It would be simple to play the moral outrage card on White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s confused comparison of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and Adolf Hitler’s refraining from gassing enemy troops on the battlefield (but killing millions of Jews with that method to effect his Final Solution). But we detect no anti-Semitism in Spicer’s April 11 statement, for which he apologized twice. Anyone who does has either too much time on their hands, or a different agenda.
What concerns us, however, about Spicer’s Assad-Hitler analogy is the same thing we have been saying for quite some time: The repeated, insensitive drumbeat of Holocaust invocation, whether coming from those on the right or the left, cheapens the Holocaust. With Yom Hashoah falling on April 24, and events memorializing the Holocaust planned for this weekend, this is an important lesson to keep in mind.
Not every bad act is Nazi-like; not every large-scale atrocity is a Holocaust. The regularized and cheapened invocation of the Nazis, the Holocaust and its associated imagery has led to sloppy and careless usage, like that of Spicer or of the many who have been quick to label his boss, President Donald Trump, a fascist. And it makes us worry that the cheapening of the Holocaust will lead to the loss of its significance as a singular, horrific event whose memory must stir humanity’s conscience.
With his added mistaken reference to “Holocaust centers” instead of concentration camps, Spicer turned both JCCs — recently the recipients of more than 100 bomb threats — and the death camps into comedy material. We can visualize comedienne Melissa McCarthy as Spicer on Saturday Night Live making hay of the gaffe. Like the imitators who have dogged other political players in the past, McCarthy’s “Spicey” is more real than Spicer himself, but a defining caricature, nonetheless.
It might be that Spicer just can’t help himself. The Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank opined that Spicer’s gaffes are caused by “a lost connection between brain and mouth. If you’re spokesman for the president, that’s not entirely reassuring,” Milbank wrote. “In his brain he may be thinking ‘concentration camps,’ but from his mouth it comes out ‘Holocaust centers,’ as if they were shopping complexes.”
This is an issue that the Trump administration needs to address. Meanwhile, Spicer might want to take a long, hard look at himself and consider whether it might make sense to change his combative approach with the press, and seek to bring back more dignity and seriousness of purpose to the White House press room.