After months of dread, you’d think we’d be prepared. Many of us played games in our head as we anticipated the coming Trump administration. What would he do? How would he do it? We worried about authoritarian and fascist tendencies. But how far could he really push it? Isn’t this America? At the very least, we hoped that a minimum requirement of lip service to American ideals and values would limit his ability to undermine the rights of those with claims upon American compassion and inclusion.
It’s worse than we feared.
Most immediately, many of us are reeling from the weekend’s blanket travel ban applied to all refugees and to the citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, including Iraqis who had risked their lives to serve as interpreters for the U.S. military.
But here’s what’s keeping me up at night: the new administration’s statement on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What, you may ask, could be so disturbing about what should be a pro forma declaration about the horror of genocide, sympathy for the victims and assurances that we won’t let it happen again?
There is so much wrong with the Trump administration’s statement that it is hard to know where to start. Beyond imposing a travel ban on refugees on a day devoted to remembering the Holocaust, most attention has focused on the statement's failure to mention Jews. The administration’s subsequent clarification that identifying the victims as “innocent people” was a way to acknowledge that other groups also suffered in the Holocaust only added fuel to the fire.
Trump’s remembrance statement spuriously goes on to claim that “in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest,” ignoring the reality, depicted in myriad memoirs and historical accounts, that the horror of the Holocaust was its accomplishment in blotting out light. There were of course manifold instances of heroism and unexpected humanity amid the destruction, but we remember the Holocaust because it demonstrated the kind of utter darkness that humans can bring.
Disturbing as all of this is, the true dark heart of this statement is found in its sickly sweet coda. Trump’s inaugural speech and active first week in office have been shockingly devoid of the aspirational call-outs to the American values of equality, progress and tolerance that have become part and parcel of these ritualized transitions of power. So, it’s almost jarring to see them emerge suddenly in the Holocaust remembrance statement. Yet, here they are in appropriate Trump fashion — bizarrely reduced to a comic-book-level claim — that not only “throughout (his) Presidency,” but throughout his life, he will be on guard “to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”
Finally, the short statement’s concluding assertion that “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world” comes like a punch in the gut. It is galling and unnerving in a way that transcends its insultingly banal saccharinity. As the Trump administration ended its first week in office, American airports became the scene of chaotic and sudden exclusions of hundreds, soon to be thousands, of individuals for whom there is no rational basis for exclusion, save clearly framed religious intolerance. This was revealed in Trump’s assurance that Christian refugees would receive priority consideration for exemption from the exclusions.
In just one week, the president of the United States showed that he could not be relied upon even to decry the Holocaust. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Trump administration demonstrated its utter inability to invoke credibly the actual or aspirational values we associate with our nation. It refused to acknowledge that the targeting and extermination of a specific group was the key to one of humanity’s darkest chapters, even while enacting a policy that specifically sets out to scapegoat and exclude Muslims.
Today, family members of those with green cards or visas do not know when or if they will see their loved ones. Refugees from horrific violence and those who risked their lives to assist the United States who thought they would at last be safe are once again confronting their utter vulnerability. Citizens of Victoria, Texas, are contemplating the burnt remains of their community’s mosque and millions of more privileged Americans are out protesting, deprived of sleep and wondering where we are headed.
With its intentional ignorance of the past and hypocritical deployment of American ideals, President Trump’s vaunted commitment to battling “the forces of evil” and ensuring the prevalence of “love and tolerance” should have us all running — to the library and to the barricades.
Karla Goldman is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Judaic Studies. She directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program in the School of Social Work.