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Auschwitz Survivors Don’t Want Their Past to Be Their Grandchildren’s Future

The heightened cruelty of the Trump regime signals the emergence of 21st-century fascism.

Heads of state led by Polish President Andrzej Duda arrive for a candle-lighting ceremony at the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau during events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oświęcim, Poland, on January 27, 2020.

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In January, more than 200 survivors of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp in Poland, gathered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of liberation from the camp. They testified to the brutalities of the Nazi state-sanctioned killing machine to which, at that time, the rest of the world appeared indifferent. More than 1.1 million Jews — along with thousands of Roma, dissidents and others considered “enemies of the state” — were murdered at the camp while the international community looked away. Calls to never let such crimes happen again were mixed with impassioned indignation and a “warning against the complicity, apathy and demagoguery that paved the way to the mass slaughter of about 11 million people.” Several survivors spoke not only to the terrifying criminal nightmare and systemic ethnic cleansing undertaken at Auschwitz, but also to the conditions that made it possible, warning that the lessons there have not been learned by existing generations.

A number of the survivors expressed alarm at our current moment in history when authoritarianism is on the rise once again. They argued that indifference and the failure to hold power accountable provide the moral abyss and political foundation that makes mass murder possible. Many, such as 91-year-old Elza Baker, warned that, “There are signs to look out for, if you don’t watch out one day you wake up and it’s too late.” The toxic shadow of Auschwitz and the collective repulsion against bigotry, discrimination, racism and racial purity appear to have been forgotten as fascist forces long kept at bay in the margins of society have moved to the center of power. For instance, in Poland almost a 100 municipalities have adopted resolutions declaring themselves as “LGBT-Free Zones.” This anti-LGBT rhetoric echoes a sordid genocidal moment in Poland’s history. It makes the familiar claim of passing homophobic resolutions which exclude those considered disposable from public space in the name of defending Christian values and “children, youth, families and Polish schools from sexual depravity and indoctrination.”

Under demagogues such as Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, a moral abyss has emerged in which state violence, widespread repression and a surge of lawlessness against those considered disposable have become the hallmark of an updated fascist politics.

Such events suggest with great urgency the danger collective indifference poses to democracy and echo the words of Marian Turski, a survivor of Auschwitz, who warned “when you see that the past is stretched to fit the current political needs … do not be indifferent, otherwise you should not be surprised when another Auschwitz crashes down on us.” David Marks, another survivor, echoed Turski’s admonition with a warning perfectly suited for the contemporary era: “A dictator doesn’t come up from one day to the other … [it happens in] micro steps. If we don’t watch it, one day you wake up and it’s too late.”

While we are not in an era of full-blown fascism marked by genocidal mass killing, fascism’s micro steps are increasing, aided by a growing number of governments across the globe dominated by the far right. What they share is an attempt to camouflage the structural and legitimation crisis faced by neoliberal capitalism. With the rise of increasing economic inequality, poverty, and massive debt and suffering, there is a mounting anger worldwide among disposed populations who no longer see established political and economic systems as legitimate. In the face of such revolts, right-wing governments have responded with the discourses of hate, bigotry and scapegoating. In addition, state repressive powers have aligned with openly fascist individuals, organizations and right-wing media outlets to push the moral, cultural and political limits of the bounds of acceptability.

Moving From the Margins to the Center

Repressive apparatuses associated with fascist politics are further normalized through a culture of fear and a language of demonization, depravity and racism long associated with fascist ideas and culture. For example, in the United States, the Trump administration appeals to the racist sentiments of neo-Nazis, ultranationalists, white Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists. This is evident not only in his relentless racist taunts, policies and discourse, but also in his various appointments of white supremacists such as Stephen Miller, an avowed white nationalist who serves as Trump’s senior aide and is the architect of Trump’s immigration policy. As Rebecca Gordon observes, Trump’s racism and embrace of white supremacy has emboldened individuals, groups and authoritarian politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who share Trump’s views.

Echoes of a dangerous past are also present in the red-baiting of Bernie Sanders not only by Trump and his right-wing pundits, but also by Democratic centrists such as Pete Buttigieg who with transparent innuendo claimed that Sanders has a “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.” Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan went further during the South Carolina debate when she stated: “You’ve praised the Chinese Communist Party for lifting more people out of extreme poverty than any other country. You also have a track record of expressing sympathy for socialist governments in Cuba and in Nicaragua. Can Americans trust that a democratic socialist president will not give authoritarians a free pass?” Michael Bloomberg echoed this red-baiting slur stating that Vladimir Putin is hoping Sanders gets elected. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews made clear how desperate and unhinged such red-baiting can be when he suggested that if elected, Bernie Sanders would usher in “a dictatorship” and “destroy democracy.” He stated: “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed,” he rambled. “I don’t know who Bernie Sanders supports [sic] over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialism.”

The pernicious use of red-baiting has a long history in the United States and was in full swing during the Red Scare in the aftermath of World War One and more famously during the 1950s under the leadership of the notorious Republican senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. What liberals and Democratic centrist refuse to acknowledge is not only how their red-baiting connects with a pernicious past, but also how it aligns them with “alt-right” and right-wing fanatics who use the terms socialist, Marxists and communist to disparage any progressive ideological position they disagree with. In addition, while the red-baiting attacks on Sanders have come from a variety of sources, none of them have anything to say about the brutal history of U.S. interventions in countries such as Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile and Guatemala.

Evidence that alt-right ideas have crept into the centers of power and the mainstream was in full view recently with the appointment of adviser Andrew Sabisky to the Boris Johnson government in the United Kingdom. Sabisky (who later resigned) has argued for enforced contraception in order to prevent the “permanent underclass” from reproducing, and has falsely stated that “black Americans have a lower than average IQ than white people and are more likely to have an ‘intellectual disability.’” Such ideas suggest a crisis that involves more than the rise of a handful of unscrupulous demagogues; it also points to how millions of people “seem all too willing to embrace the politics of fear and blame.”

As Fintan O’Toole observes, fascism moves from the margins to the center of power through a series of trial runs — obvious, for example, in the growing attack on dissidents, “the rigging of elections” and the development of widespread propaganda machines, all of which are evident in the United States, the U.K. and Brazil. In the U.S., it is evident in the hardening of ideological positions, threatening accusations made against alleged enemies of the state, the rise of a carceral state aimed at undocumented immigrants and poor people of color, and Trump’s use of the Justice Department to punish his political enemies.

Trump’s lawlessness gets worse by the day, made clear through his use of the power of the presidency to grant pardon and clemency to war criminals and white-collar lawbreakers such as Michael Milken, the discredited junk bond trader. The recipients of Trump’s willingness to offer clemency, pardon and commute sentences have been mostly white and male. Moreover, in his use of the clemency power, “Trump has shown special solicitude to people whose actions violate the public trust and subvert the system of justice itself.”

The merging of malignant malice and lawlessness is evident in a number of Trump’s policies, that include reversing restrictions on landmines, slashing $800 billion from Medicaid over a decade, jailing undocumented children in what amounts to 21st century concentration camps, enacting food stamp cuts that could effect up to 5.3 million households, rolling back clean water protections, deploying new nuclear weapons and threats to target Iranian cultural sites (which constitutes a war crime). This ongoing march toward authoritarianism is both aided and normalized by another central feature of neoliberal fascism: the concentration of power in the hands of right-wing echo chambers and media bubbles that serve as powerful propaganda machines, including Breitbart, Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the largest number of TV stations in the U.S. These conservative partisan websites generally echo Trump’s lies, unquestionably endorse his reactionary policies, push conspiracy theories, promote a climate of fear and provide misinformation that overall make clear how the “the fake news industry is in power.

Working Through the Past

In the current moment, historical memory informed by a rigorous engagement with the past is crucial not only to be able to learn important lessons from the past, but also to recognize what has been unlearned, and what has been purposely forgotten or rewritten so as to camouflage and hide the emergence of 21st-century fascism, especially in the United States. Memory, along with civic education, is in crisis in the age of Donald Trump. Dominated by a narrow obsession with Trump’s daily pageants of menace, amplified by his Twitter storms and a mainstream media attentive to a culture of shock and immediacy, historical consciousness and civic education become mere shadows of the past. That is, historical memory and moral witnessing “get in the way” because they are either too dangerous to recall or are reduced to a tool for spreading falsehoods, lies and elements of a fascist politics. Collective ignorance reproduced in a culture of consumerism, celebrity culture, and a compliant profit-driven media are crucial to undermining the ability of people to make sense of history and to be attentive to the need for truth and credibility in a democratic society.

Under the Trump regime, we are witnessing a draconian assault on public institutions that hold power accountable, an attack on critical thinkers and oppositional media, as well as journalists, writers, educators, and other cultural workers whose work is crucial to producing informed and engaged citizens necessary for a strong democracy. These endless forms of repression are legitimated and normalized by an endless ecosystem of lies and fabrications.

The Collapse of Conscience in the Age of Fascist Cruelty

Cruelty has a special place in regimes that trade in brutality, barbarism and violence. Not only is the weight of institutional cruelty revealed in the history of genocide against Native Americans, the lynching of Black bodies, the genocidal exterminations that propelled the Nazi death machine and U.S. torture chambers in Guantánamo, but also in the immense pleasure and delight of those who revel in the language of hate and the spectacles of extreme violence.

Cruelty adds a new dimension to the possibility of a fascist politics emptied of any vestige of ethical and social responsibility. In the new wave of fascist politics, the menace of cruelty as theater encourages violence as a superior capacity that allows individuals to reproduce and participate in structures of domination through the emotional force and appeal of its affective and social mechanisms. Functioning as a culture organized by hatred, rancor and the practice of physical violence, state-sponsored cruelty caters to a condition of anxiety, fear and uncertainty, while organizing public feelings through brutalizing policies and acts of violent behavior that offer the public an emotional release of joy and pleasure.

Cruelty in the age of Trump is experienced as a both an exercise in vindictiveness and as a mode of attachment in which whiteness as form of racial identification is constructed at the expense of those others considered “less than white.” These include undocumented immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Black people and the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — all of whom are considered disposable, and whose lives are implied to have no value. As Pankaj Mishra observes, what is made visible in such policies of disposability is “a process of dehumanization — organized disgust for the religious/ethnic/civilizational ‘alien,’ a retreat into grandiose fantasies of omnipotence, followed by intellectual rationalization of murder — not unlike what the world witnessed in Europe in the middle of the last century.”

This mode of politics is a way of legitimating and asserting power for self-proclaimed white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It can be seen in Trump’s celebration of whiteness as an affective mode of identification, attachment and orientation in which racist policies are legitimated through a relentless barrage of symbolic and actual forms of exclusion, bigotry and violence.

For the Trump administration, cruelty as an organizing principle of governance offers no apologies and appears to function largely as an assertion of power over others while displaying an intoxicating pleasure in the misery and suffering it produces. Moreover, it has reached a new level of ferocity and visibility. How else to explain Trump’s suggestion to shoot migrants in the legs in order to slow them down and to fortify a “border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators … electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh”? Or, a more recent example, which can be found in Trump’s $4.8 trillion 2021 budget blueprint, which calls for potentially toxic cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by more than $1.7 trillion — a figure that makes up for projected deficits caused by Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. In addition, the budget tightens eligibility for disability coverage and weakens nutrition support and health care for poverty-stricken families while rewarding the ultra-rich and boosting spending to a bloated military budget to the tune of more than $740 billion. The 2021 budget proposal amplifies Trump’s war on poor youth by slashing billions from the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and federal student loan assistance. It is worth noting that people of color are disproportionately impacted by these cuts, which makes clear that at the heart of Trump’s cruelty is a thinly veiled racism.

Yet, under Trump, cruelty is more than a personal expression of vindictiveness; it is also one of the few possibilities for community that he offers his followers as part of his pitch for white nationalism rebranded as Trumpism. The whirlwind of cruelty at work in the Trump regime aims at modes of community in which human beings take immense pleasure in observing acts of cruelty aimed at those ruled outside the boundaries of a white public sphere. Such cruelty is designed to make his followers feel proud, happy and “close to one another.” In Trump’s post-impeachment universe, cruelty, fear and language are weaponized as part of a wider battle over democracy and are crucial tools in his broader decent into barbarism and a politics of lawlessness. Reminiscent of the weaponized language of racial purity used in the 1930s, Trump has renegotiated the language of inclusion by making clear that only whites have a legitimate claim to citizenship, to the public spheres and to social provisions.

The Politics of Revenge

We have seen in other historical periods, especially in Nazi Germany, how words that were once condemned and viewed with harsh criticism became acceptable. Then as today, language has become militaristic, disparaging, dehumanizing, strident and aggressive. This is a discourse of cruelty and violence that constructs the world in the shadow of Auschwitz and is designed to no longer keep fascist forces at bay. There is more at work here than a display of personal malice and the infantile need for revenge on Trump’s part toward his perceived critics — defined by the administration as treasonous, evil and subject to punitive practices. There is also a language of dehumanization that, in its enabling of violence, functions without apology because of the refusal of a larger public to bear witness to the horrors of the past.

Trump’s public display of nastiness was on full display in his claim that he wanted to punish those politicians who launched the impeachment hearings in the House, such as Rep. Adam Schiff and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In Schiff’s case, Trump called him a “corrupt politician and probably a very sick man [who] has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our country!” Schiff responded to Trump by stating that he took it as a threat. Trump’s malice gained further traction in his firing of impeachment witnesses, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, both of whom confirmed the president’s corrupt attempt to convince the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into Joe Biden, his political rival, and Biden’s son Hunter, in exchange for $400 million in U.S. military aid.

Trump’s lust for punishing his perceived enemies was also evident in the ongoing war against sanctuary cities. Most recently, this includes the Justice Department filing suits against a number of states and local government, withholding federal grants and sending federal agents — with tactical training, who patrol the border — to Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and other sanctuary cities across the United States. What both of these examples make clear is that Trump believes in a politics that has no redemptive or ethical capacities. Such examples make visible an earlier history that used language and the concentration of power “as a tool of state repression.” It is a politics infused with a violence and a predatory lust for vengeance. Underneath the display of Trump’s personal bluster of indignation and retaliation, there is the more serious willingness on the part of a Republican Senate to function largely as a political lobbying group for Trump.

Some liberals, such as Dana Milbank, have claimed that the most enduring consequences of Trump’s post-impeachment acts of revenge, the growth of a culture of lying in Washington, and the accompanying culture of cruelty supported by his Republican cohorts are about the loss of character and decency as an element of leadership. This view underestimates the danger of Trump and his allies and the degree to which the United States has tipped over into an updated form of fascist politics. This is particularly evident in displays of Trump’s post-impeachment lawlessness, assertion of raw power and his suggestion that he is not simply above the law, “but is the law [and] has the right to shape the country’s legal systems as he sees fit,” which means using it to promote his own personal and political interests. For instance, not only has Trump undermined the fair application of justice, he has exerted an “air of monarchical impunity” by brazenly interfering in the criminal sentencing of Roger Stone, his long-time friend and adviser, who was convicted last year of lying to Congress, obstructing justice and intimidating a witness. Trump brazenly put pressure on the Department of Justice, in spite of their recommendations, to reduce Stone’s seven- to nine-year sentence.

It gets worse. Once again, for Trump, the unthinkable becomes routine. In this instance, Trump not only attacked the federal judge overseeing Stone’s trial, along with the jury foreperson, he also criticized the prosecutors and cast Stone “as the victim of a vendetta by law enforcement.” The New York Times editorial board rightly argued that Trump believes that the law amounts to whatever he thinks it is. They write:

The law is something that applies to his adversaries, not to himself or his friends. He regularly turned to the courts to harass and intimidate employees, critics and contractors. But when it has come to his own perceived advantage — whether he was violating federal fair-housing laws to keep black renters out of his apartment buildings, playing shady games with his tax returns, sexually assaulting women, defrauding students of his “university,” raiding his own charity, buying the silence of alleged mistresses on the eve of an election, running his global business empire out of the White House, or thwarting the will of Congress by using foreign aid to advance his re-election — Mr. Trump has always seen the law as just another set of rules to be bent, if not broken.

This is a liberal criticism, which is not wrong, but does not to far enough, and by doing so, fails to learn the lessons of the past regarding the exercise of lawlessness as a central element of fascist politics. As we should have learned from the past, dictators not only use the law to help their friends, they also use the law to punish their enemies. As Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney, has noted: “That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.” Absent from these arguments is also the recognition that the U.S.’s criminal legal system reeks of cruelty and can be seen in its promotion of capital punishment, the incarceration of more than 2 million Americans, and a racialized legal system that systemically and disproportionately punishes poor Black people.

At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge that Trump’s actions and the actions of his followers amount to both a degrading of presidential accountability and a dangerous descent into lawlessness reminiscent of events that took place in the early years of Nazi Germany and resulted in the consolidation of authoritarian power under Adolf Hitler. Hitler enacted the Enabling Act in 1933, which became the cornerstone of his dictatorship by allowing him to enact laws with impunity and without the approval of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, the parliament or the courts. This, Sasha Abramsky points out, “signed the death warrant for the Weimar Republic and ushered in dictatorship.”

Neoliberal Fascism, Economic Inequality and the Politics of Authoritarianism

Trump makes clear that we live in an age that now combines the elements of neoliberal capitalism and political authoritarianism. The social sphere — seen as a commitment to the common good, economic justice, quality public and higher education, the social state and a thriving civic culture — are being derided if not destroyed. The extreme violence at the heart of everyday life in the U.S. constitutes an attack on the very nature of the social imagination, democracy and the institutions that make it possible. This is a world that turns away from crimes produced by authoritarian governments, becomes indifferent to fascism’s history and culture of cruelty, and is unmoved by the pleas on the part of the survivors of Auschwitz who have argued that they “don’t want their past to be their children’s future, or the grandchildren’s future.”

Theodor Adorno once warned that the survival of fascism within democracy to be “potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy,” and that as much as one would like to “break free of the past,” fascism lives on in the present, along with its “willingness to commit the unspeakable.” The lesson to be learned, as a moral and political imperative in the present moment, is that those who were murdered by fascist violence cannot be “cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can off them: remembrance.” Remembrance as a form of resistance begins with the recognition that fascism continues to exist and hides in the destruction of historical memory.

In an age of fascist politics, history must be interrogated as a source of possibility, critique and resistance. The horrors we are witnessing under Trump and other demagogues across the globe should be connected to a past that reminds us both of the suffering, misery, and violence endemic to a fascist politics and how, in its updated forms, it can be challenged individually and collectively. Politics in the absence of dangerous memories enables neoliberal fascism to colonize our dreams, shut down the power of imagination and close down critiques of neoliberalism’s carceral regimes of consumerism, social atomization, privatization and discipline. Memory in this instance allows us to reconsider the entire project of politics with an urgency necessary to enable us to think our way through to a future in which we can view both history and the world through the democratic and moral lens of redemption, justice and hope.

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