Bender describes Kelly giving the former president a rapid history lesson and, per The Guardian’s reporting, an “undeterred” Trump noting Germany’s economic gains under Hitler. Kelly is said to have responded, “The German people would have been better off poor than subjected to the Nazi genocide,” adding, “You cannot ever say anything supportive of Adolf Hitler. You just can’t.”
In predictable fashion, Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington told CNN this never happened, “This is totally false. President Trump never said this. It is made up fake news, probably by a general who was incompetent and was fired.” Who do you believe here: the ex-president who regularly cozied up to White supremacists and dictators or the retired Marine Corps general? And next question: Why does this matter now?
To the first, as Trump’s biographer and a student of the man, I won’t bother to hide my own conclusion: I believe Kelly. And to the second, only those who make partisan excuses for their side, no matter what, could ignore the peril posed by leaders who fail to grasp the most tragic lessons of history or, worse, distort what is known about the past for their own purposes. That this could be the case is only made more dangerous by the hold Trump continues to have on the GOP, and the influence he holds over his most fervent followers.
At a time when survivors of Nazism and the Holocaust are dying out, it’s up to the rest of us — especially those in leadership positions — to make sure their truths are preserved as part of humanity’s effort to avoid similar tragedies in the future. This is what we mean when we say, “Never again.”
Consider, first, Trump’s oft-demonstrated admiration for today’s dictators and strongmen. Whether Kim Jong Un of North Korea or Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump has expressed respect — and even envy — for the way autocrats operate. During the 2016 election, when Barack Obama was president, Trump said Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” As president, he said of Kim, the murderous dictator: “We fell in love.”
Beyond his affection for autocrats, we find Trump’s bizarre views on America’s struggle to defeat fascism in Europe. This is the man who, as reported in The Atlantic, allegedly called the soldiers and sailors who died in World War II “suckers” and “losers.” There again, Trump’s team tried the “fake news” counterattack, but coming in the context of the then-president’s reluctant visit to a cemetery for fallen US fighters, the denial rang hollow.
The trouble here is not just that a man appears ignorant of one of the most elemental, extensively documented and searing episodes in history. The real problem is that he is a leader to a vast number of elected officials and other American supporters, and apparently not committed to the work of preserving the lessons of fascism’s dangers and the struggles that have been waged against it and similar ideologies. When a prominent person observes there are “very fine people” among White supremacists or fails to condemn like-minded Proud Boys who commit acts of violence in his name, he does damage to the shared understanding that has allowed us to learn and hold onto the lessons of a tragic past.
With the generation that survived the Holocaust passing on, some have expressed the fear that humanity will fail to meet their call for us to never forget. Forgetting is a dangerous thing, especially at a time when autocrats seem to be on the rise and democracies that foster equality and liberty are under threat.
Here in America, we have seen the spectacle of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene apologizing for, first, comparing mask mandates meant to slow the spread of Covid-19 to the Nazi treatment of Jews — and then, weeks later, expressing something very similar: In discussing her opposition to the Biden administration’s campaign to promote Covid-19 vaccinations, she called teams of health care workers “medical brown shirts.” As anyone educated in history knows, the Brown Shirts were members of the Nazi party’s paramilitary. In using the term as she did, Greene insulted the vaccine teams, promulgated a dangerous way of thinking about an urgent health matter, and cheapened the suffering of millions who were the Nazis’ victims.
When Greene abuses history and well-meaning medical providers, and endangers Americans with her ridiculous pronouncements, and as Trump appears to find something to admire in fascism and White supremacy, they are not just offering us their ignorance. They are encouraging their millions of followers to forget what must be remembered. They are also offering legitimacy to those who would go further into Holocaust denial and dangerous populism.
A similar process has already begun in the case of a tragic event in America’s own history — a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol January 6 — just six months ago. In recently blocking the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Trump-inspired attack, Republican lawmakers have actively engaged in making it easier to forget that the violent, profoundly undemocratic effort to stop confirmation of the 2020 election ever happened.
Forgetting, of course, allows history to repeat itself. What’s most alarming is the possibility that this could be just what Trump, Greene and others want.