It’s possible to get carried away with outrage. Sometimes people mean to say relatively innocent things and they come out sounding wrong. Politics doesn’t need to become an indignation factory, and not every Republican gaffe is a sign of incipient fascism.
But Sean Spicer’s Holocaust comments are important, not just for their shock value – for their sheer, breathtaking WTF-ness – but for what they tell us about the architecture of the modern Republican mind.
“I should have stayed on topic,” Spicer lamented later to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Fair enough.
But these remarks were more than just a digression. Spicer reflects his entire party, not just himself or the man for whom he works. And his most disturbing words – the passing phrases that revealed so much – got less attention than they deserved.
1. Spicer’s a mainstream Republican
Spicer doesn’t come from Steve Bannon’s white nationalist/right-wing populist cadre. He’s a product of the mainstream Republican Party, years in the making. He worked on GOP political campaigns after graduating college, then became Communications Director for the Republican leadership on the House Budget Committee. He took a similar role with the Republican House Conference, co-founded a PR firm, and became Communications Director for the Republican National Committee in 2011.
Spicer was reportedly recommended for his White House role by Reince Priebus, the former RNC chairman turned White House Chief of Staff. In one of the few signs of good judgment Donald Trump has ever displayed, the president has reportedly been angry at Priebus over that recommendation ever since.
2. Spicer was trying to score points
Spicer wasn’t trying to shock and outrage the American people. He was trying to win a rhetorical battle against Russia. He said, “You, look – we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II.” (Was he considering the fact that we, the United States, did use nuclear weapons in that war – twice? Probably not.)
“Y’know, you had – someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to the, to the, to using chemical weapons. So, you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself, is this a country that you, and regime you want to align yourself with?”
It sounded as if Spicer expected the press room to respond with a collective, “Oh, snap!” Instead, of course, the press room responded with whatever sound a roomful of people makes when it calls forth the memory of millions of people being rounded up and murdered with chemical weaponry.
3. It seems to have been a talking point gone terribly wrong
It’s also worth noting that Spicer was apparently using, and mangling, an administration talking point given to other administration officials as well. Later in the day, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters, “Even in WWII chemical weapons were not used on the battlefield. Even in the Korean War, they were not used on battlefields. Since WWI there’s been an international convention on this.”
That was the point Spicer was probably instructed to make. The inclusion of Hitler was probably his own act of improvisation – an act that went very, very wrong.
4. This was the most horrifying comment of all
When reporters reminded Spicer about Hitler’s use of chemical weapons in the concentration camps, Spicer said:
“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no – (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad [sic] is doing.” (emphasis mine.)
I’ve tried to parse this sentence several different ways, and can find no other way to interpret it: Spicer is saying that the Jews and other victims were not Germany’s “own people” when Hitler gassed them.
More than 500,000 Jews lived in Germany, and over 191,000 in Austria, when Hitler came to power in 1933. Of the 240,000 who remained in these two countries by the start of World War II, an estimated 210,000 – or 88 percent – were murdered during the so-called “Final Solution.”
Not their own people? Jews in prewar Germany and Austria enjoyed full political, social, and economic equality. They participated fully in cultural and civic life. Jews played a leading role in Viennese intellectual and artistic circles.
The completeness of Jewish integration is often cited as one of the main reasons why so many Jews stayed until it was too late. They simply could not believe that they were being systematically exterminated by a society that had accepted them so fully.
By saying that Jews, gays, Romany, and others murdered in the camps were not Hitler’s “own people,” Spicer seemed to suggest that a nation is only reflected by its dominant social group. Religious and other minorities are always the “other,” no matter how integrated they may be by law and rights.
5. Or maybe this was his most horrifying comment
Spicer went on to say:
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust … however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.” (Emphasis mine.)
What? The men, women, and children who died in the camps weren’t “innocent”? Try again, Sean.
He did try again.
“Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable,” Spicer added. Good to know.
6. Republican scapegoating of minorities didn’t begin with Trump
The “othering” of concentration camp victims, and the taint of guilt applied to their memories, are presumably inadvertent. But words reflect thought processes, both conscious and unconscious. Spicer wouldn’t be the first Republican to scapegoat a religious minority, just as Trump wasn’t the first.
Republican candidates Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich targeted Muslims in their 2012 presidential campaigns. Rep. Steve King had been making racist remarks for years before his bigoted “other people’s babies” comment got media play last month.
In fact, race baiting, stereotyping, and “othering” of minorities have been core elements of Republican rhetoric since the days of Nixon and Reagan.
That’s not to suggest that Sean Spicer intended to marginalize or “other” the Jewish community or any other with his remarks. But when you become accustomed to thinking of minorities as less than full participants in a national community, it can become a hard habit to break.
7. Spicer quickly moved from the horrifying to the banal
When pressed, Spicer attempted to draw a distinction between Hitler’s use of chemical weapons and Assad’s aerial bombardment of civilians. That distinction, which was both morally and logically incoherent, was expressed in the following fashion:
“I understand your point. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not, in the, he brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I’m saying, in the way that Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of town, it was brought. So, the use of it – I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.”
This was apparently the first time the term “holocaust center” has been used to describe the locations where Nazi genocide was conducted. (Common terms, as most people who are not Sean Spicer know, include “concentration camps” and “death camps.”)
“Holocaust center” seems like a fine Republican phrase. The GOP believes that “corporations are people,” after all, and idolizes the buzzwordy world of the private sector. So why not inject some corporate-speak into that gravest of all conversations, the conversation about mass death?
“Holocaust centers”? That’s the way people talk when they’ve come to think of a nation as a body of identical-looking people and of government as a profit center for themselves and their friends.
“Holocaust centers”? It makes the largest and most horrifying murder machine in history sound like a network of Federal Express hubs for the transshipment and extermination of human souls.
Get used to the moral outrage – and the corporate lingo. Welcome to Republican America, circa 2017. All our operators are busy helping other “customers.” We appreciate your patience. The Center will be with you shortly.