Sean Spicer's massively inappropriate and historically inaccurate statements about the Holocaust may have shocked many people. But they should not be surprising.
During Tuesday's daily briefing, the White House press secretary said this, while stumbling through remarks about Syrian President Bashar Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians last week: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
In an effort to clarify this problematic claim, Spicer made matters worse:
I think when you come to sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. . . . He brought them into, um, the Holocaust center — I understand that. But I’m saying in the way Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down into the middle of towns, it was brought — the use of it — and I appreciate the clarification.
Not content to skulk away and hide in the shadows, Spicer issued a formal statement later in the day which read:
In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. . . . I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.
Sean Spicer is no master of doublespeak. "Holocaust centers" is a grotesquely vague and benign way to talk about the death camps where at least 6 million Jews and many millions of other people — including gays and lesbians, Gypsies, communists and other undesirables — were exterminated by Hitler's regime.
Perhaps Spicer would also describe the genocide of First Nations people in the Americas as "a casino land development project" and call the enslavement, killing and rape of black Americans in the antebellum South a "successful jobs program."
Spicer's comments on Tuesday should not be understood as a gaffe or mistake. They are part of a broader pattern of behavior from the Trump administration. Channeling the wisdom of poet laureate Maya Angelou, when people show you who they are you had best pay attention because they know themselves better than anyone else ever could.
Donald Trump is a neofascist and bigot who in interviews and other forums has effortlessly channeled the ideas of the early 20th-century white supremacist "race scientist" Madison Grant. Trump's policies have also been heavily influenced by white nationalism.
Spicer's comments offer one more example of how the Holocaust denial narrative found in the white-supremacist "alt-right" movement — whereby the crimes against humanity committed by Hitler are diminished, if not wholly erased — has infiltrated mainstream American conservative discourse.
Trump's closest advisers include white nationalists and men influenced by neo-Nazi ideology. For example, White House aide Sebastian Gorka has been photographed wearing a medal associated with Nazi collaborators in Hungary. He has also publicly stated his support for a violent far-right political group known as the Hungarian Guard. Steve Bannon, the semi-disgraced White House strategic adviser, formerly headed the right-wing propaganda site Breitbart News, which has frequently served as a platform for white-supremacist and "alt-right" viewpoints. Bannon has also publicly endorsed the themes found in "The Camp of the Saints," a 1973 French book that calls for genocidal violence against Muslims and nonwhites in Europe. Stephen Miller and Michael Anton, two other members of Trump's inner circle, are enamored with the lie that "white civilization" is "under siege" by nonwhites and non-Christians and that these "outsiders" must be controlled or expelled from America and Europe.
The Trump administration refused to mention the specific suffering of the Jewish people in its statement affirming International Holocaust Remembrance Day. By definition, this is an act of anti-Semitism. Trump also did not issue a proper public condemnation of the wave of hate crimes committed against Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, other people of color and LGBT people that were apparently inspired by his rise to power. The Trump administration also declined comment on the recent killing of a black man by a confessed white supremacist in New York.
In total, Spicer's comments help us identify the Trump White House is as a political brand. What are this brand's qualities? Bigotry, racism, nativism, misogyny and ignorance.
If Spicer were to properly educate himself about the Holocaust and Hitler's Germany he might immediately learn a few important facts. Hitler's forces did not use chemical weapons on the battlefield because there were few strategic or tactical advantages to be gained by doing so.
Likewise, Hitler's forces did not use chemical weapons on a massive scale against the Jews who lived in population centers because such an approach would not kill them fast enough. An infamous letter from senior Nazi official Hermann Göring to Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German secret police, signals to this infamous and vile logic:
In completion of the task which was entrusted to you [on] January 24, 1939, of solving the Jewish question . . . in the most convenient way possible . . . I [now] charge you with making all necessary preparations . . . for an overall solution of the Jewish question. . . . I further charge you with submitting to me promptly an overall plan . . . for the execution of the intended final solution of the Jewish question.
How was this "final solution" to be implemented? Through the use of gas chambers.
History echoes from the past through to the present: Sarin, the poison agent apparently used by Assad's forces in Syria last week, was invented by the Nazi scientist Gerhard Schrader.
Spicer now rightfully faces public shame for his comments about "Holocaust centers" and his claim that Hitler "was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing." In his role as a professional liar, sycophant and mouthpiece for Donald Trump, however, Spicer is likely incapable of feeling an appropriate level of shame.
The American news media and public need to stop being shocked or surprised by the daily acts of hateful buffoonery that typify Donald Trump's presidency. Instead they should be asking other questions: How did this happen? Why did millions of Americans vote for such a man and his policies? How deep is the rot in America's civic culture? And how can it be excised from the American body politic so that nothing akin to the national and global embarrassment that is Donald Trump's presidency ever takes place again.