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Op-Ed

Holocaust centers and criminal filth: Why Trump officials can't stop offending everyone

Since the election, liberals have been accused of living in an elite bubble. Hillary Clinton voters, supposedly, do not understand the rest of the country; they must get outside their comfort zone and embrace the real America.

It's becoming increasingly clear, though, that if anyone is living in a bubble, it's the Trump administration. Inside that bubble are white people, narrowly defined. And outside it is everyone else. Whenever circumstances force them to venture outside the bubble, they fumble and gasp for air.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department circulated prepared remarks by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that referred to criminal immigrants as "filth." White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, for his part, claimed that not even Hitler had used chemical weapons, as Syrian President Bashar Assad did last week. Later he clarified that Hitler had not used chemical weapons against “his own people the same way” as Assad, but had instead sent his victims to "Holocaust centers."

These incidents — the first offensive to immigrants, the second to Jews — are not entirely equivalent, but they’re symptomatic of the same problem.

Perhaps realizing that the word “filth” was going to result in pushback, Sessions left it out of his address on the U.S. Mexico border. Still his remarks used apocalyptic, dehumanizing rhetoric. Referring to criminal immigrants, he said, “Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.” That's frightening language coming from the nation's top lawyer.

Spicer's comments, on the other hand, seemed mostly animated by confusion and ignorance. "Holocaust centers" isn't a neo-Nazi dog-whistle; it's just a phrase that pops out of your mouth when you have no idea what you're talking about. The claim that Hitler didn't use poison gas is nonsensical — check any history textbook to learn about the gas chambers.

The press secretary’s confusion was telling, though. Stumbling about in the vast empty reaches of his mind, Spicer sought to distinguish Hitler and Assad, presumably in an effort to justify Trump's decision to bomb Syria. What Spicer came up with was a distinction based on nationality; Assad gassed his own people, Hitler gassed the Jews. While it is true that many of the Jews that Hitler gassed were not German, some of them were. Of course Hitler did not consider them to be Germans because he was a racist, genocidal monster. American press secretaries, as a rule of thumb, should avoid cosigning Hitler where possible. The Anne Frank Center characterized Spicer's remarks as Holocaust denial.

Critics on the right no doubt believe that it’s only fair to forgive and forget Spicer’s seemingly unintentional embrace of Nazi racial nationalism. But we shouldn’t let Spicer off so easy: Racial nationalism was, after all, the foundation of his boss' campaign.

Now more than ever, Republicans compulsively draw distinctions between true Americans and untrustworthy outsiders merely pretending to be Americans. Donald Trump built his candidacy on white identity — and on excluding as many people as possible from that identity. Trump said an American judge was untrustworthy because of his Mexican heritage. He promised to ban Muslim people from entering the U.S. And, of course, he pledged to build a wall on the southern border — to keep out what Sessions’ speechwriter would call “filth.”

Trump deliberately and even obsessively positioned himself as the candidate for white people. His message was that America would be great again — for white people. After the election, he publicly celebrated the fact that black people had not come out to vote in large numbers. Those comments were addressed, obviously, to white voters.

When Trump and his entourage try to speak to nonwhite voters or marginalized people, they do it clumsily, like people who have no practice and don't want to be there anyway. Trump’s infamous Cinco de Mayo taco bowl message is one grotesque example, but there are many others. Spicer's "Holocaust centers" is only the most recent (as of publication time).

Behind all such comments — including the “Holocaust centers” gaffe and the “filth” aside — is white identity politics. Trump and his cronies do not feel like they need to represent, or speak to, or understand all Americans, much less their histories. Trump was slow to condemn bomb threats on Jewish community centers because he resented the suggestion that white people might be abusers rather than the abused; he did not want to be forced to identify with Jews. He was gleeful when it turned out that the perpetrators were a black man and an Israeli teen — more of those people. Such comments are an indication of who Trump’s administration values and of what imagined community they see themselves as speaking to and for.

Trump, by inclination and deliberate choice, is president of white people. Jews, Hispanics, black people, immigrants, Muslims — the Trump administration will condescend to them, or attack them, or deport them, or target them for violence depending on circumstances. But the only people Trump and his representatives feel accountable to are in the white bubble. It’s not surprising that those are also the only people they know how to talk to.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of “Corruption: American Political Films.” He is writing a series on fascism in film at Splice Today.

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