The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 coincided with the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht. On that occasion, we titled our newsletter: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present. The shocking ascendancy in a post-Holocaust world of a movement rooted in the United States, mainly powered by toxic rhetorical brawling and sheltering authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses, was destined to be a ruinous affair. The ransacking and rioting at the nation’s capital by those courted and enthralled by this cult of personality is deeply despairing.
In 2016 we looked carefully at the facts and summarized our concerns about the potential direction of unrestrained incendiary speech and actions. Five years later, despite Trump not being elected President, or maybe precisely because of that, we have now reached the precipice.
The shocking assault on the Nation’s Capitol should not make us overlook the rage-filled gathering that unfolded simultaneously outside Minnesota’s State Capitol in Saint Paul, which included several Republican lawmakers. These Trump followers were not only decrying the Biden certification, in support of the insurrection of some members of Congress, validating the mob violence inside the Capitol and threatening the Minnesota Governor and other Democratic local officials. They were openly initiating the threat of war and, yes, genocide. The recording of the speech leaves no room for doubt. An unidentified individual preceded the Republican state representatives and local Republican leaders in the rally with the following call to action:
“We cannot move forward; we cannot evolve as a people because we have been choked off by weeds. Weeds of communism, weeds of socialism, weeds of leftist liberals subjecting us, suffocating us. We are a garden that needs to grow. We cannot grow if we have weeds choking us off.” The audience chimes in, shouting: “Kill the root, kill the weeds!” and the speaker closes his rant with: “We need to pull the weeds!”
Let me put things in an even more clear perspective. This is the Us vs. Them vision in its most dangerous and extreme manifestation. There is no room for both. In Modernity and the Holocaust, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained that eliminating the adversary is a necessary step needed to be taken to reach the end of the road, which is the desired society. Moreover, Bauman warns about a “gardeners vision,” were those creating the garden identify its “weeds,” those groups of people who spoil their design. “All visions of society-as-a-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds. Like all other weeds, they must be segregated, contained, prevented from spreading, removed and kept outside the society’s boundaries”, writes Bauman. But if all these means prove insufficient, he concludes, “they must be killed.”
Elected state officials endorsed a genocidal playbook with their participation in the Minnesota Capitol rally.
As a Saint Paul resident, as the son of refugees from Nazi Germany, as the director of an academic Center whose mission is to investigate and teach the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, I was left momentarily speechless. I and so many other colleagues across the country have not ceased to point to the unambiguous historical parallelisms and alarming facts when elected officials engage with authoritarian, fascist and Neo-Nazi ideas. Meanwhile, we witness events nationwide unfolding in their grotesque and dreadful manner. Elie Wiesel captured this sense of helplessness in a stirring way. There is something more frightening than the tragedy of a messenger who cannot deliver his message, he said. And that is when the messenger has delivered his message and nothing has changed.
Alejandro Baer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies