Has The Rise of Donald Trump Killed Godwin’s Law?

Did the internet used to be way more fun?

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Back in the early days of the internet, you couldn’t make it ten minutes in a Usenet channel without faceplanting into Godwin’s Law. You know, this one: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

Oh, how we laughed. It was pre-packaged fun for the dawning internet age; a pleasingly nerdy mathematical probability, a self-fulfilling punchline, and a great defuser for confrontations. It travelled with its own cloud of trailing corollaries — the favourite being that if you were the one guilty of invoking comparisons to Hitler, Nazis or the Holocaust, the discussion was over and you’d lost.

Threads the world over found people shouting “Godwin’s Law! Conversation over!” as someone on a tropical fish tank forum accused someone else of being Hitler for using an under-gravel filter*. This was inevitably followed by someone else obnoxiously clarifying that they were talking about the corollary to Godwin’s Law. It got to the point where shouting “Hitler!” became a running joke to get out of a discussion about someone’s nasty skin condition or politics.

tropical fish nazis

*This is not made up.

Boy, don’t we all long for those innocent days now. Suddenly, the internet has gone reaaaal quiet where Godwin’s Law is concerned.

Reductio Ad Hitlerum

Unlike most of the observational comedy of the internet age, Godwin’s Law was coined with a specific purpose in mind. American attorney and author Mike Godwin told the story in a 1994 column for Wired:

“[Some] libertarians were ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And, invariably, the comparisons trivialised the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialisation I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).

“So, I set out to conduct an experiment — to build a counter-meme designed to make discussion participants see how they are acting as vectors to a particularly silly and offensive meme… and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons.”

It was the perfect antidote for a generation who hadn’t seen Nazi atrocities first-hand, but still reached straight for them as the hyperbolic definition of evil. The problem was, at some point, that hyperbole started to feel less hyperbolic.

Things started getting particularly awkward here in Australia, when it became uncomfortably clear that our detention camps — holding people indefinitely without trial or crime — had some certain political parallels. Mike Godwin himself tweeted (forever the adjudicator of his own law, despite no particular qualifications) that comparisons between Australia’s detention centres and concentration camps were relevant and apt.

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 4.15.55 PM

Godwin’s law was starting to look pale, and it was coughing up some awfully weird stuff.

If It Looks Like A Nazi And Talks Like A Nazi…

Around a year ago, Mike Godwin wrote an article for The Washington Post titled Sure, call Trump a Nazi. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about’. He pleaded with people to refrain from making spurious comparisons to Nazism. He asked, plaintively, that comparisons be made with well-informed and strong historical and political basis. He chiselled the words on the tombstone of his own creation.

Trump was promising nationalistic nostalgia for a heyday that had never really existed, and a reassurance that the enemy was easily identified by their race. He threatened to jail his opponent, campaigned for a Muslim registry, and spoke specifically to downtrodden people hit by economic hardship they couldn’t control.

Alt-right posterboy and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer (he of the punchable head) was caught on camera during the Trump campaign, shouting “Heil Trump”. Alongside their beloved “fake news”, Trump rallies featured an alt-right chant of “Lügenpresse”. It translates to ‘Lying Press’ — a term the Nazis used to discredit the press. Spencer genuinely thinks this is a clever hat-tip, and not a neon sign advertising their intentions.

Either way, it send a red line diving downwards on Godwin’s Law’s patient chart.

“Van der Leun’s Corollary: As global connectivity improves, the probability of actual Nazis being on the Net approaches one.”

In the last fortnight, it’s become clear that beautiful moment of internet fun is over: Godwin’s Law is in a pine box, and the best we can do is file past and pay our respects. Borders are slamming shut on vilified religious targets. There’s a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants. Checks and balances on the mechanisms of government are being pushed to breaking point. Officials have been muzzled or unceremoniously fired, and lists are being made of journalists and scientists. Unfavourable press has been banned from asking questions. Jews and Germans alike are out with signs saying “We’ve seen this before”. Not a single person has popped up shouting “Godwin’s Law! Conversation over!”

So where do we go now? That other bit of classic internet fun, Poe’s Law — that it is impossible to create a parody so obvious that someone won’t mistake it for truth — is ascendent, with Facebook testing a ‘satire’ tag and White House Press Secretary Sean ‘President Trumble’ Spicer retweeting satirical news outlet The Onion’s pisstake of him by accident.

The looming puppetmaster behind Trump, Steve Bannon, is a creature whose spawn point can be directly traced back to the internet. Specifically, to the ponds of primordial ooze that are 4chan and 8chan; Breitbart had an enormous role in championing the horrific misogynistic thousand-legged Gamergate centipede that crawled out of them. It’s the movement that’s credited with turning Twitter sour — or more sour than it already was? — and it’s about as far from the sincere, dewy-eyed Usenet of the ’90s as it’s possible to get.

In a way, Mike Godwin got his wish: the tropical fish tank forums have gone quiet. Specious forum comparisons to Nazis seem impossible when the real thing is spraying swastikas on the streets. But if the internet got us into this mess, maybe the internet can get us out again — one pink pussy hat Ravelry pattern and Nazi-punching video at a time.

Nicole Eckersley is a Melbourne-based writer, critic and word-herder. She has been known to tweet at @metavore, but mostly lives on Facebook, dispensing cat pictures and political outrage.