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Trump and Holocaust deniers: What they have in common

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Just a few weeks ago, David Irving, the World War II writer, turned 81. Irving calls himself “one of the best-known historians in the world,” but his Wikipedia entry has a rather more somber description by which History will remember him: “Holocaust denier.”

Irving earned that reputation through a series of books and articles in which he argued that Hitler knew little or nothing about the extermination camps, that it was Himmler who did it all, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz (which he called “a tourist attraction” built by the Poles after the war), and that in any case the number of Jews murdered was nowhere near the millions routinely cited. That virtually every historian over the last 65 years has argued otherwise, and that a vast documentation of first-hand evidence, including Nuremberg testimony, exists disproving Irving’s refutations, has never made any difference to him. (Irving was actually sentenced to three years in jail in Austria for his Holocaust denialism.)

He is temperamental when it comes to criticism. In the 1990s an American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, who taught at Emory University, wrote a book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” in which she called Irving to account. Not mincing her words, she referred to Irving as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers,” quoted Irving himself as a “one-man intifada’ against the official history of the Holocaust,” and later warned that “The impact of Holocaust denial on high school and college students cannot be precisely assessed.”

In 2000, an outraged Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in Great Britain, where the libel laws favor plaintiffs (in this case, the plaintiff was Irving. Defendant Lipstadt had to prove her allegations were true, instead of Irving’s lawyers having to prove they were false). Despite the built-in advantage, Irving lost, badly. The ruling judge declared “that Irving not only denied the Holocaust but is ‘a right-wing, pro-Nazi polemicist’ who mixes with neo-fascists…and for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.” Similar verdicts were reached in other Courts, including in Germany’s highest court.

Does any of this sound familiar? The denial of truth…the deliberate misreprentation of historical fact…appealing to biased people for ideological reasons… manipulating evidence…Yes, this also applies to Donald J. Trump and his extreme enablers, alt-right people like Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and for that matter most of the Republicans in Congress. In fact, the sub-title of Lipstadt’s book, “The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” was a prescient foreshadowing of exactly what we see happening today in the U.S., where right-wing neo-fascists are deliberately playing with people’s minds, making them doubt the truth and even persuading them to dis-remember things they’d seen for themselves.

Lipstadt’s warning about the effects of historical denialism on high school and college students is particularly chilling, when you realize that many of the Trump cult were young in the 1990s. Donald Trump wasn’t a student in 2000—he was already 54 years old. But his mindset is curiously and scarily similar to Irving’s. I can find no evidence that Trump ever read any of Irving’s books (or any other books, for that matter), but there’s plenty of indirect evidence that Trump adopted the Irving methodology of “deny, lie, obfuscate, repeat.” Trump used this formula when he persistently accused Obama of being a foreigner. He uses it when he calls climate-change a “hoax,” when he lies about things like the size of his inaugural crowd, when he says his loss of the popular vote in 2016 was due to massive voter fraud, when he tweets that vaccines are linked to autism, and all the rest of his disinformation.

The impact of these claims on weak-minded conservative minds is predictable. Trump convinces people that any facts that contradict him or with which he disagrees are “fake news,” and should not be believed. As Lipstadt said in a 2017 interview in Esquire, “Once you believe everything is rigged, then the truth doesn’t matter.”

Like the rest of us, Lipstadt has been waiting for the tipping point, when Trump’s supporters start to peel away from him. “It’s very difficult,” she said in the Esquire interview, “but I’m hoping, with the exception of his die-hard supporters, if he does enough of this, people will begin to be skeptical about the things he says.”

That’s what we’re all hoping. We’ve seen no signs of it yet in the Republican electorate. We’re seeing subtle signs in the Senate, where Republicans are juuust beginning to show a little spine. But based on their craven, past performance, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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