Hitler? Bishop Daniel Jenky. In a 2012 homily, the Peoria, Illinois bishop accused President Obama of waging war on Christian believers through health care policies, and the “contraception mandate” in particular. “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care,” Jenky was quoted as saying. “In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama—with his radical, pro-abortion, and extreme secularist agenda—now seems intent on following a similar path.”
In the years since, the Supreme Court has weakened the mandate, broadening religious exemptions for a wide group of religious organizations, nonprofit and otherwise. There’s no indication (yet!) that Obama wants to close churches and curtail religious freedom.
Which elected official used social media to compare the president to “Hitler?” Arizona state Rep. Brenda Barton. In a post on Facebook, the Arizona lawmaker blasted Obama for closing federal monuments during the October 2013 government shutdown. “Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer…where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?” Barton wrote.
Even after strong criticism from local and national outlets, Barton stood by her take. “It’s not just the death camps. [Hitler] started in the communities, with national health care and gun control. You better read your history. Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people,” she said.
Who is the billionaire who thinks Democrats are a goose step away from becoming the Nazi Party? Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone. In a 2014 interview with Politico, the major GOP donor fretted over Democratic appeals to populism and against the “1 percent,” including those from President Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I hope it’s not working,” he said. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”
I should say that, for the most part, I don’t think any of these are sincere. I’m not sure that anyone who calls Obama “Hitler”—or who did the same to George W. Bush—is thinking much about their analogy. Instead, they’re reaching for the most evil name they can imagine, and attaching it to their chief political opponent.
The simple truth is that there’s no one in mainstream American life who is like Hitler or the Nazi Party. But given the popularity of that comparison—it has fueled success for at least one conservative writer of note—I don’t expect it to fade away, not now or for the next president.