Godwin’s Law, Or, How To Lose an Argument in One Paragraph

Last week, in a fit of sentimentality, I published an article in the Washington Examiner magazine with the grandiose title “My ‘Geneva Convention’ for the Trump Wars.” It’s out from behind the Examiner paywall now, and we posted it in our “Picks” section a few days ago. There is a backstory to this article that I can’t fully share, as it involved some private communications with some “Never Trump” figures (though I am trying to retire that phrase) and pro-Trump friends. The main point was simple: by all means we shall keep fighting, but can we stop with the ad hominem insults and hyperbole about the other conservatives we disagree with? Can we stick to the substance of the matter? There is no good reason to open permanent divisions among like-minded people over a single figure who will be in the historical rear-view mirror in either 22 months or six years.

It turned out to be have an extremely ill-timed article, and perhaps I shouldn’t have published it at all. In addition to the Atlantic article I referenced in the piece about the resolute anti-Trump view of The Bulwark, there comes now Gabriel Schoenfeld’s review of Victor Davis Hanson’s new book, The Case For Trump, which Victor kindly previewed for us here a few days ago.

Schoenfeld doesn’t like Victor’s case much at all. Most of the counter-argument is familiar: Trump is an extreme narcissist and prevaricator even by the low standards of politicians, etc. Also a racist, etc. Here (and in other places) I think Schoenfeld goes too far in crediting the liberal narrative about Trump on this and some other questions, but he’s hardly alone in thinking so. Up to this point his arguments against Trump, and Victor’s case, are not new. By now, three years into the Trump Era, the back and forth about Trump is starting to take on the same dreary repetitiveness of the climate change debate, with both sides thinking if they repeat their main points one more time, only louder!, it is going to swing opinion right around.

Most of Schoenfeld’s article argues seriously and with expressions of respect for Victor’s long body of impressive historical work. But for some reason Schoenfeld had to go all Godwin’s Law on us in the last paragraph. Godwin’s Law, you may know, holds that the first person to resort to a reductio ad Hitlerum argument on the Internet loses the argument by default. Here is the entire last paragraph:

This is not to say that Hanson’s book lacks value. As a part of a larger phenomenon, it is instructive in its way. Anyone with an iota of historical awareness is familiar with the fact that intellectuals in Europe and the United States lauded Joseph Stalin even as he sent millions to the Gulag and their death. By the same token, Adolf Hitler, one of the 20th century’s other mega-mass murderers, also found his share of admirers in the academy, among them such brilliant minds as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. An entire branch of Western scholarship was devoted to the adulation of the genocidal Mao Tse-tung. Whatever Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, it is a grotesque absurdity to compare him to history’s most terrible tyrants. My point is something else: If such monsters could find admirers among the highly educated, it is unsurprising that our infantile, ignorant leader has found an assortment of professors to sing his praises. Julian Benda wrote The Treason of the Intellectuals in 1927. With legitimate historians like Hanson abasing themselves to write what can only be called propaganda, Benda’s title, if not his entire argument, is perennially pertinent.

Let’s go back for a moment and linger on one central sentence:

Whatever Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, it is a grotesque absurdity to compare him to history’s most terrible tyrants.

Whew! It’s certainly a relief to learn from Schoenfeld that Trump is not literally Hitler! But that makes the rest of the paragraph so much more shocking, since it asserts that Victor’s supposed abasement to Trump is on par with the intellectuals who abased themselves to Hitler and Stalin. This would seem to imply that Victor and other pro-Trump thinkers are somehow worse than Carl Schmitt and Heidegger, doesn’t it? The implication about Hanson here is odious—something you’d expect to read in The Nation or Mother Jones.

Beyond the misfire at an attempt at subtlety here, it is astounding that Schoenfeld would deploy Julian Benda’s title in service of an attack on Victor, for I can think of no intellectual to whom Benda’s actual argument applies to less than Victor. I dusted off my copy of Benda, which I haven’t cracked open in more than 30 years, to see if I could figure out how Benda’s argument could be applied to Victor. A large aspect of Benda’s “entire argument” is about the supercharged nature of political passion in the early 20thcentury, how intellectuals exploited this secular trend for their own aggrandizement, and the perversions many intellectuals brought to the “realist” tradition in political thought. To be sure, Victor brings a large measure of bracing intensity to his writing, but he can hardly be regarded as a firebrand of any kind, either in temperament or style of argument. The actual examples Benda gives—especially Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel—are diametrically opposed to the disposition and outlook of Hanson.

I could go on with further exegesis of Benda’s richly argued thesis and why it is wildly off the mark for Hanson, but I’ll end with bringing attention to one passage from Benda about how the true historian avoids inflaming passion:

By his determination in bringing this partiality [on behalf of political passion] to historical narrative the modern “clerk” [Benda’s original term for “intellectual’] most seriously derogates from his true function, if I am right in saying that his function is to restrain the passions of the laymen. Not only does he inflame the laymen’s passions more cunningly than ever, not only does he deprive them of the suggestive spectacle of a man solely occupied by the thirst for truth, but he prevents the laymen from hearing speech different from that of the marketplace speech, which, coming from the heights, shows that the most opposite passions are equally justified, equally necessary to the earthly State, and thereby incites every reader who has any capacity for getting outside himself to relax the severity of his passions, at least for a moment.

In this present clash between Hanson and Schoenfeld, to whom does Benda’s portrait of the true historian versus the traitorous “clerk” attempting to inflame popular passions most closely resemble? It doesn’t even seem a close call.

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