Dr. Vinay Prasad has made a stir on social media again, and it’s made me look back to the past. Longtime readers might remember a couple of shticks that I used to use fairly frequently back in the early days of the blog. The first was known as the Hitler Zombie. From his first appearance 16 years ago, Hitler Zombie posts quickly evolved to be written as a series of faux horror stories featuring the rotting corpse of Hitler shambling around looking for brains to eat. When the zombie found a suitable brain to quench his hunger, the victim would soon end up spouting really dumb Nazi or Holocaust analogies. Over the years, the Hitler Zombie’s meals included the brains of Erik Rush, Harry Belafonte, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Michael Kay (over baseball, yet!), Adolph Mongo (a local Detroit political activist), Alan Stang, Richard Dawkins, Ben Stein, and many others prone to likening their opponents to Hitler and the Nazis and their ideas to the Holocaust. After a while, quite honestly, I ran out of ideas—there are, after all, only so many variations on the concept of a zombie eating people’s brains and causing them to spew nonsense before repetition sets in—and retired the monster. In retrospect, the device was never really nearly as funny or clever as I thought it was at the time, anyway, although I do think the one about baseball was pretty amusing.
The second shtick was based on the old Looney Tunes cartoon where Sylvester Jr. would put a paper bag over his head in embarrassment because of something his father did. Usually deployed this device when a fellow physician (particularly a fellow surgeon) said something really dumb, like promoting creationism or antivaccine nonsense. Let’s just say that recently Dr. Vinay Prasad seriously tempted me to resurrect both shticks for his article, How Democracy Ends: COVID19 policy shows a (potential) path to the end of America. I seriously thought about resurrecting the monster, penning a full-on Hitler Zombie story for it, and then concluding with my putting a paper bag over my head in embarrassment at Dr. Prasad’s historical ignorance and his having gone full Godwin over COVID-19 public health interventions. Dr. Prasad’s basic thesis? He’s “warning” that COVID-19 public health interventions could provide a pathway for a US President to end democracy, and he invokes Hitler and the history of Nazi Germany to do it.
I must say, I’ve long seen that Dr. Prasad was heading down this dark path to becoming a future Fox News pundit, but I honestly didn’t expect him to get there this soon. (I thought it would be the end of the year at least.) In any event, Dr. Jen Gunter made a striking description:
Let’s dig in, shall we? You’ll soon see what Dr. Gunter is talking about with respect to Dr. Prasad’s blather:
COVID19 policy shows a (potential) path to the end of America
The pandemic events of 2020-2021 outline a potential pathway for a future democratically elected President of the United States to systematically end democracy. The course of events leading to this outcome need not be a repeat of the direct assault on the Capitol, but a distortion of risk of illness as a justification for military force and suspension of democratic norms.
As Dr. Gunter said, 700,000 dead (and still counting in just the US alone) is a “distortion of risk? It’s already been three weeks since we passed the grim figure of one in 500 Americans dead due to COVID-19. That’s more fatalities (in a much shorter period of time) than World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam war combined. It’s surpassed the death toll of the previous largest pandemic, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. But, hey, what’s a few hundred thousand deaths among friends?
Dr. Prasad then goes on to write a dystopian bit of disaster porn. Imagining a future bad flu season in which double the usual number of deaths occur (say, 80,000), he goes on to imagine a future President using that as a pretext to eliminate democracy in the US, justifying it with “lessons learned” from our current response to COVID-19:
Inevitably some location(s) in the country will experience a surge in cases. Television news will show overworked hospital workers, and report that Intensive Care Unit beds have nearly run out– of course, ICU’s often operate near capacity, so this finding alone may not be that noteworthy, but in our attention economy, it may be sensationalized. Some afflicted individuals will be young children– typical for the flu, and these anecdotes will surely be emotionally salient. A video of a young boy or girl on life support machines may be used to show how dire things are. These events will then serve as an opportunity for a strong federal response.
A future US president may declare that the crisis in the region from influenza is unprecedented. Too many children are dying, and hospitals are near capacity. Citing the lessons of COVID19—that if anything we acted too late—the President may call upon the governor to issue a shelter in place warning. A week later, citing a continued rise in case, and “non-compliance” of the local people, the President could order the national guard or army troops in to secure the region. Notably, military force was applied in Australia during COVID19.
The article cited by Dr. Prasad notes that unarmed military troops were deployed to help local police to enforce a lockdown in Sydney, a concerning development perhaps and one that might have gone one step too far but not evidence that “military force was applied,” a description that implies that violence was used by the military to control the populace. Also:
Dr. Prasad further goes on to imagine a future President shutting down social media and saying that elections can’t be held because of safety concerns, with the strong implication that it would likely be the fault of Democrats and the Left because:
During the COVID19 pandemic, some of the most ardent calls for strong restrictions came from members of the political left. If a future president is on the political right; this would serve as a natural opportunity to remind the public that strong tactics were precisely what the other side demanded more of during COVID19. Life and safety, particularly that of children, is of paramount importance, and strong lockdowns must ensue. In many regions across the world, one political party preferred stronger countermeasures to COVID19, in all those nations, the opposing party that has the advantage for misusing force in the future.
See what I mean? Sure, it might be a right-wing takeover, but by Dr. Prasad’s argument, if democracy dies it will have been pesky public health-minded lefties who showed a future autocrat the way. Dr. Prasad’s “logic,” such as it is, is so risibly blind to the actual political realities of the age we’re living in as to deserve nothing but ridicule and contempt. One can’t help but wonder where the examples of deaths of democratic governments that occurred due to the example of restrictions used to control an epidemic of a deadly disease can be found. One also can’t help but notice the lack of mention of the far more pressing threats to American democracy in 2021, such as partisan gerrymandering, the voter suppression tactics, and the undermining of confidence in any election’s result that doesn’t elect Republicans. Those are what keep me up at night worrying, not the possibility that some future President might use a bad influenza year as a pretext to erode democratic protections and thereby eventually take total power. Moreover, these much more pressing threats to American democracy have been going on for decades, with an acceleration since Donald Trump became President and a particular effort to undermine confidence in elections since Trump lost reelection in 2020.
You might be wondering: Where’s the Godwin? Here it comes:
When democratically elected systems transform into totalitarian regimes, the transition is subtle, stepwise, and involves a combination of pre-planned as well as serendipitous events. Indeed, this was the case with Germany in the years 1929-1939, where Hitler was given a chance at governing, the president subsequently died, a key general resigned after a scandal and the pathway to the Fuhrer was inevitable.
Yes, you just knew that Dr. Prasad wouldn’t be able to resist, and it’s clear that the Hitler Zombie had more than just a nibble of his brain. (Check his head for bite marks!)
Let’s unpack this. First, the timeline is all wrong. Adolf Hitler worked to become the absolute ruler of Germany going back to before the Beer Hall Putsch, his failed coup d’état, in 1923. After his brief and relatively cushy imprisonment (brief because of popular support for his politics, and, also, because several of the judges for his case were ardent Nazis), Hitler turned to primarily legal means to take power. Here, Dr. Prasad is partially correct in a way that is nonetheless misleading. Arguably, were it not for the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which hit Germany hard, Hitler would never have assumed power, as the Nazis were a party in decline, having achieved only 12 seats in the Reichstag in the 1928 elections. A combination of economic disruption, plus the Nazi Party’s scapegoating of Jews and a campaign of street violence against Party enemies by the SA (a.k.a. the Brownshirts) led to the Nazis doing much better in the 1930 federal elections, but the Communist Party also did well, with the two parties between them holding 40% of the seats. After the 1932 elections, the Nazi Party became the largest party in the Reichstag but still lacked an out-and-out majority.
It’s also true that President Paul von Hindenburg did finally give in and appoint Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, with the hope that the members of other conservative parties in his cabinet, including his Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, would “civilize” and contain him, but make no mistake. From the very day he became Chancellor, Hitler worked to become dictator, and Hindenburg unwittingly helped him by signing the Reichstag Fire decree, which suspended a number of civil liberties and, soon after, the Enabling Act of 1933, which granted Hitler’s government emergency powers free from parliamentary consent. (One notes that Nazi paramilitary encircled the Reichstag, as it voted on the Act.) Exercising those powers, which were granted for four years, Hitler rapidly went about seizing the powers usually exercised by the states and eliminating all non-Nazi political parties.
By 1934, the only check left on Hitler’s power was Hindenburg, because the President could fire the Chancellor, but Hindenburg was old and in failing health. Ironically, in the summer of 1934, pressure was growing on Hitler to do something about the Brownshirts and their continued violence, as they were viewed as competitors to the German Army. The result was the Night of the Long Knives, a bloody purge of SA co-founder Ernst Röhm and anyone considered a danger to Hitler. The purge won the loyalty of the German military, which supported Hitler after the death of Hindenburg on August 2, 1934 when he persuaded the Reichstag to combine the positions of Chancellor and President and became Führer. In other words, by 1939, the period listed in Dr. Prasad’s analogy, Hitler had been absolute ruler for five years and was on the verge of invading Poland and launching World War II. In any event, contrary to what Dr. Prasad claims, the pathway to Hitler’s becoming the Führer was never inevitable, even right up to the death of Hindenburg.
You might think I’m nitpicking, and certainly Dr. Prasad’s numerous defenders have been busy denying that he had compared a potential loss of democracy in the US due to COVID-19 to the Holocaust. Here’s the problem, though. Look at his timeline and then see, for example:
Exactly. The ones whose activities are most worrisome for eroding democracy and ushering in a fascist regime are not the ones being blamed for it by Dr. Prasad. Quelle surprise.
It’s also rather odd how Dr. Prasad ignores the antisemitism inherent in Nazi ideology. The Nazi regime and the Holocaust were inextricably linked, making Dr. Prasad’s denial that he was likening COVID-19 mitigation to the Holocaust:
And, of course, every critic must be lying about Dr. Prasad:
As a result of his social media activity, Dr. Prasad also seems to have attracted the attention of what appears to be his boss, and not in a good way:
While he ignores good advice:
Personally, I’m not a big fan of tagging Dr. Prasad’s employer, having had antivaxxers deploy that tactic against me by antivaxxers and quacks on many occasions. That’s why I didn’t do it. Also, tagging his employer facilitates a play straight out of the COVID-19 contrarian grifter playbook, claiming victimhood in order to raise one’s status. I’d be willing to bet that Dr. Prasad wants to be sanctioned somehow by his employer UCSF or, at the very least, if it happens won’t be too upset about it privately even as he rails loudly about it publicly. Then he can claim to have been “canceled” and gain access to even bigger and more lucrative right wing audiences:
Even so, Dr. Prasad’s counterarguments are disingenuous in the extreme, and he was not being misinterpreted. If his intentions really were as he represented them above, then he could just as easily have chosen other examples of democracies that devolved into authoritarian regimes other than Nazi Germany.
Dr. Prasad consciously chose the example of Nazi Germany, no matter how inappropriate it was to his attempt to fear monger about a “future scenario” in which a future President seizes power based on the example of COVID-19 responses. Either he did it just to be inflammatory, in which case he’s dishonest, or he because he believes it to be an accurate historical comparison, in which case he’s an ignoramus of history. Indeed, by using such an example, Dr. Prasad is engaging in Holocaust denial, as misappropriating the Holocaust or the Nazi regime for such naked political purposes is, as I have argued, a form of Holocaust denial, or at least minimization.
Dr. Prasad and I have had our disagreements before, beginning with his expressions of utter contempt for debunking alternative medicine. More recently, this guru of evidence-based oncology and medicine, who has in the past correctly called out weak clinical science, has praised execrable dumpster diving in the VAERS database not unlike what antivaxxers used to do before the pandemic as a “bombshell” study from a “dream team.” Of late, although not antivaccine, he’s been increasingly what we refer to as a “COVID-19 contrarian,” a physician or scientist who engages in increasingly unscientific takes on the public health response to COVID-19 that aren’t explicitly antimask and antivaccine but have the effect of lending aid and comfort, in terms of apparent science, to antimaskers and antivaxxers. Dr. Prasad had been drifting more and more towards right wing COVID-19 minimization, but I really never predicted that he’d fall so far so quickly. It’s depressing.
Maybe I should have really resurrected the Hitler Zombie and that old Looney Tunes inspired schtick about putting a paper bag over my head in shame for my profession.