Opinion

If Bret Stephens' 'Nazi Bedbugs' Are Gross, How Are You OK With 'Trump Is Hitler'?

The NYT columnist proved he was just as whiny and thin-skinned about criticism as his bte noire, Donald Trump. And he showed that the anti-Trump camp just can't stop cheapening the Holocaust for political gain

Bret Stephens and Trump
Jason Smith/JTA, Mandel Ngan/AFP

The impulse to universalize the lessons of the Holocaust has proven to be irresistible to even otherwise sensible observers.

While some historians and educators have always worried that the Holocaust would be marooned in history if it wasn’t somehow made relevant to contemporary audiences, that has helped to legitimize the kind of inappropriate analogies between the Shoah and an unending spectrum of unpleasant things and people. 

So it is hardly surprising that the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII has become an excuse for rehashing the debate about whether the rise of Donald Trump is a precursor to a new dark age.

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His critics are convinced that Trump’s unconventional speech and tweets - while for the most part pursuing normative conservative policies - has unleashed a tide of hate and intolerance that has spilled over into violence

For those who choose to try to connect his rhetoric to the actions of extremists who have committed mass shootings in the United States, like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens ("The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso"), it doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination to claim that understanding the events of 80 years ago requires us to consider whether Trump and others afflicted with a "spirit of certitude" are leading us down a similar "dark defile."

That is the context in which the storm of controversy into which Stephens has been plunged in the last week in which he managed to become the object of scorn from both the right and the left. 

Stephens, a onetime editor of the Jerusalem Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner when he was writing for the Wall Street Journal, crossed over from that bastion of mainstream conservatism to the New York Times in 2017 as a result of his revulsion for Trump. His bitter criticisms of Trump and his defection to the Times - the flagship of liberal American journalism - made him a target for Republicans who were once his fans.

Yet even though he now openly roots for the Democrats to defeat the GOP and Trump, he hasn’t changed his ideology.

Unlike other Never Trump writers on the right, who have thrown past convictions to the winds to consistently oppose the president, Stephens has continued to be an eloquent advocate for conservative ideas and contrarian views about liberal orthodoxies - like global warming - as well as being a strong defender of Israel against its critics.

That has meant that he has also become the object of an unrelenting storm of abuse from the Times’ liberal readership.

Thus when a news report about an infestation of bedbugs in the Times offices in New York was published, some of Stephens detractors used it as a premise to attack him. One such critic, George Washington University Professor David Karpf, tweeted that the bedbugs were a metaphor and that "the bedbug is Bret Stephens," a reference to the fact that his left-wing critics remain frustrated at their inability to purge him from the newspaper.

Opinion columnists ought to understand that the biggest mistake they can make is to show their critics that their taunts hit the mark, or to publicize an otherwise obscure tweet such as Karpf’s. 

But, instead, Stephens chose to write Karpf to dare the academic to come his home, meet his family and then call him an insect to his face. Karpf didn’t accept the offer, and then publicized the email. The fact that the columnist copied his complaint about the tweet to the GWU provost was understandably interpreted as an attempt to put Karp’s employment in jeopardy (even though, as a tenured professor, he was in no danger of being fired.)

Stephens is right to object to "the things supposedly decent people are willing to say about other people - people they’ve never met - on Twitter." Calling someone who voices opinions you don’t like a bedbug isn’t nice.

But when people with the sort of influential platforms that Stephens possesses whine in public about the criticisms they get on social media, they can’t expect much sympathy. Instead of joining him to deplore uncivil discourse, the Twittersphere exploded with mockery. 

Rather than take his medicine and move on, Stephens doubled down on it by going on MSNBC, the cable news channel where he’s a paid commentator, to say that "there is a bad history of being analogized to insects by totalitarian regimes." That remark was widely seen as an in allusion to Nazi Jew-hatred. 

But the attempt to shoehorn Karp’s jibe into a narrative about totalitarianism or anti-Semitism illustrated more that Stephens’ skin has become as thin as Trump’s, than a coherent critique of the deplorable state of American public discourse.

Stephens then devoted his next New York Times column, whose ostensible topic was the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, to an attempt to link today’s foul discourse to that of the 1930s, and to claim that Twitter, like the then-relatively new medium of radio was, "the technology of the id; a channel that could concentrate political fury."

Stephens is right to worry about any rhetoric that dehumanizes any group and political arguments in which "absolute good" is depicted as in conflict with "absolute evil." 

But it is equally partisan fiction to assert that even the worst aspects of Trump’s comments or those of his shrillest left-wing opponents are in any way analogous to that of the Nazis or Soviets or is leading to genocide, or anything like it. 

That Stephens managed to work into his piece a mention of a Pole referring to the doomed Jews as "bedbugs" being burned out of Warsaw didn’t so much illuminate the face of anti-Semitism as it did his own inability to separate even uncivil attacks from the memory of the Holocaust. 

That Stephens has also rightly complained in the past about left-wingers trying to "cancel" speech that they don’t like and the use of inappropriate analogies to the Holocaust by critics of Trump’s immigration policies has opened him up to justified charges of hypocrisy.

Both liberal and conservative critics think this illustrates the arrogance of the media. But it also demonstrates how even the most sober analyst’s hard feelings about Trump, or routine byplay on Twitter, can cheapen the discussion of the Shoah. 

That’s a lesson that ought to transcend partisanship. No matter where you stand on Trump or Stephens, the willingness to label anyone who says or tweets something nasty as a precursor to a repeat of September 1, 1939 and after is contributing every bit of much to polarization as anything the president - or his most outrageous foes - are doing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin