Disingenuous Basterds: The oligarchs' long campaign to depict their critics as Nazis
The rich have never been richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The Masters of the Universe enjoy indefinite taxpayer-funded bailouts, while the social safety net for the poor is gutted on the grounds that they should "suck it up and cope." The ruling class that engineers crushing economic inequality gathers at Davos to pretend to care about said inequality, and then promises no concrete actions to combat the crisis. Many high-income earners pay a lower effective tax rate than low-income earners, and what little progressiveness there was has now been wrung out of the tax code.
And if you think there's a problem with any of this, you're a Nazi. At least according to the poor, put-upon oligarchs.
The latest rich dude to compare critiques of inequality to violent National Socialism is venture capitalist Tom Perkins - he of the $150 million yacht and the 5,500 square foot San Francisco penthouse. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor, this Silicon Valley billionaire bewailed supposed "parallels" between "fascist Nazi Germany's war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews" and "the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'" Citing rising angst over tech-driven gentrification in San Francisco, he concluded: "This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?"
From this skewed perspective, the 85 people who now own as much wealth as 3.5 billion people aren't the big winners. They are instead a persecuted diaspora being exterminated by Hitler.
If that sounds absurd, that's because it is. However, what's being missed in much of the media outrage over Perkins' letter is the fact that his sentiment isn't new, or original. In fact, it's actually quite mundane.
Yes, as predicted by Godwin's Law, the phenomenon known as Reductio ad Hiterlum has become the aristocracy's standard rejoinder to both critiques of economic inequality and policy proposals that might reduce such inequality. Here are just a few choice examples:
Taxes are going to go up regardless. What I’m afraid of is, we shouldn’t punish any one group. Whether we’re punishing people who are wealthy. New York is for everybody; it’s for the poor, it’s for the middle-class, it’s for the wealthy. We can’t punish any one group and chase them away.... Hitler punished the Jews. We can’t have punishing the ‘2% group’ right now. - Supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis on proposals to raise taxes on the rich.
'It’s a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.' - Private equity mogul Steven Schwarzman on proposals to tax private equity income at the same rate as other income.
I think Schumer can probably find the legislation to do this. It existed in Germany in the 1930s and Rhodesia in the ’70s and in South Africa as well. He probably just plagiarized it and translated it from the original German. - Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist on Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D) legislation bill to close tax loopholes abused primarily by the super-rich.
We’re about where Germany was before World War II where they became a social democracy. - U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) in the midst of a debate over raising taxes on the wealthy.
The Nazis were for high marginal tax rates. - ATR's Grover Norquist
That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did. When (Obama) is proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist. - U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) You can find lots more of this Third Reich-flavored tripe by just Googling "Obama" and "Hitler." If you broaden out your search beyond National Socialism to include all forms of violent white supremacy, you'll find even more, including AIG CEO Robert Benmosche declaring that anger over his bailed-out company's bonuses was "just as bad" as lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. And if you go one step further and look for all the claims that the rich are oppressed, you will find a seemingly endless supply of statements to that effect.
The point here - beyond simply deploring aristocrats for their gross insensitivity to those who lost family during the Holocaust and Jim Crow - is to understand all these outbursts not as anomalies, but as statements that are part of a larger narrative.
That deceptive narrative is what I called in my first book The Myth of the Persecuted Billionaire, and what Thomas Frank later called a trick designed to make us "pity the billionaire." In the plutocrat-glorifying fable, the Tom Perkinses comprise the rag-tag team from "Inglourious Basterds" - the underdogs bravely defying the scourge of oppression and genocide.
The objective of this hideous mythology should be obvious. Rather than permit any honest discussion about the serious problems that accompany rampant economic inequality, the winners of that economic system aim to manufacture story lines that depict themselves - not the poor - as victims on par with history's most persecuted peoples. It is, as Frank says, the great "hard-times swindle" of the modern era - and it is everywhere.
Acknowledging this is not to justify stuff like property damage to Google buses any more than it is to rationalize state-sanctioned police brutality against those protesting economic inequality. Indeed, even though there has been far more brutality committed in defense of the aristocrats, violence on either side of the class divide is inarguably deplorable.
But contextualizing Perkins' comments in the growing catalogue of similarly themed rhetoric is critical to appreciating the ubiquity of the whole sordid meme. Tom Perkins' letter to the editor is not, as the enraged commentary around it implies, some isolated or anomalous incident. Rather, it is a fairly standard example of a pervasive system of propaganda attempting to paint the world's wealthiest oligarchs as victims.
[Photo: Tom Perkins, as featured on KQED's "Something Ventured" Credit: Geller/Goldfine Productions]