Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

The Nazification of America

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

“Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9
London, 1934

I know about Godwin’s Law: the first side of an argument to invoke a comparison to Hitler loses.

I also know that the path to empowering an autocrat like Hitler is subtler than one might think.

Sometimes the comparison is meaningful.

Political scientist David Rothkopf noticed an explosion of hate messages on Twitter. From 20 or 30 in a lifetime to thousands since 2016. All kinds of attacks and threats. It isn’t hard to guess what happened in 2016. In one series of tweets Rothkopf stated:

It is impossible not to conclude that something happened that year that made such attacks more acceptable. It is not just the advent of social media that lets cowards reach out and harass their targets anonymously. That existed before.

It is not just the “permission” offered these groups as Trump and his ethno-nationalist movement rose to power. It is more than that. Trump, Bannon, Miller, their Russian bot armies of supporters, and others did more than give permission... they actively encouraged the hate.

They did by using code words, they did with the embrace of those code words and their themes by Breitbart and Fox and other media that have focused on division, stoking fears and promoting hate. They did it in Charlottesville and through their immigration policies.

They did it when Trump viciously attacked Mexicans, singled out African-Americans with his transparent race-baiting, proposed and implemented policies targeting Muslims, embraced the code himself with the use of terms like “globalists”... and got away with it. Grew stronger.

These vermin have gained institutional support of a sort they have not had since Nazi Germany. I use that reference cautiously. 33 members of my family were lost in the Holocaust. My father and his parents barely escaped. It is not an analogy to be invoked lightly.

Definitely not an analogy to be invoked lightly, but one becoming difficult to avoid. The similarities are striking: A people with a false sense of victimization elected a charismatic leader who knew how to justify and stroke their resentment. He attracted them with the promise to halt their perceived decline and to make their country great again. He gratified them by persecuting the ones his supporters hated and held responsible for their misfortune. He organized a special police force to go after those targets, raiding them at all hours, separating their families, and “concentrating” and imprisoning them in detention camps. And he justified it by encouraging his supporters’ delusion that they are racially superior and are the real victims.

Who does that make you think of?

Jorge Garcia was only ten years old when his aunt brought him to the US without papers. His story is reported here: how he was taken from his distraught wife and children and sent back to a country he does not know. “Since I’ve got here, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep,” he says. “It’s like my body wants to rest, but I’m not able to with all this thought I’ve got on my mind and the stress…. During the night, out of nowhere in my sleep, I start thinking about the whole situation and I lose my sleep.”(2)

A child when he came to this country, just one year too old to be considered a “dreamer,” he was neither a “murderer” nor a “rapist.” He worked hard and contributed to society. He raised a family, had a wife and two children, whom he can no longer see. “I used to tell them, good night, every night,” he says of his kids. “And now, if I can get a signal, I’ll call them, but it’s not the same. I’m not actually there.”

Garcia tried to work within the system. He reported to immigration authorities. He spent thousands of dollars on attorneys’ fees to apply for legal status. Unfortunately, his lawyer filed the wrong paperwork and ruined the application. Nevertheless, Garcia was allowed to stay, until the Trump Administration took over.

People like Garcia who return to Mexico from the US are not easily accepted by Mexican society. Mexicans derisively call them “pocho” and ridicule them for their foreign ways. The returnees do not know how to fit in, or how to navigate the Mexican bureaucracy. Their real home is in the US, which does not want them.

Garcia is not exceptional. ICE is going after people who have lived in this country as many as 30 years, calling it “interior removals.” They raid green card couple interviews and pick up the undocumented spouse. They punish people who try to comply with the system. The children who have a parent suddenly wrenched from their lives are devastated, suffering anxiety, depression, and nightmares.(3) Yet in true Orwellian fashion, the party that perpetrates this proclaims itself “pro-life” and pro-“family values.”

These children are not just “collateral damage.” Their suffering is intentional. The Trump Administration has adopted a policy of forcibly separating children from their undocumented parents, to deter others from following their example. These families are given a “choice”: either accept deportation, or have the children sent to shelters while the parents are imprisoned in detention camps.(4) Recognizing the extreme trauma this inflicts on children, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have condemned this practice, but that carries no weight with Trump and his policy advisors. Some readers will no doubt be thinking, “So what, they asked for it; they came here illegally.” But many of these families cannot go back; they would be killed. That is why they came to the US, and under normal circumstances they would qualify for asylee status.

Such is the case of S.S., a seven-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), being held in a Chicago facility run by the Department of Homeland Security.(5) Her mother, whose life was in danger in her native country, tried to do things legally. When she came here with her daughter she went directly to border agents and said she was seeking asylum. We have (or at least we once had) a legal procedure for this, and this situation fit the requirements. The asylum officer who screened her determined that she had a case. But she did not get to complete the process.

Four days after she arrived immigration officers in San Diego removed her daughter from her presence, and then handcuffed her. Meanwhile she could hear her daughter screaming. For four days she was not allowed to speak to her and was not even told where she was.

Over the next four months she was finally allowed to speak to her daughter, who was now in Chicago, only six times, by phone only with no visual contact. During each call the child was crying.

Nazis separated children from their parents. So did this country to African-American slaves. The more things change.

The separation of families is deliberate government policy. It teaches a hard lesson to people who learned to look up to this country as a refuge for immigrants fleeing persecution. And it gratifies the basest instincts of a constituency at best indifferent and at worst deriving pleasure from the suffering of people whom they consider less than human.

And if anyone thought the Trump Administration learned its lesson, or was at least swayed by public outrage, reports have surfaced that the atrocities continue. The Administration has been taking migrant children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and dumping them in Mexico, where they may have no ties or support system and are totally on their own - a highly dangerous situation.(6)

This is the new normal. We have a President who has demolished every respectable standard of behavior, who shows disdain for this country’s allies and punitive vindictiveness towards any perceived enemy including blue state voters, who uses his office to materially benefit himself and his family, and who appoints incompetent extremists and saboteurs bent on undermining the departments that they lead. A man who openly expresses racist sentiments as well as deep contempt for women, and who encourages bigots to drop their inhibitions and come out into the open. A panderer who thinks he can make the country safer by flooding it with guns. An opportunist who slashes services to the poor to enrich the wealthy. A supposed leader who lies as naturally as he breathes, who has lost the respect of the entire world, and who has squandered any moral credibility the US may once have had. In short, an authoritarian head of state beholden to no moral principles whatsoever. Yet many Christians in the name of their “Christianity” swear unquestioning allegiance to him, and so does one major political party.

It is hard to imagine that anyone who would have predicted this before 2016 would have found believers. Yet here we are. There is only one way this could have happened: through the exploitation of pervasive fear and resentment. On his hit TV show The Apprentice Trump derived great pleasure from turning people against each other. Contestants who refused to betray their colleagues were summarily fired. That was just entertainment - or so we thought. But now he runs the country that way. And he understands what every fascist demagogue before him knew: you can hold onto power by inflaming the fears that divide people, identifying a class of others whom it’s OK to hate, and presenting yourself as a national savior from the threatening horde. “Only I can fix it.”

But We Don’t Have Death Camps (or Do We?)

The critical point is not whether Trump’s America and Hitler’s Germany are in every way the same. They are not. But they are uncomfortably similar. To be sure, we do not have death camps on the scale of the Nazis. But yes, we actually even have death camps. People have been dying in our detention camps due to oppressive conditions and substandard medical care. Asylum seekers are held for indefinite terms for no stated reason. Family members are separated.(7) And while we may not be performing mass executions on site, we outsource the death part of “death camp” by shifting it south of the border, sending people back to extremely dangerous environments, especially in El Salvador, knowing that their death is virtually certain. (I cannot help thinking of the St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees refused entry into the United States in 1939, its passengers sent back to Europe to die in concentration camps.) And as for medical experiments, reports have even surfaced of mass involuntary hysterectomies performed on detained women, as well as flagrant disregard of COVID-prevention protocols, turning human bodies into things, to be treated with disregard or worse.(8)

As if this were not enough, Trump has effectively criminalized the asylum process, locking the border and leaving many desperate people with no way out. Legitimate asylum seekers are now classified as “illegal,” justifying their mistreatment. Things like this happened during the Holocaust. Call this "Nazi lite" if you like; there are too many similarities to ignore. What these inhumane systems most strikingly have in common is the mindset, the divisive exploitation of fear, that gave rise to them both.

To those who take offense at my invoking the Holocaust I would say this. I am speaking as the son of a Holocaust survivor. And I would say that what this country did to Black people during the course of its history is comparable to the Holocaust. Forced abduction, displacement and detention, the destruction of families, forced labor to the point of exhaustion, rape and torture on a massive scale, treating Black and Jewish bodies as disposable garbage, even pogroms (like the Juneteenth Tulsa race massacre among many, many others) are all points in common. There are many more similarities than people are willing to admit. And when you add the years of Reconstruction and beyond, with their lynchings and other systematic violence against Black people as well as deprivation of basic human rights, to the over two centuries of slavery in the United States, what Black people experienced lasted far longer, and its psychological, social, and economic traumas persist to this day.

This is the legacy that Trump’s followers, with their Confederate flags and monuments to slave owners, want to revive and celebrate. This is “making America great again.” It feels as if the South, with Trump’s encouragement, is trying to fight the Civil War all over again, only this time instead of the blue and the gray, it is red against blue. (Right now the Administration is moving to defund “Democrat cities” while it bails out red-state Trump-supporting farmers - an aggressive, vindictive, and totally outrageous abuse of political power.) Members of a movement that fought to destroy the union are being held up as patriots. Their numerous statues, erected during Jim Crow to intimidate Black people, are now defended as cherished symbols of American history.

We have even seen the deployment of federal troops on the streets of our cities to police peaceful American citizens demonstrating views with which the Administration disagrees, in flagrant violation of the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. (Can you imagine Trump sending troops to quell a violent neo-Nazi demonstration like the one in Charlottesville? I can’t either.) The evening news has shown us scenes we only thought possible in backward dictatorships. At the same time, our President is declaring the upcoming election illegitimate even before it takes place. He claims it is rigged against him, while he tries to suppress opposition voters by closing polling places, onerous ID laws, and sabotaging the postal system. He even pushed for delaying the election. He is trying to ensure that if the Democrats win, the result will never be accepted. He exploits the pandemic to his political advantage, insisting repeatedly that mail-in voting, meant to keep people from getting sick, will result in fraud - even while he himself votes by mail. It is a brazen attempt to steal the election in broad daylight, dealing one final decisive blow to our democratic institutions.

Many have wondered why Trump treats European democracies with such contempt, yet seems desperate to please Vladimir Putin. Does Putin have something on him? The explanation is probably much simpler: Putin is just the type of autocrat Trump wishes he could become. He feels a far stronger affinity with Putin than he ever could with Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, or Angela Merkel. And that is where he would like to take this country.

Another Nazi-like aspect of the Trump Administration is the enjoyment of cruelty for its own sake. That was perhaps the most terrifying thing about Nazism: the object was to make people suffer as much as possible, not for any political end (the Nazis would have fared better had they devoted more resources to the war effort and fewer to their concentration camps), but purely for the sake of making them suffer. We have that also with Trump. How else to explain his irrational determination to destroy the Affordable Care Act and deprive millions of people of health care right in the middle of a pandemic that, as of this writing, has killed over 200,000 Americans, with not even a pretense of putting anything in its place? Claiming he is for covering “preexisting conditions” while trying to dismantle the only coverage of those conditions millions of people have? Another example: the Republican push to decrease the weekly stimulus payment from $600 to $200. Many people need the full $600 to survive, including not being driven out of their homes because they cannot pay the rent. So why deprive them of it? Because, Republicans say, giving them that money will encourage them not to work. But these people had jobs and lost them. They want to work. They want their jobs back. What kind of work do Republicans expect them to find in the most contracted economy since the Great Depression? There is a sadistic irony in the Republican rationalization of this measure.

The New Jews

Finally, autocratic systems like Nazism and Trumpism maintain their power by isolating a disliked minority and stoking fear and rage against it. This is how they unite their supporters. In Nazi Germany, the history of European Christianity made Jews the perfect candidates for this role. In Trump’s America, Black people and immigrants are the natural choice. They are today’s Jews. So Trump rails about “Antifa” and denies systemic racism while Black people are brutalized in the streets and in their homes. And ICE stages raids at unpredictable hours to kidnap and detain “illegal” immigrants and throw them into detention camps. Yes, many are illegal if you outlaw attempts to save one’s life by fleeing to a safe place before it is too late. And it makes no difference that many make valuable contributions to society. Trump and his followers do not even call them “immigrants.” To them the preferred term is “aliens,” to drive home the point that they consider such people less than human.

Which brings us back to Godwin’s Law. Mike Godwin, creator of the law that bears his name, states that his law has exceptions. The Charlottesville white supremacists are one. When asked whether it is right to compare them to Nazis he broadcast an emphatic yes: “By all means, compare these [expletive deleted] to the Nazis. Again and again. I’m with you.” When asked to explain he replied: “These horrible events, both the death of Ms. [Heather] Heyer [who was killed by a Charlottesville demonstrator] and also the violence, but also the poisoning of public culture, these things are all horrifying to me. I think that any moral person has to see these things and bear witness and think about how to talk about them.”(9)

Here is one last, haunting similarity to the past: We know what is happening at the border and in the detention camps; there has been no dearth of coverage online and on TV. When the first baby was taken from her mother’s arms, we all should have felt alarmed. Such actions becoming standard policy should have delegitimized Trump for good. Yet just as happened during the original Nazis, good people went about their business as though none of this were happening. These policies and related atrocities have had no impact on the President’s popularity or prospects for reelection. And no one can plausibly invoke the excuse that they did not know. Have we really progressed that much since the time of the “real” Nazis?

When I was a child growing up in the Jewish community, one question that always arose when we remembered the Holocaust was, “Can it happen here?”

Unfortunately, we now have an answer.


(1) David Rothkopf, “https://twitter.com/djrothkopf/status/974982251770499075,” March 17, 2018.

(2) Niraj Warikoo, “In a Strange Land: Deported from Michigan, Jorge Garcia Feels Lost in Mexico,” Detroit Free Press, February 5, 2018.

(3) Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, “The Americans Left Behind by Deportation,” New York Times, February 28, 2018.

(4) Dora Galacatos, Alan Shapiro and Brett Stark, “The Cruel Ploy of Taking Immigrant Kids From Their Parents,” New York Times, February 28, 2018.

(5)Rex Huppke, “A frightened child in Chicago and an immigration policy unbecoming of America,” Chicago Tribune, February 28, 2018.

(6)Caitlin Dickerson, “U.S. Expels Migrant Children from Other Countries to Mexico: Children from Central America Are Being Sent Across the Border to Mexico, Where They May Have No Family to Retrieve Them,” New York Times, October 30, 2020.

(7)Justin Glawe, “Immigrant Deaths in Private Prisons Explode Under Trump,” Daily Beast, May 30, 2017.

(8)Rachel Treisman, “Whistleblower Alleges “Medical Neglect,” Questionable Hysterectomies ofICE Detainees,” National Public Radio, September 16, 2020.

(9)Abby Ohlheiser, “The Creator of Godwin’s Law Explains Why Some Nazi Comparisons Don’t Break His Famous Internet Rule,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017.

March 2018 / November 2020