Let’s get the obvious out of the way: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a horrible blunder when he tried to use Adolf Hitler as a point of comparison for the evil of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Assad is a war criminal, a murderous thug and one of the great villains of the early 21st century; Hitler is on the short list for the most evil man in history.
Not only is there no comparison, but there’s no reason for a comparison. Each evil stands on its own. Assad does not have to reach a certain rank on the Top 20 Villains List to be worthy of a global response, and the deaths of the nearly half-million Syrians killed in a civil war he has insisted on waging to cling to power are just as senseless no matter where he stands on the all-time list of mass murderers.
Spicer insulted the memories of the 6 million Jews and millions of other noncombatants slaughtered by Hitler and the memories of Assad’s victims in his thoughtless effort — during Passover, no less — to make one Syrian chemical attack seem worse than Hitler’s crimes. We can’t comment on Spicer’s intelligence in general, but he was stupid during that press briefing Tuesday, April 11, and in his subsequent efforts to modify and explain his claim that even Hitler hadn’t used chemical weapons on his own people.
We don’t know whether Spicer meant that gas chambers weren’t weapons or that the Jews killed in them, by virtue of being Jewish, weren’t Hitler’s people. Either way, Spicer gave support to a soft form of Holocaust denial — the kind that portrays whatever happened during World War II as just another example of wartime violence against civilians, not significantly worse in scale or unusual in its victims.
We saw it in January when the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted Jews. We saw it again this month when Larry Pittman, a North Carolina legislator representing a Charlotte-area district, wrote that Abraham Lincoln was “the same sort of tyrant” as Hitler, responsible for 800,000 senseless American deaths.
But we’ve also seen it from Donald Trump’s critics, including some who rushed to criticize and mock Spicer for his foolish Hitler-Assad comparison.
Those who have insisted since 2015 that Trump is or has the potential to be another Hitler, who have hammered home the idea that “we have seen this before,” who have refused to acknowledge any difference between a man who was ideologically driven to dehumanize and destroy people of ethnic, religious and political differences and a man who is simply an egomaniac — those people, for political reasons, have helped undermine public understanding and acceptance of the unique horror of the Holocaust.
Trump has given the American people ample reason for wariness. Just to start, he’s loose with the truth. He’s mercurial in foreign relations. He turns his back on people in need at home and abroad. He has a weak grasp on the Constitution. He’s perhaps Islamophobic and misogynistic.
But he’s not a war criminal. He’s not a mass murderer. He’s not Assad, let alone Hitler.
As we prepare to observe Yom HaShoah and remember the victims of the Holocaust, let us all put aside the Hitler hyperbole for good.