Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

As we have previously stated, the Institute endorses no candidates and no policy positions. However, occasionally a political figure will say or do something that pertains to civility and deserves comment. Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States falls into this category, insofar as it is contrary to the spirit of open dialog and free expression that is necessary for the health of a vibrant pluralist society.

In a press release Monday, his campaign wrote that: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. To the Associated Press, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski clarified that this means not only immigration, but tourists seeking to enter the country. And Trump himself strongly implied that the ban would include Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel outside of the country.

Beyond the fact that this plan would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, Trump’s words have the effect of polarizing and provoking. They close, rather than open, avenues of civil dialog. And they have the potential to incite violence against a group that is already frequently the target of hate crimes in the United States. Just hours before Trump’s statement, for example, police and the FBI confirmed that they were investigating an incident in which a severed pig’s head was left outside of a mosque in North Philadelphia.

Several members of Trump’s political party have denounced his proposal. Jeb Bush offered a strong rebuke through Twitter. And, as CNN reports, state chairs of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina were critical as well. Matt Moore, the Republican chair in South Carolina, tweeted that we must remain vigilant about defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient. And Jennifer Horn, head of the New Hampshire GOP, called the proposal “un-American” and “un-Republican.”

That said, there is a second strain of criticism being leveled against Donald Trump that is as unacceptable as the proposal itself. That is, what philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951 dubbed reductio ad Hitlerum. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a type of ad hominem logical fallacy that proposes that a person’s views, and therefore the person him- or herself, is like Hitler, a Nazi, a fascist, or the Nazi Party.

This was clear Monday when The Times of Israel ran an image with their story on Trump’s proposal of the candidate seemingly engaged in the Nazi salute. And it was clear this morning in the Philadelphia Daily News’s punning headline: “The New Furor.”

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Times of Israel, December 7, 2015


Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 2015

But the Nazi – or more generally fascist – comparison is not limited to images and three-word tags. Journalist Xeni Jardin, writing at, called Donald Trump a candidate for Führer of the United Fascist States of America. And an article at by Uzra Khan of the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy called this proposal, and earlier comments about tracking Muslim Americans, a set of ideas reeking of Nazism.

Finally, on social media, this meme has been circulating for the past twenty-four hours:

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
The Institute obviously DOES NOT endorse any comparison of anybody, least of all Donald Trump, to Hitler.

The trouble with the reductio ad Hitlerum argument is almost precisely the same as the problem with Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration: it is alarmist, overwrought, and privileges polarization and provocation over the sort of meaningful dialog that has a chance to disarm bigotry and lead to productive changes in policy and attitude alike. How can one respond to a comparison to Nazi Germany? With blanket denial, defensiveness, or an equally sweeping counter-attack. And none of those responses are useful.

The fact of the matter is that our attitudes toward and policies regarding immigration do require serious public scrutiny. Violence perpetrated by extremists of all creeds is currently an exigent problem in the United States. And America’s undercurrent of festering anti-Islamic sentiment does require open dialog if it’s ever to find resolution.

But when candidates for high office propose extreme measures, and when those proposals are met with disproportionate and ad hominem attacks, we cannot collectively do any of those things. To foster dialog, to resolve hate, and to countenance scrutiny, America needs the kind of safe space created through civility. And it is civility that these kinds of rhetorical tactics threaten, if not destroy.