Lately I have been feeling like a deer caught in headlights, except the lights are coming out of my computer screen. The unrelenting assault on civility, safety, values and human rights unleashed since Donald Trump’s inauguration has led many on social media, in the press and even in the UK parliament to characterise him as a fascist.
The facts pointed to in support of this include Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, his misogyny and his antagonism of the media. We should add his approach to the Holocaust to the list.
Nazi Germany was perhaps the archetypal fascist regime. Among its horrific crimes, the Holocaust stands out. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust as the ‘systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators’.
This definition is important, because the Trump administration’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews. This was not, apparently, just ignorance about the specific historical event to which the term ‘Holocaust’ refers. White House spokesperson Hope Hicks defended the statement, saying ironically that because the administration is ‘an incredibly inclusive group’, it deliberately ‘took into account all of those who suffered’.
This may have been an after-the-fact attempt to avoid embarrassment about misunderstanding one of the defining events of the twentieth century. Or it may have been what Deborah Lipstadt terms softcore Holocaust denial. It is, in any case, deeply troubling.
At best, Trump and his team do not properly comprehend a monstrous fascist crime. At worst, they issued a dog whistle denial of the fact that the Holocaust was a genocide of the Jewish people. Either way, it suggests a lack of appreciation for history, which is our best defence against the horrors of the past being repeated.
This makes Trump more likely to disregard the institutions, and desecrate the principles, that were developed in the aftermath of World War II, precisely to prevent history from recurring. Trump has, after all, already shown his disdain for the UN and some of its most important human rights treaties, blatantly discriminated against Muslims and slammed the door shut on refugees.
When faced with gross injustice, in the split second it takes me to decide whether to act, I think of the Holocaust. And I act. Misunderstanding or denying the Holocaust does not itself make Trump a fascist. But it indicates that he may well behave like one.