September 29, 2016

A tweet from Politico’s Timothy Noah Wednesday called attention to a review by Michiko Kakutani of a new biography of Adolf Hitler. The headline for the review on the New York Times website reads:

“In ‘Hitler,’ an ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue.”

I smiled at the clever parallel of those D-words. But I remained puzzled by Noah’s hint that the review of ‘Hitler’ was not really about Hitler.

Then I realized: It’s about Donald Trump.

Last year when my friend Arthur Caplan, the ethicist at New York University, wrote a column comparing Trump to Hitler, I objected, not from love of Trump, but at Arthur’s use of a tired analogy. You name a president — of either party — and I’ll find you antagonists who compared him to Hitler. George W. Bush? Check. Barack Obama? Check.

But Arthur has persisted, and in frequent messages about Trump’s campaign that have an I-told-you-so quality to them, he has refueled his accusation that The Donald is Der Fuhrer with red hair.

As for Kakutani’s review of the Hitler biography, there is no mention of Trump at all. Perhaps she had no intent to characterize the Republican nominee as a Fascist. It is her selection of details — especially characterizations of Hitler by author Volker Ullrich — that create a double image, like standing back from a Dali painting of a nude woman, squinting your eyes, and seeing an image of Abraham Lincoln.

I may be wrong (and I invite her or others to correct me), but I believe Kakutani has created in this review something remarkable and perhaps original. I want to give it a name: “review a clef,” that is, “a review with a key.” This phrase, of course, is adapted from an older genre, “roman a clef,” a novel with a key.

The key is metaphorical. If you have it, you can read the novel or see the movie and figure out that the fictional president is really, say, Bill Clinton.

Let me make myself clear: Kakutani has given us an authentic and thorough review of ‘Hitler.’ That it serves as a kind of political allegory for our times is a function of the timing of the review (the week after the first debate), the zeitgeist and what I — and I assume many other readers — carry to the text: that is, our mediated experiences and fervid opinions of Trump.

To test my theory, I read the review a second time, and then a third. In the third reading, I marked the text with a highlighter at any point where I felt someone might draw a comparison to Trump. I marked the four-page printed text in 26 places. It’s almost half yellow.

It would be unfair to the review to list all these examples. Here are some from a single paragraph in which the historian reminds readers that:

  • Hitler was an effective orator and actor.
  • He assumed various masks, feeding off the energy of his audiences.
  • He specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus.
  • He adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist listeners.
  • He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers.
  • He offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

That list is a close paraphrase of a single paragraph. Read the review with my theory in mind and mark your own phrases that have a Trump-trait hiding beneath the service.

That invites the question as to whether Kakutani, whose work I have read and admired for many years, intended this effect, and whether it should stand as a legitimate form of journalism. In an era where “transparency” is considered a chief virtue in journalism’s always-evolving codes of ethics, a “review a clef” might come off as — to be kind — too tricky.

Why not add a paragraph recognizing the relevance of the Hitler biography to the politics of 21st century America, perhaps as a cautionary tale? The form she has chosen — perhaps even invented — gives her deniability, to be sure.

I have been trying to think of precedents, forms of journalism that worked on two distinct levels. I’ve thought of two of them.
Peter Meinke, Florida’s poet laureate and an old friend, spent time in Poland while the Communists were still in power.

In the 1970s, he said, the newspapers were denigrated by the Poles as nothing more than propaganda from the party. On the other hand, the poets would fill up stadiums. They could speak, under the veil of poetry, the unspeakable truth.

I visited Singapore in 1992 to teach writing seminars to newspaper journalists. That important island country had an authoritarian government — internationally famous for its caning of even petty criminals — with a tough official secrets act to keep the journalists in line.

While the journalists might not be able to write about political corruption in Singapore, they were free to write about such corruption in, say, Thailand. On occasion, when I read a report about that country to the north, it occurred to me that they had snuck in some attention to the problems in their own country as well.

Given Kakutani’s role as a book reviewer, I’m not sure the New York Times would want her opining about Donald Trump. I think she laid out the evidence and let us do the rest.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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