It was the cruel efficiency of the Holocaust that always shook me—the way, as you listen to the stories of concentration camp survivors, the patterns emerge. It started with a few rules, here and there, and people saying things would be fine. They took away one right, then another, then another, and then came the yellow stars. Then came ghettos. Then came the trains to places where “work will set you free.” Nobody on the trains came back. It’s nice, perhaps comforting even, to think of the Holocaust simply as an outgrowth of hatred, something that could only have be accomplished through pure evil. But it wasn’t just that. It was an organized, flow-charted, middle-managed government program.
I think of this, over and over again, as our watch our president and our country descend into madness. Starting at age 3 until close to 13, my parents sent me to Hebrew day school, which meant that every Yom HaShoah my classmates and I remembered the Holocaust. I do not remember the first time I heard a survivor speak, or even when I started learning about the Holocaust, but I remember that I was quite young, definitely still in elementary school, and afterward I lost the ability to sleep in the dark. Yet I never opted out of hearing survivors speak, or watching all the documentaries, or wearing my yellow star for a day, or lighting the candles and saying the names of all the concentration camps. Years later, I’d realize that this also served the darker purpose of militarizing us to defend Israel no matter what, with the unspoken understanding that this meant ignoring the violence and discrimination inflicted on Palestinians. But I was a kid, which meant then I believed what grownups told me: We must remember because never again.
And yet from that day in November up until now, I have not been able to stop feeling like this is the again. It is here. It is now. The most powerful man in our country took to the podium yesterday and said Nazis are fine.
This isn’t to say America was bastion of purity until then. America, the country of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow, Japanese internment camps, the Trail of Tears, and an ongoing, unrelenting reliance on underpaid, unauthorized immigrants, has a history that includes providing safe haven to Nazis after the Holocaust, and that’s before you dissect how men like General George S. Patton were openly anti-Semitic. (In a diary from his time in Germany after the war he called Jews “locusts,” “lower than animals,” and “a subhuman species,” while seeing nothing wrong with putting ex-Nazis in authority over Jews in displaced persons camps.) I still remember the woman in a South Florida restaurant who, after learning my grandmother and I were Jewish—it was the explanation for why we needed to know if there was ham in the split pea soup—told us that meant we drank the blood of Christian babies.
So I have never operated under the convenient delusion that I lived in some great nation, tasked by God to create a better place. And yet I still cannot get over the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, saying that not everybody rallying with neo-Nazis was a neo-Nazis. Our president affirmatively defended people who thought it was okay to just rally with Nazis in support of a symbol of white supremacy.
For a while after the election, I read interviews with Robert Paxton, a preeminent scholar on fascism, figuring that if anyone knew what was going on it would be him. He pointed out the many ways in which Trump is not Hitler. Nazism was a youth movement (the average Trump voter is much older), it sought to overthrow the democracy for everyone (Trump would like to keep that for white people), and Hitler at one point fought in the streets with his followers (no way Trump is doing that). Yes, Trump borrowed heavily from the language of fascism, and it seemed to be working, but that didn’t make them one and the same, as Paxton pointed out in one interview with Democracy Now!
Well, this is one of the troubles with using the term “fascism,” is that blinds us to a lot of really bad things that are happening, such as the power of money in politics, the decay of community feeling, the decay of the feeling that we owe something to the community and to our neighbors. These are other kinds of problems that calling Trump a fascist doesn’t help us understand. It’s one of the objections I have to using the term. The way the political system has slipped out of the hands of the people who used to decide things and opening the gates to outsiders, which sounds like a democratic thing, but the—when the outsiders use crowd behavior and use the media with such skill, and then it’s—then you come up with dangerous people
But the thing is, Trump doesn’t need to be the same as Hitler. The Nazis didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, or even cable news. Trump doesn’t have to overthrow the government or fight in the streets with his minions. He just has to give America’s racists permission to act and, like Nazis following orders, they will, with the country devolving back to its true racist core. I cannot escape the feeling that I know how this ends.