By Richard E. Frankel
“We have people coming into the country—or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” – Donald Trump, May 16, 2018
By now, most Americans who follow the news have heard about Donald Trump’s description of illegal immigrants as “animals.” The comment elicited a great deal of outrage and condemnation—and rightfully so. Here was the President of the United States publicly dehumanizing an entire group of people. (See below for a fuller discussion of what he said and what he meant.) It was disgusting, but hardly surprising. After all, this is a man who believes there were “very fine people” marching under the Nazi flag in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. So already the image of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler have been linked in a public discussion.
And now, once again, many people are pointing out the similarities between Trump’s language and that used by Hitler and the Nazis. And while such comparisons are often dismissed as hysterical exaggeration or hyper-partisan rhetoric, this historian of modern Germany once again sees enough commonalities with that dark period of history to sit down and describe the danger America currently faces.
Whatever concrete plans Donald Trump might or might not have for his presidency, it is clear to me that he has ideas about what America should ultimately look like, a kind of ideal national community. To Trump “making America great again,” means making it a white, Christian, male-dominated society. With the authoritarian powers he so clearly desires, he could maintain the appearance of democracy, while in reality only those “real” Americans would enjoy some rights. The rest, having been pushed to the margins of society would be subject to the whims of Trump’s autocratic regime. And those pushed beyond the boundary? They would no longer be of any concern to “real Americans.”
It’s a vision reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s effort to create hisideal national/racial community. His Germany was to be a society without divisions of class, religion, race, or politics—a society in which only Germans would enjoy the benefits of citizenship. In Hitler’s ideal Germany there would be no Jews, no communists or socialists, no liberals, no one with disabilities. And what’s important to remember is that the process of creating that national community began well before anyone had even imagined something as horrifying as Auschwitz. And it began with a rather deliberate choice of target: not Jews, but communists.
Hitler targeted communists immediately after coming to power because they were members of a group that most middle-class (“real”) Germans already considered to be on the margins of society. They were “unpatriotic,” “subversive,” “treasonous,” “criminal.” They were, in short, “un-German.” But to Hitler, there was something more. There was a fundamental connection, he believed, between communists and Jews—Germany’s ultimate enemy. Since the early 1920s, Hitler had railed against “Jewish Bolshevism.” The image of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” sitting in Moscow directing a global conspiracy aimed at the destruction of Germany and western Christian civilization became a mainstay of Nazi propaganda. By attacking Communists first, therefore, he was preparing the way for the assault on the country’s Jews, a group much more established in German society and therefore not as easily removed.
Already on the night of January 30, 1933, following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Nazi Storm Troopers assaulted communists on the streets of Berlin and other cities in the guise of establishing “law and order.” With the image of the “Judeo Bolshevik” in the heads of these vicious thugs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Jews found themselves swept up in that initial maelstrom of Nazi violence. Still, the target at this point was communists.
But by linking Jews—a well-established group within Germany’s middle class—with the widely despised communists, Hitler could blur the lines that separated the two groups in the minds of “real” Germans. After all, some communists were Jews! Granted, they were a tiny percentage of the Jewish population. Granted, they had abandoned any connection to their Jewishness. But by harping on the danger of communism, Hitler made it easier for “good” Germans to accept increasingly harsh measures against Jews.
Ultimately, this meant depicting communists and Jews as barely human, Asiatic beasts from the east. It meant making them into animals. They were, according to the Führer, “parasites,” “a global plague,” “racial tuberculosis,” “vermin,” “Galician vampires.”
By November 1938, after nearly six years of dehumanization, after the nationwide pogrom known as Kristallnacht, it was clear to most that the rhetorical removal of Jews from the German national/racial community was a success. And what that rhetorical removal allowed for, under the extreme conditions of war, was the next and final stage: physical removal, the Final Solution.
Now what has Donald Trump done to elicit such a comparison? He’s clearly targeted a vulnerable group, a group already on the margins of society—not just immigrants, but, as he and his followers like to call them, “illegal aliens.” But it isn’t just the undocumented that he warns about. It’s MS-13—an unquestionably brutal gang that has committed horrific acts of violence in the United States.
This is the image that Donald Trump wants people to think about when they think about immigrants. Never mind that the vast majority of immigrants from Latin America are not now nor will they ever become members of MS-13. Never mind that the vast majority of immigrants from Latin America do not commit crimes after their arrival in the country. Never mind that his administration has begun to separatechildrenfrom their parents upon crossing the border. Children. Pried from the arms of their parents. How could they be members of MS-13? How could they possibly be dangerous? Don’t be fooled, Trump tells us. “They look so innocent,” he says. “They’re not innocent.” Donald Trump calls them animals and lets the press parse out whether he meant just gang members or all immigrants.
Meanwhile, he’s already moved on from rhetorical removal to the next stage: physical removal. ICE agents conduct brutal raids across the country. They seize people who “appear” to be undocumented. They seize people they claim to be members of MS-13, because they “look like” gang members. And in recent months the government has rescinded Temporary Protected Status to most of the more than 300,000 refugees from countries the president has already labeled “shitholes.” Three hundred thousand people the government will soon force to leave this country.
All of this and more is possible if you believe, as the president and many of his followers do, that some people aren’t really people at all—certainly not people like them, with the same feelings, the same concerns, the same humanity. It’s possible to do horrible things to people if you come to believe they are animals. We’ve seen it in the case of Nazi Germany. And no, I am not predicting the construction of an American Auschwitz. That nightmare should not be the measure of all horror. There are scenarios well short of gas chambers that are possible once this country chooses the path that Donald Trump has opened up with his dehumanizing rhetoric. The first step to stopping it from going further is to remember that of course they are not animals—they are just like us.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by the History News Network.
Richard E. Frankel is an Associate Professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.