Sean Spicer's comments about Adolf Hitler yesterday, which in any administration but this one would have resulted in Spicer's immediate resignation or termination, must be understood together with the Trump administration’s policies as well as some painful lessons of history.
The Context & The Statements
In case you missed it, here's the story: last week Trump ordered airstrikes on Syria after his daughter Ivanka reportedly became upset when she saw some photographs of the children who had been gassed to death by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack. Since then, the administration has been besieged with questions about why Trump so abruptly changed policies in the region, and about the legal and strategic bases for the strikes.
Yesterday, the administration's principal spokesman, locked in a never-ending battle to out-class himself, used the first full day of the Jewish holiday of Passover as the occasion to justify the airstrikes by way of a comparison to Adolf Hitler, the man who ordered the state-sanctioned genocide of the Jewish people.
In response to a question about whether Assad’s chemical weapons attack would cause Russia to retract some its support for Assad, Spicer said:
“I think a couple things. You look – we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
When a reporter kindly offered Spicer the “opportunity to clarify” his claim that Hitler compared favorably to Assad, Spicer doubled down and responded:
“[H]e was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing ….. There was not – he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent –into the middle of towns.”
Spicer made those remarks mere hours after Jewish families throughout the world held seders at which they remembered the institutionalized slavery and murder of Jews, a narrative that runs from the biblical account of exodus straight through the horrors of the 20th century and, in some places, to the present day. Even aside from the timing, however, it is nothing short of astonishing (and deplorable) that Spicer sought to defend the administration's Syria strikes by favorably comparing Adolf Hitler to Bashar al-Assad. This was vile.
It feels pedantic, as writing about this administration’s historical amnesia often does, to say that the italicized statements above are false. Hitler did use chemical weapons; he gassed his victims to death with hydrogen cyanide. Hitler also “gas[sed] his own people”—other Germans, other Austro-Hungarians, and other men. These Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and men happened to be Jewish (or gypsies, or disabled, or gay, or mentally handicapped, or "different" in some other respect). And Hitler did send Jews to die at "Holocaust center[s]," if that phrase (apparently one of Spicer's own creation) refers to something like a camp where Jews were gassed en masse with chemical weapons. So not only was Spicer's analogy shocking and idiotic and morally repulsive; it was also shot through with blatant falsehoods that dangerously resemble Holocaust denial.
About Those Trump Administration Policies ...
There are few if any words for how stupid and insensitive Spicer’s statements and lame apology were. But we’ll accept his apology (the televised one; not the personalized one he delivered to Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson) provided that he, and any member of the Trump administration that nudged him toward that apology, indulge two quick thoughts.
(1) The administration’s policy toward Syria
We have no idea what the Trump administration’s policy toward Syria is. Frankly, we’re not sure that the Trump administration knows, either. We do, however, know they would like it to include a ban on entry into the United States for all Syrian nationals, including refugees. That ban would, of course, apply to the father that held the lifeless bodies of his twin children who had been gassed to death; it would also apply to those children.
Before using Holocaust analogies and images of chemical weapons to justify a single missile strike, perhaps the administration might consider how its policies effectively consign thousands of men, women, and children to horrific deaths at the hands of chemical and conventional weapons in Syria. History has not looked kindly on American presidents who cruelly turned away peoples facing a systematic campaign to kill them and destroy their lives.
(2) The administration’s immigration enforcement policy
Before, or perhaps during, the horrifying spectacle that was Spicer’s press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memorandum on how the DOJ will prioritize prosecutions. The memo declares that “a high priority” for this administration is any and all “immigration offense[s].” “It is critical,” the memo explains, that immigration matters be made “criminal cases.” The memo directs every federal prosecutor to consider for felony prosecution every case of improper entry, reentry, harboring a person who is undocumented, or marrying someone for immigration purposes.
Jeff Sessions, it seems, was not to be out-dog-whistled by his boss, President Trump, who launched his campaign by saying, “When Mexico sends it people … [t]hey’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” No, Trump could not have the last word on this point. Accordingly, Sessions’ prepared remarks for a meeting with customs and border patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border included the following:
“Here, along our nation’s southwest border, is ground zero in this fight …. It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth ….
[Y]ou have a President who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publically identify the threat and stand up to it ….
To that end, … I am pleased to stand here with you and announce new guidance regarding our commitment to criminal immigration enforcement. As we speak, I am issuing a document to all federal prosecutors that mandates the prioritization of such enforcement.”
Sessions’ remarks are on DOJ’s website for all to see. His remarks equate “criminal aliens”—people who enter the United States illegally—with “filth.” The prepared remarks of the Attorney General of the United States telegraphed to the officers who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border with guns that they are at “ground zero” in a “fight” against the “threat” from across the border—brown, unwelcome, “Mexican” bodies. The stakes, he implies, are life and death. We must not allow that "filth" into the United States.
In response to the white nationalist conference that was held in Washington, D.C. after the election, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released the following statement:
“The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”
We would do well to remember that, as well as the many lessons of Passover, in our own time.