The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 coincided with an ominous historical date: the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht. On that occasion, we titled the newsletter of the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present. The shocking ascendancy in a post-Holocaust world of a socio-political movement rooted in the United States, mainly powered by bedlam and toxic rhetorical brawling, sheltering wild authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses, was destined to be a ruinous affair. The ransacking and rioting at the nation’s Capitol by those courted and enthralled by this cult of personality is deeply despairing. Among the unhinged were live-streaming neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
Five years ago, we looked carefully at the facts and summarized our concerns about the potential direction of unrestrained incendiary speech and actions. We consider it our duty at the center to point to the unambiguous historical parallelisms and alarming facts when elected officials engage with authoritarian, fascist, and neo-Nazi ideas. Despite Trump not being re-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 St. Paul, which included elected state representatives. These Trump followers were not only decrying the Biden certification, in support of the insurrection of some Republican 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 leadership 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 clearer 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, the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explains 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 “gardener’s vision,” where 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.
I write these lines with profound sadness. As a St. 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 by the sight of America spiraling out of control. Many other colleagues across the country and I have become diligent and quick to establish the parallelisms, heeding the warning signs, raising the red flags. Meanwhile, we witness events nationwide unfolding in their grotesque and dreadful manner.
Elie Wiesel captured our sense of helplessness in a stirring way: There is something worse than the tragedy of a messenger who cannot deliver his message, he said. And that is when he delivered the 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 at the University of Minnesota.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)