Only the Strong Will Survive? American Echoes of a Dark Past | Opinion

In mid-February, Texas was crushed by an unprecedented cold snap and a collapsing energy grid.

As Americans continue to take stock of the climate tragedy and its brutal aftermath, it's crucial to shine a spotlight on the alarming ideologies that fueled this twin crisis in Texas and how it can happen again.

On February 16, as millions of Texans entered into a second day of freezing temperatures, power outages and water restrictions, Colorado City's former mayor Tim Boyd chastised his fellow Texans on Facebook for being "lazy" and "looking for a damn handout!"

Setting aside the question of whether demanding services one pays for is a "handout," Boyd's comments were cruel and insensitive. Fortunately, they received the hostile reception they richly deserved.

Boyd's cold-hearted comments were not just callous. Recent Facebook posts by Boyd echo and amplify a dangerous brand of Republican orthodoxy, conjuring a dark and dangerous past.

I study and teach political rhetoric at San José State University in Silicon Valley. Since 2015, my research has specifically focused on demagoguery, fascism and most recently, Adolf Hitler's re-emerging rhetoric.

Given my area of expertise, research and what I am witnessing unfold before me, it is impossible not to warn others about the blatant echoes of Nazi rhetoric in Boyd's post–and the threat posed to Americans, and by extension, the free world.

Boyd's comment, in particular that, "Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]," is a near-perfect distillation of Social Darwinism, the ideology that powered Nazi dogma. It should alarm every American.

Hitler's belief in Social Darwinism is well-documented, and he also made pithy declarations about it. In a 1923 speech, delivered to the League of Nations, Hitler stated, "The whole of Nature is a mighty struggle between strength and weakness, an eternal victory of the strong over the weak."

Note how Hitler is subtly describing his beliefs about what happens when nature is left to its own devices. When he repeated the point four years later to the Nazi Student League, he was more direct: "It is an iron principle: the weak must fall so the strong can live."

In the context of the larger speech, "the weak must fall" can easily translate into "the strong must make the weak fall" and "one proves one is strong by destroying the weak."

The latter is also a closer approximation of the theories Hitler expounded in his fanatical autobiography Mein Kampf. He directly advocated segregating or eliminating "contaminants" and declared, "Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live."

It's not hard to hear Social Darwinist resonances in Boyd's original comment and subsequent clarification once you begin to pay attention. After Boyd was struck by the public backlash to his initial post, he clarified in a post that was later deleted that he "was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout."

Capitol
U.S. National Guard soldiers patrol the Capitol grounds on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., March 6, 2021. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Boyd's statements are not equivalent to Hitler's political speeches, but they're steeped in a similar rhetoric of the survival of the fittest. The shared inference that "the strong" are more valuable than "the weak" is undeniable, and both at least imply that nothing should be done to protect the latter.

We must resist the temptation to dismiss Boyd's post as inconsequential. Even after resigning as Colorado City's mayor, he's still a fitting representative of his party, given how the "survival of the fittest" mantra has become an organizing principle of the Republican Party.

Take for instance Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's remark about COVID restrictions in March 2020: "Those of us who are 70-plus, we'll take care of ourselves. But don't sacrifice the country, don't do that, don't ruin this great America." In short, the strong will survive and the weak apparently aren't as important as the economy.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott's recent lifting of COVID restrictions, likewise, rolls the dice with people's lives, as do similar measures in Mississippi, West Virginia and other states led by Republican governors. And the same themes were on full display in the Republican efforts to sabotage–or at least critically delay–passage of the American Rescue Plan Act.

To be sure, neither Tim Boyd, Dan Patrick, nor Greg Abbott are Adolf Hitler. But it's not necessary to predict another Holocaust to be horrified by ominous rhetorical resonances.

The lesson is not that contemporary politicians are modern-day Hitlers, but rather that Hitler's example shows how easily "the strong will overcome the weak" can metamorphose into "the strong must allow the weak to perish" or even "the strong must eradicate the weak."

In conditions where people have already died in significant numbers, the metamorphosis is less a possibility than an existential threat.

Contemporary American Social Darwinism is rarely as overtly brutal as Hitler's, but it nevertheless reinforces the principle that some lives are more valuable than others–and that the weak must fall so the strong can live.

As Texans recover from the current crisis, and as other crises arise around the country, all Americans would do well to reject leaders who treat some of their constituents' lives as valuable and others as expendable.

When Americans vote–wherever we live–we'd do well to root out leaders who try to convince us that some lives are worth sacrificing on the altar of "the strong."

Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author of "Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump" and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.