Trump official trivializes the Holocaust, misuses MLK, all to support bigotry

Health and Human Services' new "religious freedom" rules are bad enough. Now they come cloaked in fake history

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 19, 2018 4:58AM (EST)

Donald Trump during Press Briefing with Press Secretary Sarah Sanders (YouTube/The White House)
Donald Trump during Press Briefing with Press Secretary Sarah Sanders (YouTube/The White House)

Donald Trump's administration has been described as incompetent, disorganized, ineffective, uncoordinated and a failure. Such language soothes the anxieties of his critics by denying just how dangerous Trump and his presidency really are to the well-being of the United States and the world. In reality, the Trump administration and one-party Republican rule have been remarkably effective in several crucial ways.

First, Trump has applied a version of the shock doctrine to American government and society. Here the government is destroyed from within by political appointees who actively betray the spirit and mission of the agencies they lead.

Second, Trump has taken the most extreme, unpopular and reactionary right-wing policy proposals and forced them onto the American people through executive order and fiat, as well as through congressional action taken without proper public debate, accountability or voting procedures.

Third, Trump and the Republicans have been ruthlessly efficient in targeting the vulnerable, the marginalized and the weak for more pain, punishment and abuse.

Thursday's announcement by Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, regarding the establishment of a new "Conscience and Religious Freedom Division" is a synthesis of these three outcomes. In practice, this new office will be tasked with allowing doctors and other medical professionals to discriminate against gays and lesbians, transgender people, women exercising their reproductive rights and others whom they may not wish to provide care.

Politico reported that this new division will "conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers to opt out of procedures when they have religious or moral objections," and will serve as a "co-equal branch" with existing divisions focusing on federal civil rights laws and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

During his speech announcing this new division, Severino drew the following analogy:

There was one photograph in particular, which was an outline that looked like a footprint, and there was writing in Hebrew. And when I looked on the caption, it said it was a cutout of a shoe insole that the Nazis had forced Jews to wear on their shoes, so that every step they took, they will be violating their conscience. ... I could see the common humanity of why if somebody’s forced to violate their conscience in every step they take, how it’s an attack, really, on their human dignity.

Severino then invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and attempted to connect the civil rights movement and its central questions of conscience and resistance with a decision to legalize discrimination and bigotry.

Severino's claims are ahistorical and intellectually dishonest. He despoils historical fact in order to advance a political agenda in the immediate present. King's letter is one of the important documents of the 20th century. It is a profound reflection on questions of resistance, human dignity, ethics and perseverance in the face of political and social evil. Moreover, King was a radically progressive thinker, and a democratic socialist, who believed in the full dignity and equal worth of all human beings. He was assassinated because he confronted white supremacy, militarism, gangster capitalism and the culture of cruelty -- values that Donald Trump and the present-day Republican Party enthusiastically embrace.

At least six million Jews and millions of others were murdered by the Nazis and their allies. The very personhood of the Jews and other Untermensch was considered an existential threat, a type of "human pollution" and consequently anathema to the idea of a white "Aryan" society organized around the Herrenvolk principle. The millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis' industrialized killing apparatus did not suffer that fate because of a "crisis of conscience," as is supposedly caused when a person who is a medical professional refuses to do their job. For Severino to even make such a comparison is an act of anti-Semitism because it diminishes the uniqueness and singular evil that was the Holocaust.

Severino's referencing of Jews and the Holocaust to advocate for the religious "conscience protections" of doctors, nurses and other caregivers is also extremely troubling given the ways the Nazis used medical science as a weapon to legitimate the murder, torture and abuse of millions of people.

But that Severino would diminish the horror of the Holocaust all the while claiming to be moved by the suffering of the Jewish people should not be a surprise. The Trump administration is beloved by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. Trump has shown through his words and deeds that he is a white supremacist. His inner circle of advisers has long included white supremacists and neo-Nazi sympathizers operating under the label of "economic nationalism." Trump said that the neo-Nazi and other white supremacist hooligans who ran amok and committed murder and assault in Charlottesville included some "very fine people" among them. Trump and the Republican Party are engaging in a type of "soft" ethnic cleansing against nonwhite immigrants and Muslims. Severino's statement about the Holocaust is far from the first time that the Trump administration has engaged in anti-Semitism.

Severino's comments and the Trump administration's decision to legitimate prejudice and discrimination by right-wing Christians signals to a larger political vision.

Since the civil rights movement, American conservatives have increasingly lived in a perverse and upside-down social and political world. The white racist backlash against Barack Obama and the subsequent election of Donald Trump has finally transformed the right wing's delusions into a type of political cult.

In this right-wing fantasy, the privileged and powerful (especially white Christian conservative men) are oppressed while the marginalized (black and brown people, gays and lesbians, the poor, the disabled, nonwhite immigrants, liberals and progressives) receive "special treatment" and rights. The very concept of civil rights is debased by transforming a guarantee of equal protection under the law for those who have actually been oppressed and marginalized into a set of protections for those groups and individuals who are privileged in American society.

In an essay last June for the Atlantic, Emma Green warned about the threat to civil rights poised by Roger Severino and the Trump administration:

For his part, Severino has been an outspoken advocate against abortion and same-sex marriage. When he was appointed, liberal advocacy groups were in an uproar: The Human Rights Campaign, for example, called him a “radical anti-LGBTQ-rights activist” who “has made it clear that his number-one priority is to vilify and degrade” people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Severino spent seven years in civil-rights enforcement at the Department of Justice; before that, he litigated religious-liberty cases. He has experience. He just doesn’t share the ideological convictions of many who work in his field.

Civil-rights enforcement is a political football in America in part because so much governance is administrative. In the absence of a clear congressional mandate on controversial social issues, agencies are left to interpret their way through ambiguous statutes, and their rulings are often later challenged in court. In the realm of health care, the implications of this politicization could not be higher: People’s consciences, dignity, financial well-being, and lives are at stake....

Because civil-rights enforcement is so politicized, each administration’s approach to policy and priorities can seem like a radical departure from what was there before. The fact that all of the Obama administration’s regulations weren’t immediately reversed when Trump took office is a testament to how thoroughly those officials were able to embed their ideas in regulations. It also shows how powerful agencies are in determining how the law is carried out.

Such observations are even more worrisome given Trump's and his administration's contempt for democracy. When the powerful imagine themselves to be victims -- as Trump and his intolerant, resentful right-wing base voters do -- a society is brought one step closer to full-on fascism and despotism.

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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega