In 1936, Hitler’s Germany hosted the Olympic Games. For months, progressives in Europe and the Americas had urged a boycott of the Games, to protest the Nazi regime’s horrifying anti-Semitism, and, more generally, its dictatorial, bloody, methods. The boycott movement had fizzled, but Hitler knew that, during those Games, the eyes of the world would be on his regime. How governments and peoples overseas would view Germany in the years ahead could, he felt, be shaped by the image presented during those two weeks.
And so, the propaganda machine went to work.
This is how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes those days: “Most anti-Jewish signs were temporarily removed and newspapers toned down their harsh rhetoric, in line with directives from the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Joseph Goebbels,” the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia explains. “Thus, the regime exploited the Olympic Games to present foreign spectators and journalists with a false image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.”
The smoke-and-mirrors continued. A half-Jewish female fencer was allowed to compete for Germany – despite the raft of race-and-citizenship laws already encoded into German law by then. Jewish athletes from overseas were left unmolested. Hitler’s team wooed journalists and diplomats alike with discussion of Germany’s peaceful intents and simple desire to regain respect on the world stage. The charm offensive convinced many commentators that the worst days of Nazi extremism were now in the past.
Then, once the Games were over and international attention had shifted onto other things and places, the base racism and blood-thirstiness of the regime was given free rein once more. The Holocaust Encyclopedia continues: “Two days after the Olympics, Captain Wolfgang Fuerstner, head of the Olympic village, killed himself when he was dismissed from military service because of his Jewish ancestry.”
There are, of course, differences between the Nuremberg Laws and the deadly thuggery of the SA in the first years of Hitler’s rule, and what we are witnessing in the United States today. But there are, as I have documented many times over the past three years, also disconcerting similarities. The language of dehumanization that Trump has employed against immigrants – Muslims, Mexicans, Central American asylum seekers, refugees — at rally after rally, and in twitter storm after twitter storm, have given succor to the most bilious, hate-filled belief systems. It has brought into the political mainstream a toxic stew of conspiracy theories, white nationalism, religious bigotry, and the Fascist language of “replacement” and “displacement,” of blood and soil tribalism.
Trump may think he is only playing games; that he is manipulating a host of resentments and fears simply for personal political advantage. But the consequences are now ricocheting through American culture in the most deadly of ways. In the summer of 2017, Charlottesville saw neo-Nazi mob violence. In the fall of 2018, worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue were massacred. Now, in the summer of 2019, a gunman who had just published an online screed using language against immigrants in Texas that was shockingly similar to that deployed by Trump, has written his own bloody chapter into American history by shooting down dozens of shoppers at a Wal-Mart in a Mexican-American neighborhood of El Paso, Texas.
Trump and the GOP have, of course, denied all responsibility, have said it is scandalous that their opponents would dare to imply they were somewhat to blame – despite Trump having presided over the ghastly “Send Her Back” rally in North Carolina; despite Trump having made a joke of a supporter at a rally in Florida shouting out that immigrants should be shot.
In the wake of the El Paso slaughter, Trump was, reluctantly, trundled out in front of the cameras to issue a perfunctory denunciation of racism and of white nationalism.
Some commentators have said this represents a turning point, a new moment. Some even seem to think that Trump may have been shocked out of his demagoguery, that he may have genuinely turned a new leaf. Don’t believe it for a New York minute. Remember that old adage about pigs wearing lipstick still being pigs. From day one, Trump’s political modus operandi has been to stir as much race hatred and discord as possible. It is, he knows, the one surefire way to animate his base. And, if some people actually take his words literally and go on a rampage against “invaders,” well that’s just collateral damage in Trump’s slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners vision of politics.
The same day Trump was touring El Paso – and getting into ugly fights with local leaders – ICE was carrying out mass arrests in Mississippi, thus partially fulfilling Trump’s pledge earlier in the summer to go on a deportation binge. Later this month, when the uproar over El Paso has likely quietened down, DHS will almost certainly announce new “public charge” rules, which will result in millions of legal immigrants being denied access to emergency food, housing, and health assistance. A Presidential finding will also come down in the next few weeks, dramatically curtailing, if not eliminating in its entirety, the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Trump will continue to talk about immigrants as invaders and criminals, as drug peddlers, rapists, and murders, because that is what his base wants to hear, and it is what he seems to truly believe. He will continue to hold raucous rallies in support of his border wall, will continue to label immigrants who kill as “animals,” while averring that white Americans who carry out mass shootings are simply mentally ill.
When a man such as Donald Trump attempts to denounce racism and white nationalism, there is a carnival grotesquery on display. It is the putting on of an ill-fitting mask. It is the mouthing of phrases that, for the utterer, have no meaning. Trump hasn’t had a road to Damascus moment; he has simply realized, as did the organizers of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, that sometimes real politick dictates the temporary peddling of a fiction.