Scott Tracey, a BP oil refinery technician in Western Australia, was fired for creating a Downfall parody video as part of a pay dispute. The firm charged the parody “draws a parallel between Hitler and his officers, on the one hand, and [the refinery manager] on the other.” Australia’s Fair Work Commission agreed. And so the law — or at least Australian labor law — has officially deemed Downfall parody videos to be accusations of Nazism.
If you are too young, or perhaps too old, to recall Downfall parodies, it is a genre that uses a scene from the 2004 German-language Hitler movie, but replacing subtitles of the Fuhrer’s monologue for a rant about a contemporary subject, which could be politics, sports, or culture. They began not long after the film came out, were already being covered in the New York Times by 2008, and had grown passé by Barack Obama’s second term.
The culture has long since moved on from Downfall (with a handful of isolated exceptions, such as the people living on oil rigs off the Australian coast). The internet has cycled through several generations of memes in the intervening years, from a dog calmly sipping coffee in a burning house to biker dudes shouting at each other. Given the speed of online discourse, Downfall parodies today feel as antiquated as the events of the film.
And yet now we find ourselves living in en era when the Downfall scene is eerily on point. To be perfectly clear, Donald Trump is not Hitler. His many crimes are not going to rise anywhere close to the level of genocide or global war. But Trump is distinctly less not-Hitler than other presidents.
And not only is the president an erratic, compulsively dishonest demagogic nationalist with an instinctive loathing for democracy, he is also prone to the sort of behavior depicted in the famous Downfall scene where Hitler berates his aides for a predicament Hitler himself has created. Episodes like this now appear in the news every week.
Trump’s entire presidency is lurching from one hyperaggressive plan to the next, angrily insisting his unique genius has saved the country, while railing at the enemies who surround him. You can even watch versions of the bunker scene play out in real time on Twitter, as Trump calls his hand-picked Federal Reserve chair an “enemy,” his former secretary of State “dumb as a rock,” his former communications director a “dope,” his former attorney a “bad lawyer and fraudster,” and so on. And every account of the White House staff is basically the Germans standing outside Hitler’s office grim and stone-faced while they listen to his tirade.
Yet Downfall parodies have all but disappeared even as they are a far closer approximation of reality than anybody could have imagined possible when they were in vogue. It is as if people stopped using the distracted-boyfriend meme and then Bill Clinton became president, or we somehow elected a coffee-sipping dog who calmly sat through a White House fire, and the internet’s response was to write parodies of “This Is Just to Say.” (I have sipped/the coffee/that was in/my dog bowl/instead/of doing something/about/the huge fire.)
Perhaps the internet is incapable of reviving a meme once it has moved past. Or maybe the Downfall meme has become unusable because it is uncomfortably close to reality: Likening somebody to Hitler is a good joke until it’s possible you’re not joking any more.