What is it with Republicans and Hitler? I mean, really, how difficult is it to avoid Hitler gaffes? Some of the best GOP stumbles in recent memory have involved one of two topics: Hitler or rape. Republicans become complete spastic morons when trying to negotiate those two subjects, which is odd, because the other party rarely seems to have any trouble with either. If I were running the RNC, I’d mandate that every time someone registers to run as a Republican, in any race no matter how small (gotta catch ’em young), that person will be presented with an index card with two very simple rules printed on it: (1) Don’t mention rape (and if you do, limit your remarks to “rape is bad”), and (2) Don’t mention Hitler (and if you do, limit your remarks to “Hitler was bad”).
Considering the GOP’s history, Sean Spicer’s amusing Hitler flub (and equally comical attempt at recovery) was probably inevitable. The poor guy’s already been working overtime to craft one of the finest real-life sitcom dumb-guy characters I’ve ever seen; if the White House were a bar called Cheers, Spicer would be Woody. Spicer’s Holocaust stumble immediately reminded me of my favorite Dan Quayle moment. In ’88, the coherence-averse vice-presidential candidate found himself in the hot seat after it was revealed that back in 1980, when he first entered the Indiana Senate race, he’d given a lengthy interview to The Spotlight, Willis Carto’s conspiracy-theory-ridden, Holocaust-denying newspaper (Quayle also accepted a $500 donation from Carto’s PAC). With reporters bombarding the VP candidate with questions regarding his “association” with Carto, Quayle realized that the best way to make the whole affair evaporate into the ether would be to articulately and dynamically explain that he was no Holocaust denier. Knowing he had to bring his A game, the Mighty Q held a press conference…and gave us this masterpiece of lucidity and reason:
Millions of innocent people lost their lives because of the…[pause]...bigotry…[pause]...and Hitlerism that permeated Germany and other parts of the world. It was an obscene period in our nation’s history. No, not our nation’s, but World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century. But in this century’s history. Because we did not have…[pause]...matter of fact we fought…[pause]...Hitlerism, which was a totalitarian form of government.
Well, that silenced the skeptics! It’s a damn good thing Dukakis was such a lousy candidate. (Treat yourself to the video of Quayle’s admission of being a time traveler from another century here.)
Two years later, George H.W. Bush stepped in a similar steaming pile of kot when he used the ol’ “even Hitler wouldn’t do that” approach while condemning Saddam Hussein’s use of “human shields” (foreign visitors and journalists who, so the claim went, were being used as strategic shields to discourage U.S. “coalition” bombing): “I don’t believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in anything of that nature.” When asked to clarify those remarks, Bush stated, “I was told that Hitler did not stake people out against potential military targets,” adding that Hitler, unlike Hussein, respected “the legitimacy of the embassies.”
And with that one completely unnecessary Hitler analogy, Bush was forced to pause his relentless march to war in order to do major damage control. Even Jewish organizations, which were generally quite supportive of Bush’s anti-Hussein rhetoric, castigated the president over his “worse than Hitler” moment.
And now here comes Sean Spicer with his own foray into “even Hitler didn’t do that” territory:
We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.
When given the opportunity to dig his grave deeper, Spicer enthusiastically grabbed the nearest spade. With all the skill of a credentialed historian, he waxed Hitleric about “Holocaust centers” (which I assume are like community centers, but with a way higher turnover of users):
I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no—he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly—I understand your point, thank you….thank you, I appreciate that. There was not—he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent—into the middle of towns. It was brought—so the use of it—I appreciate the clarification there.
Let’s add another rule for Republicans: If, at any time, you find yourself about to speak a sentence that contains the words “even Hitler didn’t” or “even Hitler wasn’t” or just “even Hitler,” stop. Please, stop. You will not help your cause. And although this rule is simple and clear enough to be understood by a child, for the GOP, it might as well be the Voynich manuscript.
Now, some Trump supporters have pointed out that technically Spicer was correct. Even The Washington Post had to concede that, in the manner in which the mush-mouthed press secretary obviously intended to use the term “chemical weapons,” he got it right: Hitler, though sitting atop a stockpile of battle-ready nerve gases, never used them, even as his defeat became more and more imminent. Churchill, on the other hand, sitting atop his own pile, was practically chomping at the bit to cry “Havoc!” and let slip the fogs of war. I’m even willing to concede that from a Nazi homicidal gas-chamber perspective, Spicer wins on a technicality with the “not using gas on his own people” line, as almost all German and Austrian Jewish Holocaust victims were shot rather than gassed (the gas chambers were semi-exclusively reserved for the Polish Jews).
To all of the alt-righters who, these days, find themselves involved in mainstream politics for the first time, to all of those former outsiders who’ve spent the past week attempting to untangle Spicer’s contorted verbiage and explain to people what he actually meant, to all of you who found yourselves becoming more and more frustrated by the fact that Spicer, though correct in the essence of what he was trying to convey, didn’t have it in him to just stop and think a little bit about his words and the best way to use them, my message is: Welcome to the GOP, assholes. This is how we roll. Our candidates and elected officials tend to have communication issues, and we the faithful are always on the defensive, having to explain the words and communicate the ideas of people who bafflingly decided to enter a field in which having the ability to speak well and communicate ideas effectively is kind of a necessity. George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, Dan Quayle, Rick Perry, Clayton Williams, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell, etc., etc., etc. These are not necessarily stupid people (although a couple are outright morons); they just seem to have been mentored by William Archibald Spooner.
So, Trumpers, welcome to our briar patch. Enjoy your stay. Try not to get too badly pricked.
But here’s the thing: With most incoherent GOPs, there is, at least, an underlying set of ideological principles behind the gaffes and solecisms. With someone like Sarah Palin, for example, we had a pretty good idea what her beliefs were, so when she’d serve up another plate of shredded word salad, we’d still kind of “know” what she was trying to get at. We’d have at least a rough idea of what she was struggling to express. That made it easier to explain her to others.
But with Trump, who the hell knows what he believes anymore? Who the hell knows what he ever believed? During the election, hardcore Trumpers were willing to excuse the man for his lifetime of shape-shifting political allegiances and positions. Trump got a pass because throughout the primaries and the general, he came off as a guy with hardcore beliefs and a master plan to make them a reality. But now, with Trump having seemingly flip-flopped on Syria, NATO, China, Janet Yellen, interest rates, the Export-Import Bank, and Goldman Sachs, Trumpers don’t know what to think anymore. The popular theory is that the recent round of about-facing is due to a backstage tug-of-war between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. But even if that’s true, it tells us nothing about what Trump—you know, the actual president—believes. Where does he really stand on military intervention in Syria? Has he abandoned Putin for Xi? Trump is still the same political cipher he always was, except this time the shit really matters.
Trump is modern art. He’s a blank canvas, or a canvas with random paint tossed onto it by a monkey. You see what you choose to see. I read so many contradictory theories last week about why Trump “really” did what he did in Syria, it was like watching a thousand art critics analyze a Kandinsky. Here’s some random crap on a canvas; the best explanation wins a prize. You came for white nationalism? You leave with On White II. Trump is the living embodiment of Tom Wolfe’s description of modern art in The Painted Word: It’s not the art itself that matters; it’s the “persuasive theory” the viewer cooks up in his own head when staring at something that is purposely blank or purposely chaotic.
Trump is a modern-art masterpiece. His rejection of presidential realism makes even his underlings’ slips-of-the-tongue the topic of fierce debate. Was Spicer’s Holocaust gaffe actually a consciously planned “dog whistle” shout-out to Trump’s anti-Jewish supporters? Was Spicer’s remark a sly, subtle endorsement of the claim that no Jews died in gas chambers? Was Trump, via Spicer, giving a very meta thumbs-up to Holocaust denial?
Or is Spicer just a stuttering fool?
Who knows? Who cares? As with all modern art, it’s not about the canvas but the criticism. As a longtime partisan hack, I’m just sitting back and enjoying the show without worrying too much about which Trump interpretation is correct. But I will admit this much: After years of watching GOP naturalists screw up painting after painting, setting out to depict a simple fruit bowl or flower vase only to end up with an incomprehensible monstrosity, I kind of like the idea that I’m witnessing a guy who’s going for incomprehensible monstrosity on purpose.
After all, it’s always a thrill to watch a master at work.
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