Holocaust scholars explain why Trump has ramped up his Nazi-style rhetoric: "Words can kill"

"Preserving democracy requires unmasking and countering these deceptions"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 7, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Pentagon on September 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Pentagon on September 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday, Donald Trump was arraigned in Washington D.C. for alleged crimes in connection to his Jan. 6 coup plot and larger attempt to end multiracial democracy by overturning the 2020 Election. So far, Trump has responded to this third indictment predictably. He has lied, played the victim, and threatened violence and destruction against the MAGA movement's perceived "enemies" – even House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

As we have seen repeatedly throughout the last seven years (and beyond), Trump and his allies will also channel antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy in these attacks and other attempts to derail the investigations and criminal trials. On cue, after being indicted by the Department of Justice on Tuesday, Donald Trump issued a statement via his Truth Social disinformation platform where he attacked the prosecutors for being Nazis. Of course, that is a lie:

Why did they wait two and a half years to bring these fake charges, right in the middle of President Trump's winning campaign for 2024?.... The answer is, election interference! The lawlessness of these persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.

In essence, Donald Trump is comparing the Holocaust, which is one of the greatest crimes in human history, to his being held accountable in a court of law where he will be allowed a robust defense and his civil and human rights respected. To distort and minimize the realities of the Holocaust is itself an act of antisemitism. That Donald Trump, a man who as president said that the neoNazis who rampaged across Charlottesville in 2017 are "very fine people," would invoke the Holocaust makes his most recent antisemitic behavior even more disturbing and gross.

In an attempt to understand resurgent antisemitism and its connections to Trumpism, neofascism and America's larger democracy crisis, I recently spoke with Holocaust scholars Leonard Grob and John K. Roth. Grob is professor emeritus of philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Roth is the Edward J. Sexton professor emeritus of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights (now the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights). Their new book is titled, Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy.  

Given the Age of Trump, American neofascism, and the rise of the global right and other anti-democracy forces, how are you feeling?

Roth: I view the Age of Trump, the rise of the global right and illiberalism, through a Holocaust lens. That perspective shows me three things:

  1. Nothing good should be taken for granted.
  2. Events can very quickly and decisively turn for the worse.
  3. Human beings can be utterly destructive.

I am not surprised that American democracy is endangered by Donald Trump and his MAGA faithful. I am angered and dismayed that so many Americans seem prepared to trash democracy by stupidly following Trump and Trumpism to the bitter end. These moods intensify my commitment to protest against those trends and to resist them, which I do as an eighty-something philosopher who still writes and teaches. 

"As a scholar of the Holocaust and a grandson of grandparents murdered by Nazis, echoes of what was resound in my mind. A summons—more felt than thought—counters the temptation to lose hope: I must resist."

In addition to teaching and writing about the Holocaust, I have spent much of my academic life studying the American Dream. It's a fraught and ambiguous concept that can obscure the darkness—racism, patriarchy, exceptionalist nationalism, genocidal treatment of Native peoples—but also hold Americans accountable for the ideals and hopes we Americans aspire to when we are at our best. To the extent that American democracy can be pluralistic and inclusive, it is worth saving. As a grandfather, I feel strongly about that. 

Grob: At a time when liberal democracy is under attack at home and in many places abroad, despair lurks around the edges of my consciousness. As a scholar of the Holocaust and a grandson of grandparents murdered by Nazis, echoes of what was resound in my mind. A summons—more felt than thought—counters the temptation to lose hope: I must resist.

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I must not wallow in discouragement but rather pick myself up to enter the fray, to work at this inflection point in U.S. history to oppose growing authoritarianism. Action for good repels anguish. I'm moved by the example of Christian rescuers during the Holocaust, those who resisted evil with their lives and the lives of their families at stake. Compared to theirs, my situation is one of safety and privilege. Their example inspires and insists that I must work in their spirit to help preserve our fragile democracy.

For those of us who study right-wing politics, the color line, and related topics the Age of Trump has been very frustrating because what is obvious to us may not be obvious to the general public – as well as the news media and other political elites who should know better. How are you negotiating that?

Roth: Failure of imagination could doom American democracy. Americans tend to be asleep at the switch. We either take democracy for granted or think that losing it wouldn't matter much. But Americans can scarcely imagine how vicious, divided, corruption-prone, racist, and violent the country will become if Trump and Trumpist Republicanism prevail in the 2024 elections. Justice, freedom of the press, and reliable education will go down. Racism, patriarchy, Christian nationalism, and sexualized persecution of minorities will ascend. Fair and free elections will decline. The rule of law will be jeopardized. Truth itself will be a casualty.

The list goes on. I think of Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's and Putin's Russia. Versions of their movies run in the United States. If we fail to double down in support of democracy, we invite destruction that too many Americans are apparently at a loss to imagine.

It seems like we in America and the West have forgotten many of the lessons of the near past. At times it feels like we are stuck in a state of organized forgetting with Trumpism and neofascism — and resurgent white supremacy, racism, and antisemitism. To that point, we need to go to the basics. What is antisemitism? How is antisemitism connected to racism and white supremacy?

Roth: Arguably the world's longest hatred, antisemitism is discrimination and hatred against Jews. But that barely scratches the surface because antisemitism has taken different but related forms over the centuries: religious, political, economic, social, and racial. Jews have been discriminated against, hated, and killed because prejudiced non-Jews believed that Jews belonged to the wrong religion, lacked citizenship qualifications, practiced business improperly, behaved inappropriately, conspired against legitimate authority, or possessed inferior racial characteristics.  These forms of antisemitism, especially the racial one, all played key parts in the Holocaust.

"Antisemitism easily befriends and encourages all sorts of us/them and we/they divisions."

Analyze racism and white supremacy in the United States. Antisemitism will be close by. That's because antisemitism easily befriends and encourages all sorts of us/them and we/they divisions. The feedback loop of those divisions goes back again and again to suspicions and allegations, discrimination and even violence against Jews. Discrimination breeds discrimination. Hatred spawns hatred. Will the vicious circle be unbroken? The future of democracy in the United States hinges on American answers to that question.

The scourge of antisemitism—never completely tamed—has reared its head with new fervor during and after the Trump presidency. Discrimination and violence toward Jews is not merely one form of bigotry among others. For example, antisemitism roots the white supremacist/Christian nationalist movements that thrive in Trumpism. It's no accident that white nationalists chanted "Jews will not replace us" during their torch-lit 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Versions of that mantra have driven conspiratorial hate groups through the ages.

What were you thinking when you saw the Charlottesville white supremacist mob attack and that "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us" language — and then Trump's defense of them as "very fine people"? There were Nazis, KKK members, and other racial fascists attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 as part of Trump's coup attempt. 

Roth: In 2017, when Nazi-garbed white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting "Jews will not replace us," I thought of rallies in Berlin where "Aryan" German supremacists unfurled banners proclaiming that "Jews are our misfortune."  

When I watched Trump's MAGA insurrectionists attack the US capitol and defraud the American people by attempting to overturn a fair and free presidential election, I saw "Christian" crosses, Nazi symbols, and American flag poles turned into weapons to trammel police. I was outraged but not surprised. 

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Americans are reaping what was sowed when Trump became the voice that echoed and amplified the fears and grievances, resentment and vengeance of a segment of White America. Work to heal that rupture must be done, but it starts with ensuring that the Trumpist minority, determined and unrelenting though it may be, does not get more power than it already has. Elections matter.     

What is new and old about how today's right-wing propaganda machine is amplifying and weaponizing antisemitism?

Roth: Until recently, American analysts have been cautious about linking Trumpism and fascism. That's because Mussolini and Hitler are the emblematic fascists, and their regimes entailed and even required aggressive wars of conquest. Trump and Trumpism don't seem to fit that profile, at least not yet.

Fascism, however, has many shapes and sizes. When Mussolini coined the term fascism, he adopted the ancient Roman fasces as its symbol—a bundle of rods, with an ax-head, bound together with unifying cords. Fascism bundles ideological ingredients such as: authoritarian, antidemocratic, and supremacist nationalism; xenophobic population and immigration policies; favored economic status for a few, suppressed rights for unions and labor; intentional and intensified political divisiveness; weaponizing courts and police to exact retributive punishment of internal enemies; disrespect for truth; political control of media and schools; religious legitimation.

Trump and MAGA Republicanism bundle such elements in 2020s America. Fascism is alive in the United States. So much so, that it is not hyperbole to say that American fascism's face is Donald Trump's. As Charlottesville and the January 6 insurrection testify, American fascism harbors antisemitism, and it can be added that antisemitism in the United States, whenever and wherever it is found, favors fascism. The tropes of antisemitism are both old and renewed as they are recycled and amplified with modern technology and social media. 

To that point, today's right-wing uses rhetorical strategies such as "we are just asking questions" or "playing devil's advocate" or "debating" or "making jokes and you people are too sensitive" as a way of laundering and mainstreaming white supremacy and other racist and antisemitic messaging.

Grob: Right-wing American extremists claim that sexist, racist, or homophobic statements are just part of the exercise of free speech, statements made in the name of open inquiry. What are often understood as traditional tools of the Socratic philosophic quest—asking uncomfortable questions, provoking interlocutors to rethink what they say, employing irony to unsettle those with fixed ideas—are co-opted by the right and subverted by White nationalists as a cover for hateful messaging.

Those who object to right-wing sophistry and racist tropes are attacked as advocates of "cancel culture" that disrespects freedom of speech and practices censorship. Such strategy allows racialized narratives to masquerade as prods that lead to difficult but important discussions in a genuinely open society. This nonsense obscures the fact that right-wing extremists are determined to restrict freedom of inquiry, ban books they dislike, and control education to fit their ideologies. Preserving democracy requires unmasking and countering these deceptions.   

What do we know empirically, the facts and trends, about resurgent antisemitism in the Age of Trump and beyond?

Roth: Polling done by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the spring of 2023 indicates that antisemitic incidents in the United States are at the highest level since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. More than 3500 such incidents—harassment, assaults, vandalism—took place in 2022, a 36 percent uptick from 2021. 

Conspiracy theories are oxygen for MAGA Republicanism. Where conspiracy theories exist, antisemitism is likely to be close by. Looking for someone to blame for things that have gone wrong? Jews—alleged controllers of wealth and media, internationalists more than Americans—often play the part. As Charlottesville shows—"Jews will not replace us"—those Jewish folks really aren't white either.

An obvious yet critical question: Is antisemitism inherently violent?

Roth: Violence can be hard or soft.  Hard violence includes theft and destruction of physical property, bodily harm and murder. Soft violence includes discrimination, inequality, slurs, innuendos, abusive language, and accusations—implicit as well as explicit—of disloyalty or impropriety.

One way or another, antisemitism is always violent. It violates the humanity of Jews. In that process, it also violates an inclusive, pluralistic, rights-based society.  Soft violence often leads to hard violence by setting the scene and giving tacit permission for it, while allowing for (im)plausible deniability. ("We deplore what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue." One can say that and still harbor antisemitism. Lots of Germans did something like that under the swastika.)

Is Donald Trump an antisemite? What about the MAGA movement and Trumpism? Are they antisemitic political movements and formulations?

Grob and Roth:

Antisemitism infects Donald Trump in ways that make him a transactional, performative-when-advantageous antisemite. What serves his self-interest is good.  What doesn't is bad. His constituents often trade in antisemitic tropes. Trump won't denounce those who advance them if having dinner with them instead is more to his political advantage. Although Trump touts that his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are Jews and that he has Jewish grandchildren, Trump deplores the failure of Jews to support him while he has supported Israel. Trump's pals include antisemitic white supremacists. He attacks influential Jews such as George Soros and Janet Yellen. He depicts American Jews as having dual loyalty, implying that Jews can't be trusted as true Americans. "Disloyal Jews" are Jews who support Democrats.  He'll portray Hillary Clinton with a Jewish star and stacks of currency in the background.

Trump is not Hitler. He is not a deep-down, true-believer in antisemitism. But he enfolds antisemitism, or at least has no objection to it, when it serves his needs.  Ultimately Trump's narcissism means that he is unable to do anything other than denigrate others who fail to offer obeisance to him. He is unable to empathize with Jewish victims of antisemitism, just as he cannot empathize with the suffering of people of color. Trump only empathizes with Trump. He denies his antisemitism but does little to oppose antisemitism in the United States and does oppose it only when it's too disadvantageous not to do so.

Again, Trump is not Hitler, but his violent rhetoric echoes Hitler's. When Trump promises to be his voters' retribution, his intention to get revenge is ignored at democracy's peril. Trump said he might terminate the Constitution. He walked back from that, but Americans who care about democracy will take the pronouncement more seriously than the walk-back. Trump's promise that, if elected in 2024, he will concentrate power in the Oval Office and purge the "deep state" should be believed. Hitler made similar promises. He kept them. There's no reason to think that Trump and his followers won't do so if they take power.

Trump's acolytes increasingly depict him in apocalyptic terms: he is "God's chosen one" who will ultimately lead his followers to the ultimate victory, a victory depicted in vindictive and destructive terms. That's Nazi-style rhetoric. Words matter. Words can destroy democracy. Words can kill.  

If Donald Trump and his MAGA movement return to the White House, what will that mean for Jewish-Americans?

Grob: If Trump wins the 2024 presidential election, the "othering," so characteristic of Trump past and present, will continue unabated. He will demonize individuals and groups who fail to serve his current mode of self-aggrandizement.

Jews have always been among the world's most "othered" people, and Jews are always a problem for Trump. A second Trump presidential term will mean that American Jews have to struggle harder than ever to preserve their unique identity as a people who, following the prophetic tradition, ask challenging questions. In those corners of America where dissent will continue to reside, Jews will likely be there. Under nearly intolerable conditions foisted upon them by a newly-elected Trump administration, many Jews will call and work for justice. Those who follow the prophets will listen to the words of a contemporary prophet, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who implored his people to "pray with their feet," to take "a leap of action" to counter a newly-installed authoritarian regime. Some misguided Jews will probably support Trump and his authoritarianism, but the vast majority of American Jews oppose American fascism. 

Historical specificity is critical in these discussions. What parallels and overlaps do you see between Trumpism and American neofascism and the rise of Nazism and the fall of German democracy in the 1930s?

Roth: As I view current American politics through a Holocaust lens, here's a partial list of what I see:

  • Rallies and rhetoric:  A Nazi rally and a MAGA rally have similar trappings and tones. Armband swastikas, MAGA hats. Hitler depicting himself as Germany embodied. Trump as "your voice and retribution" and "if they weren't coming for me, they would be coming for you."
  • Attacks on and control of media:  Hitler moved early and often against opposition journalists; control and censorship of media followed.  Trump's attack on journalists as "enemies of the people."
  • Seizing of control of law enforcement and the judiciary:  Hitler moved in these areas as fast as he could.  Trump promises to do so, and if not Trump, then other Republicans who have the so-called deep state in their sights. They want to "defund" the FBI and restructure the Department of Justice.  Echoes of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
  • Using the institutions of democracy to destroy democracy.  Within months of coming to power, the German parliament handed Hitler the "enabling act," which gave him, "legally," dictatorial power.  There can be little doubt that MAGA Republican control of the US Congress would trend in authoritarian directions.

Of course, Donald Trump and the MAGA movement are not the Nazi Party. But there were many Germans and others who were in great denial about Nazism even as their society succumbed to it. What do you want the American people to learn from those experiences? What is happening around them that they may not understand and/or be in denial about?

Roth: The mantra "our institutions will save us" is naïve bunk. Our institutions may be our undoing. Our institutions are good; we must preserve and sustain them. But they are only as good as the people who lead, inhabit, and serve them. Yes, we are seeing the rule of law at work as various indictments of Trump are released. We want judicial proceedings to be thorough and fair. But the judicial process is slow, slow, slow.

"Speedy trial"—at least in Trump's cases—is an oxymoron. Trump may not come to trial in time to prevent his nomination and election for a second presidential term. That fact aids and abets a Republican electorate wedded to Trump and a MAGA Republican Party that seems beyond recovery in its obedience to a criminal leader. Yes, Trump must be considered innocent until proved guilty. But that court-of-law standard shouldn't be the standard that determines how votes are wisely cast.  We Americans are one election away from losing the heart and soul of our democracy.

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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