It’s always a little alarming when the mouthpiece of a nationalist party flirts with Holocaust denial by claiming that Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons to kill people. Luckily for Americans of relative intelligence, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s major faux pas was met almost immediately with a swarm of uproar, outrage and demands for retraction, answered by a recantation and apology. Ironically, the latest Spicer scandal also came during the same week as French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s controversial denial of the French government’s complicity and cooperation in rounding up Jewish citizens during World War II — an unfortunate and studied reality of the Vichy regime. To the educated observer, it would appear that the recent nationalist trends across the Western world might be bringing with them an erasure and ignorance of the very history that makes their resurgence so disturbing.
Of course, every regime thinks of itself as comprising or protecting the “good guys”; every nation participating in World War I thought so, in the throes of their own nationalist and militaristic rhetoric. So too does President Donald Trump, who has so conveniently abandoned his “America First” ideology — for now — to follow the longstanding Republican tradition of ham-handed meddling in the Middle East. The concern is not whether Spicer, Trump or Le Pen really write off the Holocaust, or see themselves in the context of ethno-nationalistic superiority — it is whether they are thinking of these traditions of the Western world, and lessons learned from these tragedies, at all. Imagining a Europe of Le Pens and a United States under Trump makes it easy to see how the very same nationalism that bred the Holocaust is also giving hope to refueled neo-Nazi groups across the United States, encouraging hate crimes against immigrants and spurring anti-Muslim violence both here and in France.
The problem with nationalists is that they are focused on the creation of an in-group, which necessitates the delineation of the out-group. They are not concerned with measured action because they demand rash, reactionary change; they do not value the virtues of reason and tolerance because they use violence to exhibit strength. “Make America Great Again” has nothing to do with economic prosperity or world order. It is meant to harken back to a time of easily understood and clearly defined social hierarchies, and suggests that the in-group will once again be comprised of straight, white men. As a result, Trumplings tell non-white Americans to “go back where they came from”; their lack of whiteness makes them, by definition, a member of the out-group — and therefore not American. I doubt it needs to be spelled out, but Hitler also blamed German economic woes on Jews — and Roma, and homosexuals, and the other groups he wanted to exterminate. And exterminate them he did. Trump blames Mexican immigrants; Le Pen blames Muslim refugees. Trump has previously floated the idea of Muslim registries (or did we forget?); Le Pen wants to close French borders to the Middle East altogether.
Both sides of the aisle in American politics have appropriated, misattributed, misused and bastardized the meaning of the terms “fascist” and “fascism.” Adhering to the true definition, the Trump administration is by no means a fascist regime. Neither, it could be observed, would Le Pen’s France be. But Trump is positioned remarkably well to imitate or, at worst, resurrect that authoritarian tradition. He is, of course, a demagogue with a loyal following he manipulates and maintains through modern forms of mass media; he delineates an ethnic in-group and out-group, inciting violence against the latter; his government is largely controlled — or at the very least, pushed around — by the far right, from the Freedom Caucus to Chief Strategist Steve Bannon; and he touts a return to traditionalist values as a reaction against what he argues is an economic downturn and the loss of national pride.
It’s certainly not a surprise that Spicer has once again done what he does best: engineer national embarrassments and new lows for the administration. But it is alarming that two nationalist parties in the same week both seemed to suggest that it is becoming appropriate to rewrite the history of nationalism itself. Don’t let slips of the tongue lead to wholesale erasure. Nationalists are nationalists. Be warned.
Lily Vaughan is a sophomore majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs every Friday.