unfortunate analogies

Nazis, Slavery, Lynchings, and More Overblown Modern Analogies

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images; STR/AFP/Getty Images

While testifying Tuesday at a New York State hearing on regulating Bitcoin, Cameron Winklevoss made a rather off-kilter comparison, quoting Mahatma Gandhi in relation to the virtual currency: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Winklevoss said, invoking the nonviolent leader of the Indian independence movement as he discussed the made-up money that’s helping make him and his brother richer. The outsized analogy came a few days after venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared San Francisco’s Google bus backlash to Kristallnacht, the night Jews came under attack in Nazi Germany. What the hell is going on with these guys?

Nothing new, really. Plenty of other powerful people do this all the time. Invoking momentous historical examples to make petty political points is so common it’s become a routine part of our national conversation. Let’s hop in the not-so-way-back machine to check out a few recent, glaring examples.

  • Senator Rick Santorum, on Obamacare and apartheid, when Mandela died in December 2013: “He was fighting against some great injustice. I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives — and Obamacare is front and center in that.”
  • Sarah Palin on the national debt, in November 2013: “Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China… When that money comes due — and this isn’t racist — but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to the foreign master.”
  • Senator Ted Cruz, on his 21-hour filibuster in October 2013: “I don’t want to miss the opportunity within the limited amount of time is imperative that I do, which is to thank the men and women who have endured this, this Bataan Death March.” Cruz later apologized to veterans of the actual Bataan Death March.
  • AIG CEO Robert Benmosche on outrage over executive bonuses in September 2013: “The uproar over bonuses ‘was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.’” Benmosche later apologized.
  • New Hampshire State Representative Bill O’Brien on the Affordable Care Act, in August 2013: “It is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that allowed slave owners to come to New Hampshire and seize African Americans and use the federal courts to take them back to federal … to slave states.”
  • Idaho State Senator Sheryl Nuxoll, on the ACA’s health insurance exchanges, in January 2013: She “compar[ed] the role of insurance companies to ‘the Jews boarding the trains to concentration camps,’ saying the federal government is using private insurers and in the future will ‘pull the trigger’ on them.”
  • U.S. Representative Mike Kelly on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which went into effect August 2012: “I know in your mind you can think of the times that America was attacked …. One is December 7th, that’s Pearl Harbor Day; the other is September 11th and that’s the day of a terrorist attack. I want you to remember August the first 2012 the attack on our religious freedom. That is the date that will live in infamy along with those other dates.” Kelly did not apologize.
  • Maine Governor Paul LePage on the IRS, in July 2012: “We the people have been told there is no choice … You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.”
  • U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich’s campaign director, Michael Krull, on his candidate’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential primary in December 2011: “Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941: We have experienced an unexpected setback, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action.”
  • Senator Rand Paul, on the notion of health care as a human right, in May 2011: “With regard to the idea whether or not you have a right to health care you have to realize what that implies. I am a physician. You have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. You are going to enslave not only me but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants, the nurses … You are basically saying you believe in slavery.”
  • Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman on federal taxes of private equity firms in 2010: “It’s a war … It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Schwarzman later apologized.
  • Alabama coach Nick Saban, on Alabama’s 2007 loss to Louisiana-Monroe: “Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event … It may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, and that was a catastrophic event.”

The Overblown Analogies of American Discourse