Against the Current, No. 202, September/
Hope Is in the Streets
— The Editors
Talking to Those on the Border
— Suzi Weissman interviews Myrna Santiago & Alicia Rusoja
What the Sanders' Campaign Opens
— Dianne Feeley
Making the Master Race Great Again
— Steven Carr
The Central Park Five Frameup
— Malik Miah
Algerian Feminists Organize
— Margaux Wartelle interviews Wissem Zizi
Palestine: Imperative for Action
— Bill V. Mullen
The Crisis of British Politics
— Suzi Weissman interviews Daniel Finn
- Siwatu Salama-Ra Conviction Overturned
Contested Terrains on Campus
— Howard Brick
Competition, Inequality & Class Struggle
— Kim Moody
Learning Through Struggle
— Marian Swerdlow
What Is Working-Class Literature?
— Matthew Beeber
A Debate That Never Ends
— Steve Downs
Fascism--What Is It Anyway?
— Martin Oppenheimer
Bolivia's Legacy of Resistance
— Marc Becker
China: From Peasants to Workers
— Promise Li
- In Memoriam
In Memoriam: James Cockcroft, 1935-2019
— Patrick M. Quinn
THROUGH MUCH OF July, Donald Trump and his supporters have targeted four progressive congresswomen of color — Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley — with repeated calls to “send them back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
As a U.S. citizen, I believe someone who so dislikes both democratic governance and being president to all Americans should be the person who needs to go.
Or, as presidential candidate Kamala Harris put it, he “needs to go back from where he came from and leave that office.” But as director of the only academic center in Indiana devoted exclusively to the study of the Holocaust and genocide, I view such statements — and the Republican Party’s desultory response to them — with alarm.
How Does It Begin?
State-sponsored persecution, targeting, and eventual genocide inevitably all rest upon mounds of careless, impromptu, and what at the time appeared as harmless remarks that preceded action.
Forcible relocation and deportation of Jews in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia began in September 1941. Yet Adolf Hitler’s authorization for such measures did not take these countries by surprise, suddenly springing full-formed from the forehead of Nazi ideology.
Rather, these dramatic measures came about as a result of smaller and incremental previous measures and statements. They gradually justified dehumanizing friends, neighbors and even family members who had, until the Nazis came to power, lived peacefully alongside other community members as full-fledged citizens.
The preceding incremental measures and pronouncements almost always bear a larger worldview, shaped through its own haphazard accumulations of the incrementally odious. Well before 1941, the German Reichstag unanimously passed the Nuremberg Race Laws in September 1935.
These laws effectively stripped German citizens of their citizenship on the basis of racial ideology. They prohibited German Jews, who less than 10 years earlier were full-fledged citizens, from marrying or having sexual relations with other Germans. They defined as Jewish or “mongrel” anyone who had one out of four Jewish grandparents. Even if someone had converted to Christianity but had two Jewish grandparents, the German state still targeted that person as Jew and alien.
The noxious analogue to Trump’s comments comes not from the Nuremberg Race Laws, but from the language that both preceded and enabled this legislation. The 1920 Nazi Party platform made “German blood” a requirement for citizenship.
Jews who previously held citizenship, along with other “non-citizens,” would live in Germany only as foreigners. Attendees at later Nazi rallies regularly chanted “Jews Out!” A German toy manufacturer even capitalized on its popularity, selling a Monopoly-like board game under the German title “Juden Raus.”
Trump and his supporters have not yet called for stripping American citizens of their citizenship because they dare to criticize his presidency, which some see as a metonym for the homeland. But that should provide little comfort to those concerned with what the Israeli journalist Amira Hass called the “master race ideology” permeating this administration.
As Hass noted in 2005 with regard to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, this ideology divides “the world into superior and inferior races” and denies “the principle of equality among human beings.”(1) While Hass called upon modern Israeli society to reject the perpetuation of this ideology amid its treatment of Palestinians, the explanatory power of this ideology applies equally well to other circumstances and times.
One only has to consider the current treatment of immigrants and refugees worldwide, many of whom are women and children. At the U.S. southern border, Border Patrol agents have separated children from their parents, put boys and girls into cages, and denied even toddlers held in detention basic sanitary conditions and necessities.
While some have deplored overly simplistic comparisons between detention facilities and concentration camps, let us not overlook a larger point. Nazis have no corner on master race master narratives, which appear to be alive and well today.
While comparisons between past and present always run the risk of trivializing important historical distinctions, the refusal to make any historical comparison also runs the risk of tone-deaf hypocrisy.
True, no one has carted off Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, or Pressley to Dachau-like detention centers because of their political beliefs. But then, how else could one justify letting children sit in their own feces and at the same time call upon anyone of color who dares to criticize such policies to go back to where they came from?
The master race ideology is alive and well in 2019 — ready to spring forward at a moment’s notice — capable of deeming even a child as subhuman Other.
As I was writing this essay, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States for 2019 took place in El Paso, Texas. On Saturday, August 3, police took Patrick Wood Crusius into custody. Wood, a 21-year-old white male, killed 22 people and injured 24 others at a Walmart store.
Many of the victims were either Mexican or Mexican-American. Shortly before the shootings took place, a white nationalist manifesto attributed to Crusius appeared on 8chan, a now defunct message board many considered a haven for white supremacism.
While predictable debates have ensued over whether the manifesto took its cue from Trump’s anti-immigrant vitriol, the manifesto reveals some fundamental things about how master race master narratives work.
First, those who draw from its ideological well end up making remarkably consistent utterances across both time and space that reinforce and bolster the same message. Without any conscious coordination of this messaging, even if eventual actions to come out of this speech radically diverge, the utterers need not ever meet or strategize to keep playing on Team White Nationalist.
Deranged mass murderer or President of the United States: who made the following statements? “The Democrat party will own America and they know it. They have already begun the transition by pandering heavily to the Hispanic voting bloc in the 1st Democratic Debate. They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters.”
Or this: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country [sic], like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!” The first comes from the manifesto attributed to Crusius. The second comes from a tweet Trump issued in June 2018.(2)
Both of these passages also reveal a second remarkably consistent and powerful attribute of the master race ideology. Its adherents almost always never see themselves as the masters. Rather, master race ideologies work to seize the high ground of the aggrieved and long-suffering victim.
The master race is both precarious and contingent, its manifest destiny just out of reach. It almost always is beset by invasion and infestation, the pandering and scheming of powerful elites, and ungrateful non-white arrivistes who now have the audacity to badmouth the beleaguered homeland whose generosity once took them or their parents in.
Such auto-victimization of the master race ideology is never complete, since the existential threats to its order always lurk just beyond the border, and its struggle to restore what is owed requires eternal and incessant vigilance.
Dehumanizing Their Target
While current iterations of master race ideology do not inevitably lead to future holocausts and genocide, genocides occurring since the Nazi Holocaust inevitably have drawn from master race ideologies. Such ideologies are not coy. They almost always speak first in less and less measured tongues of dehumanization.
Extremist Hutu media repeatedly referred to ethnic Tutsis as cockroaches in the months leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Khmer Rouge spoke of their political opponents as cancer and infections before murdering one million Cambodian citizens between 1975 and 1979.(3)
And in Burma, national leaders have repeatedly denied citizenship to ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Even though the vast majority have lived in Burma for generations, the government claims they originate from Bangladesh and therefore have no legitimate claim to citizenship in Myanmar, the military dictatorship’s name for Burma.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 700,000 have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 where they live in overcrowded detention camps, uprooted from their homeland and stripped of their citizenship. In December 2018, the Museum found “compelling evidence that genocide had been committed against the Rohingya.”(4)
Trump and his apologists have of course doubled down upon invocations of their master race ideology, also known as Make America Great Again, trying to shift attention to the alleged antisemitism of Omar and others. There are legitimate differences of opinion concerning what constitutes antisemitism or legitimate criticism of Israel, or how the American Jewish community figures within foreign policy toward Israel.
However, if what you want is to confront antisemitism, then even tolerating a master race ideology is a morally bereft way to do so. There are better ways to confront, rather than dehumanize, elected representatives who also happen to be women of color.
If the problem truly is about using an antisemitic trope, then exchanging that for a racist one doesn’t merely tolerate master race ideology. The exchange makes it great again.
- Hass, Amira. “Using the Holocaust.” Against the Current 116 (2005). https://solidarity-us.org/atc/116/p277/.
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- Stephens, Bret. “Trump’s Rhetoric and Conservative Denial.” The New York Times 8 Aug. 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/opinion/trump-el-paso-shooting-nationalism.html.
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- Benesch, Susan et al. “Dangerous Speech: A Practical Guide.” The Dangerous Speech Project 31 Dec. 2018. https://dangerousspeech.org/guide/.
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- United States. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Burma.” Confront Genocide. https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide/cases/burma/introduction/the-plight-of-the-rohingya.
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September-October 2019, ATC 202