A few thoughts on rigor, precision, and reason-based discussion

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We are sharing a guest post by Rob Blair.

Let me start by saying, very clearly, I am deeply concerned by Trump’s executive orders. The ones that are purely symbolic, readying-for-legislation stuff are worrisome. The ones that have present-tense impact are (with possibly one exception) devastating. These things are not okay. And I am all for following the advice of Captain Picard:

“We’ve made too many compromises already. Too many retreats. […] Not anymore. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further.”

But I also want to raise a concern I have with how we are talking about the current situation. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for my assertive tone.

Trump is not a dictator. He is expanding the use of executive power into areas without precedent, but to say that this qualifies him as a dictator similarly qualifies Obama and even Lincoln as dictators.

Are some of his actions especially concerning in this vein? Absolutely. You add in the expanded executive usage with his assertion that the other branches of government are supposed to serve his agenda, with his gag orders on government agencies that tend to hold positions that contradict his views, and with the man’s thin skin … all *highly* concerning. And when taken in combination, it’s enough to keep a very close eye on where things go. This is nothing to be taken lightly. It’s just not a dictatorship.

This is also *not* “exactly what Hitler did.” I have seen dozens of these posts from friends. There’s a term for this: “Reductio ad Hitlerum.” Seriously, it’s a thing. And the tradition of branding political opponents as Hitlers reaches back to Hitler himself.

Hitler did not temporarily ban refugees and put limits on immigration as an attempt to persecute the Jews. What he did was try to take over the government by force, get arrested, go to prison, write a book where he very explicitly stated that Jews needed to be destroyed, become the head of a movement with anti-semitic ideals that appealed to a disenfranchised base of veterans, introduce legislation that took away the rights of the nation’s population of Jewish permanent residents (including their rights to hold certain jobs), forcefully seize Jewish property, etc., etc. There was a long path to power for Hitler, and one that had many warning signs as to his intentions.

I’ve repeatedly heard this argument that we’re calling Trump a Hitler because we want to stop it super early. Again, it feels like this stems from a misunderstanding of how much terrible shit happened with Hitler in his first years of power. In the first year of his leadership alone, there was a mass book burning of “un-German books,” an official suspension of constitutional protections, an establishment of the first concentration camp, an anti-Jewish boycott officially sponsored by the government, official legislation preventing Jews from holding public office or any civil service position, laws that limited the number of Jews in public schools, forced sterilization of people with disabilities, legislation that prevents Jews from working in journalism, and a law that allowed courts to sentence people to indefinite prison terms without precedent.

Now, *maybe* you’re right that what we’ve seen from Trump is the first action in what will become a horrendous path such as this. But a single point — even when it is a set of actions — is not sufficient to draw conclusions about trajectory. Because these are the things he asserted he would do during his campaigning. Might it continue from here? Spin out of control? Absolutely. We have to keep vigilant. But might it also be that he’s trying to show that he fulfills his campaign promises, and that this will be roughly the severity of wrong we are likely to see on these fronts? I think that’s also possible. It’s too soon to say. And currently, I continue my assertion that this there is *absolutely no comparison* to what was done by Hitler, even in his first year of power.

Again, I’m not saying that history couldn’t prove Trump to be a Hitler if things escalate. I’m just saying that we’re nowhere near that point right now. We have plenty to be concerned with, plenty to fight against, and plenty that convinces me that we must keep a careful watch. But nothing that tells me that Trump is currently a Hitlerean leader in any meaningful sense of the word.

There is one area where I can see some comparison: Trump has consistently used hateful rhetoric that is destructive in its own rights, and shows a hostility toward an entire faith. That’s a huge problem. It condones prejudice and stirs up violence, as we have seen in the increase in hate crimes and violent attacks against Muslims since Trump’s election. But even here, any comparison of Trump to Hitler, based on current rhetoric and actions, simply doesn’t stand up to intellectual rigor.

And also, this is *not* a Muslim ban. The number of immigrants from the seven selected countries is actually a pretty small minority of the total population of Muslim immigrants. It’s based on research done by a security council during Obama’s administration (although it’s really de-contextualizing that research and stretching it to places it wasn’t meant to go).

Again, I’m not arguing that what Trump is doing is okay. Listen to the stories of refugees, and you’ll see how important it is to aid them. Read about the people who had their visas approved and were sent away. Contemplate, for a moment, how *idiotic* it was to do this as an executive order without a grace period, without an allowance for those who already had approval. Learn about a child separated from his parents, of a professor who openly criticized ISIS but wasn’t allowed to re-enter of the country despite their position, of aid workers who went abroad to give their time and sweat to help others but who weren’t allowed to come back home, of translators who worked with the U.S. military for years who were suddenly pushed away … and ask yourself, why the *hell* are we doing this?

And listen to the bi-partisan criticism of these actions. Listen to John McCain’s statements especially: This action may well become known as a moment when we shot ourselves in the foot when it comes to the war on terror.

I strongly believe that this will fuel terrorism more than it prevents it. We can’t expect others to imagine us complexly when we simplify the nations and faiths of the world into monolithic, flattened wholes. And we can’t expect to gain any real benefit from banning the refugees from seven countries that have *never been the source of terror attacks against the U.S.* Not one.

But don’t call it a Muslim ban. Because it’s not. It’s terrible, and it signals a future possibility of a Muslim ban or a de facto Muslim ban, and it’s an important place to draw the line. It’s worth fighting against, tooth, nail, and fist. But it’s not a Muslim ban.

We serve no one by misnaming things. It widens the schism, it prevents any sort of meaningful dialogue from happening with those who disagree with us, and it moves the conversation from a rational place to an emotional one. When emotion rules the day, changing minds is impossible. People dig in their heels. When threatened, they become entrenched in their ideas.

I might be idealizing things. I recognize that. Maybe it’s inevitable that our conversations about politics be emotional and charged and adversarial. But why? Why do they have to be that way? I want to live in a world where we can empathize with each other, understand the fear that often lies at the hearts of these decisions, and move forward with rational conversations about how we can build a world that serves us all.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we need the hyperbole, the emotionally charged exaggerations rather than the pursuit of a calm precision. But I cannot imagine a way in which we make this nation better while leaving half of the population at odds with the other half. I cannot imagine a way that these careless but impassioned arguments will change minds rather than just entrenching opponents and inciting further anger within those who agree with us already. I cannot imagine how a focus on fearful hypotheticals will serve us better than focusing on the many battles we have to fight today: Right here, right now.

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