Even those who resisted the fallacious attempt to label him as an anti-Semite had to admit that former President Donald Trump had to bear some responsibility for the coarsening of public discourse in recent years. Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric, his willingness to mock and abuse his critics and political foes, and his willingness to stretch or to altogether ignore the truth while boasting of his own achievements were not what Americans generally expected from anyone in public life, let alone from a president.
His many fans, however, liked it. Compared to politicians who watch their words and are always careful to avoid offense or even to give a straight answer to questions, they considered him to be more authentic. And they loved the way his trolling of the chattering classes, which pundits often mislabeled as gaffes but which were usually calculated efforts to stir the pot, drove mainstream media analysts crazy. To this day, many otherwise savvy political observers have failed to understand the truth of journalist Salena Zito’s famous analysis in which she noted that his critics took him literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.
Still, it was true that in the Trump era, taboos against extreme or abusive speech—already having been undermined by Twitter culture—seemed to collapse altogether. It took misquotes and out-of-context citations, like the widely accepted but still inaccurate claim that he said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were “very fine people,” to indict him for hate speech. But it’s also true that in a country where a president can be a Twitter troll, the guardrails against incitement of all kinds were down. That didn’t make it his fault if white supremacists or far-left groups spouted hate, but it can also be truthfully asserted that he did little or nothing to arrest the way American discourse headed into the sewer on his watch.
But if that is true about Trump, who can we blame for a new round of over-the-top divisive rhetoric coming from those who claim to oppose him and his followers in the name of democracy and decency?
As we’ve seen over and over again in the last year, the adherents of neither major political party have a monopoly on inappropriate speech, especially analogies to the Nazis and the Holocaust.
In particular, some on the right have repeatedly compared vaccine mandates and restrictions to those used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to target Jews. The list of those who have done so is long, but it includes Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel, and most recently, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio). While mandate policies are debatable, they are nothing like what happened under the Nazis and to make even a casual claim along those lines does have the effect of reducing the Holocaust to nothing more than a nasty policy debate rather than mass murder.
If that is true—and it is—then why is it that those who deprecate those comments seem to think there’s nothing wrong with making their own inappropriate Nazi analogies?
Trump has been called a Nazi ever since he came down the Trump Tower escalator into our lives in 2015. The Jewish Democratic Council even released a video during the 2020 presidential campaign comparing his administration to the Nazi era, and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, who is now President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism Envoy, saw nothing wrong with it.
She isn’t the only one on the left who believes what they consider to be the awfulness of Trump and his voters to justify violating the same rules of decency that so offend them when Republicans talk about vaccine or mask mandates.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the likely Democratic candidate for governor of that state this year, compared Gov. Ron DeSantis to Adolf Hitler in a recent radio interview. When challenged on this, Fried, who is Jewish, doubled down on the specious analogy, claiming that DeSantis’s stand against critical race theory indoctrination, mask mandates in schools and differences over voter-integrity laws made him a would-be Florida Führer “in a lot of ways.”
Even the Florida Anti-Defamation League felt compelled to label her statement as “inappropriate, offensive and trivialize this unique tragedy in human history.”
Which makes it fair to ask, who is coarsening American public discourse now?
The answer is, as it was from 2017 to 2021, the president of the United States.
Though elected to restore normalcy to American politics, Biden has spent much of his first year in office lighting as many fires as Trump, though—thanks to the willingness of most of the mainstream media to give him a pass for anything he does because he isn’t Trump—he hasn’t received as much criticism as he deserves.
Last week, Biden pretty much summed up everything that is wrong with American politics with a speech in Georgia on behalf of Democratic voting legislation in which he asserted that those who oppose him on both the substance of the bills and the effort to end Senate filibusters are the moral equivalent of racists and rebels.
Biden said the choice on his legislative agenda was this: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
In a rare press conference on Wednesday (which made headlines for his shocking and unforgivably ill-considered gaffe in predicting a Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as for casting doubt on the legitimacy of elections if his “reforms” weren’t passed), Biden tried to deny that what he had said was divisive. But in plain language, he labeled 52 members of the Senate, including two from his own party, who oppose ending the filibuster as being on the side of segregationist thugs like Wallace and Connor, as well as the president of the Confederacy.
As a practical matter, Biden’s decision to escalate the debate backfired. Within days, both of the Democrat holdouts—Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.)—made it clear that his demands had only strengthened their resolve to defend the principle that a narrow majority should not be enough to end debate in a body the Founders intended to act as a brake on efforts to enact wholesale changes.
But it has done more than that.
Biden’s willingness to draw a line in the sand in which the half of the country that opposes his policies are little better than racist traitors is every bit as bad, if not worse, than anything Trump ever said. It’s also served as a green light for statements such as that of Fried and others seeking not just to cheapen the memory of the Holocaust, but to make American politics even more of a toxic wasteland than it already has become.
If people like Fried, who like to boast of their adherence to Jewish values and knowledge of the Holocaust, truly believes that her political opponents are Nazis, then what’s to stop anyone from not just using similar speech, but to behave in ways that the speakers may not intend but constitute incitement to who knows what unforeseen acts?
In a political environment when it’s not just ordinary citizens but leading politicians adopting the “anyone I don’t like is Hitler” rule, it’s difficult to argue that there is any way to find our way back to a less apocalyptic way of looking at issues and elections. But that is where Biden—without any help from Trump or any of his opponents—is leading us. In doing so, he’s not just incentivizing his party to use more inappropriate Holocaust analogies, but doing exactly what he accused Trump of doing with consequences that may prove even more consequential.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.