From "All Lives Matter" to Donald Trump's white nationalism: The politics of fake empathy

How "All Lives Matter" and Trump's Holocaust "mistake" feed off the old links between racism and anti-Semitism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 2, 2017 10:00AM (EST)

 (Reuters/Joe Raedle/Eric Thayer)
(Reuters/Joe Raedle/Eric Thayer)

False empathy is often used to mask bigotry, prejudice and racism.

Established in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created by the United Nations "to serve as a date for official commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime and to promote Holocaust education throughout the world."

Since its inception, American presidents have issued statements condemning anti-Semitism and calling specific attention to the genocidal violence visited upon the Jewish people by the Nazis.

Last Friday, Donald Trump broke from that tradition and instead issued the following statement:

It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror. Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest.‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent. In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.

To much controversy, the Jewish people were not mentioned in Trump's statement condemning the Holocaust. This was not an error. It was by design. Trump's White House then doubled down on its logic:

Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered. It was our honor to issue a statement in remembrance of this important day.

This change is the practical result of having Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller as President Donald Trump's most senior advisers and confidants. Both men have demonstrated a deep affinity for white nationalism and white supremacy. It also reflects the extent to which the Trump administration is part of a global right-wing movement that includes white nationalists and white supremacists, two groups that have consistently sought either to minimize the horrors of the Holocaust or to deny that the Nazi genocide ever took place.

Ultimately, Donald Trump's decision to remove any specific mention of Jews from his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an act of anti-Semitism because it seeks to deny the specific historical experiences of the Jewish people as the target of a political, social and economic project to eliminate them.

Trump's decision should not be a surprise. The politics of false empathy were previewed when white America (especially conservatives and the right-wing media, but some liberals and "progressives as well) summoned the slogan "All Lives Matter" in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and its rallying cry

Black Lives Matter, whose activists Trump and other Republican elites have sometimes described as "thugs" and "terrorists," is a multiracial and intergenerational coalition that seeks to end police brutality, murder and other abuse against African-Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement also wants to end institutional racial discrimination and bias against African-Americans. And the Black Lives Matter movement stands in alliance with other marginalized groups in having the goal of defending the human rights and dignity of all people who are victims of discrimination in the United States and around the world.

On a fundamental level, the Black Lives Matter movement wants to ensure that the civil rights of black and brown Americans are respected, that the law is equally applied and that the United States becomes a more truly democratic and inclusive society. Approximately 150 years since the end of white-on-black chattel slavery, and five decades after the height of the civil rights movement, these goals remain radical and controversial in the United States.

Despite overwhelming empirical evidence that repeatedly demonstrates that America's police and legal system discriminate against African-Americans, the white racial frame still denies said facts and reality. To that end, "All Lives Matter" works as a rebuttal to the justice claims and lived experiences of black and brown people in a society that historically and in the present is hostile towards nonwhites.

Moreover, "All Lives Matter" denies the specific and unique experiences of black Americans as a people who were first oppressed and exploited as human property and then subjected to Jim and Jane Crow American apartheid. In this way, "All Lives Matter" is white privilege in action and an act of de facto white supremacy. It is no coincidence that the most reactionary members of the white right were so quick to seize on "All Lives Matter" as a slogan. It is more of a threat or an act of silencing than an act of communication and dialogue. In that sense, "All Lives Matter" is a concealed cognate to "White Power!" or even "Sieg Heil!"

The Trump administration's efforts to erase the Jewish people from the U.S. government's International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement and the rise of "All Lives Matter" are important reminders of the historical continuities between anti-Semitism and white supremacy. As George M. Fredrickson explains in his book "Racism: A Short History," in many ways anti-Semitism provided the intellectual, philosophical and political framework for the global project of European racism and colonialism that began (at least) in the 15th century.

More than five centuries later, in the age of Donald Trump and his racist ethnocentric nd proto-fascist authoritarian movement, Brexit and the tumult being spread by right-wing nationalist and other movements around the world, these overlaps endure. The crosscurrents and overlaps between anti-black and anti-brown racism and anti-Semitism are also an opportunity to reinvigorate and forge new anti-fascist, anti-racist alliances.

In 1935 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued the following declaration:

Intelligent American Negro citizens can offer nothing short of wholehearted contempt for, and condemnation of, the unspeakable terror now being inflicted upon the Jewish people in Germany by the sadistic Nazi government. Our organization . . . believe[s] that colored Americans must not be blinded by anti-Semitism in the United States.

Walter White, president of the NAACP, told black leaders in 1938 this:

We must join with all those condemning Nazi terror because what happens to one minority can happen to others — a lesson which Jews, Negroes and other minorities must learn in self-defense.

The National Urban League's publication Opportunity made the following comparison in 1938 as well:

Between Hitler's treatment of the Jews and America's treatment of the Negro, you may pay your money and take your choice.

Those who embrace Trump's racial authoritarianism and his white nationalist policies are likely to say that "All Lives Matter" when challenged by the slogan "Black Lives Matter." (Let's not even bother with the overtly authoritarian alternative of "Blue Lives Matter.") They are enemies to all people of conscience on both sides of the color line in America and around the world. Now is the time to unite and not to be distracted by a politics of false empathy. It does not proceed from a belief in equal human dignity, freedom and civil rights for all people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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