No comparison with The Donald

Comparisons are easy. Instead of making a detailed case why a young baseball player is worthy of being drafted in the first round, the scout exclaims, “He could be the next Mike Trout.” When a Turkish assassin kills the Russian ambassador in Ankara, amateur historians rush to Twitter to dangle the idea that “this is how World War I began.” And, as President Donald Trump attacks the free press and bans Muslims, why not just compare him to Hitler?

Analysis that is aware of history but not beholden to it takes time and research, but a big chunk of the American audience doesn’t have time for that and pundits don’t want it. Wait too long to be witty or provocative on social media and somebody else will beat you to it. This is the era of the hot take – hasty commentary meant to attract attention – and few things make for a better hot take than a comparison.

But even well-argued, thoughtful comparisons can be misleading. In a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, Politico columnist Susan B. Glasser presented Trump as “Our Putin,” saying: “We no longer have to speculate about conspiracies or engage in armchair psychoanalysis. Since the inauguration, we have accumulated some hard facts, too: Both Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and actions as president bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Mr. Putin during his first years consolidating power.”

Putin and Trump may share some characteristics, but columns such as Glasser’s implicitly suggest that readers should place the two leaders in the shared space of a Venn diagram. And that can distort more than it informs. President Obama used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more than twice as many whistleblowers as all previous presidents combined. Does that give him “more than a passing resemblance” to Putin? Obama also sanctioned a secret U.S. campaign of drone attacks and assassinations that caused an incalculable number of civilian deaths. Does that warrant comparisons to Hitler?

America and Russia share neither the same history nor political climate. And the traits Trump and Putin have in common are shared by leaders all over the world and throughout history. It takes a certain kind of person to rise to power – and keep it.

It’s not that Glasser doesn’t know what she is talking about or that her argument is invalid. She has been following the Russian president since he rose to power at the end of 1999, and she served as co-chief of the Washington Post’s Moscow bureau from 2001 to 2004. She is only one of many, many columnists and reporters who have tried to make sense of Trump by comparing him to other leaders, past and present. But the human tendency to try to understand one thing by comparing it to another can be blinding.

There will never be another baseball player like Mike Trout. The global political situation two months ago when Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was murdered in Ankara was nothing like it was in 1914, when an assassin’s bullet killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. And Donald Trump is unique, too. Among American presidents, he is a uniquely skilled liar and manipulator, with a uniquely loose grasp on the tenets of democracy. His murky business ties, made murkier by his refusal to release his tax returns, make him uniquely susceptible to violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. And his top aide, Steve Bannon, who is obsessed with triggering a civilizational and perhaps apocalyptic war, has unique influence in the White House.

It is important to treat Trump and his administration as if the world has never seen the likes of them. Because it hasn’t.

– Concord Monitor