It’s a truism, but worth repeating: President Donald Trump can always go lower.
Last Thursday, as Hurricane Florence’s winds and rains began battering the Carolinas, Trump devoted his morning Twitter calisthenics to denying the numbers, generated by a team of public health researchers at George Washington University, of Puerto Ricans who had died in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year.
I rarely quote Trump’s inane tweets at full-length. But these are so appalling that they deserve a complete airing.
No. 1: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the island AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.”
No. 2: “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
So in tweets on the day Hurricane Florence began flooding two states vital to Trump’s political coalition - states full of voters that you can be damn sure he won’t denigrate or question their suffering - Trump denied the personhood, the reality, of 3,000 victims in Puerto Rico. He attributed a series of deeply nefarious motives to his political opponents and also somehow turned himself into Puerto Rico’s misunderstood benefactor, the victim in a relentless Puerto Rican campaign to make him look bad.
The following day, Trump’s Twitter barrage continued: “They hired . GWU Research to tell them how many people had died in Puerto Rico (how would they not know this?). This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER - NO WAY!”
This isn’t just about Trump’s breathtaking narcissism. It is far more serious. It’s about dehumanizing the victims of a monstrous event. For in challenging the numbers of people who died during this rolling, year-long disaster, Trump is, fundamentally, challenging the value of their lives, the human story of their suffering. From drowning, from exposure, from compromised water systems. From diseases that would have been cured had hospitals been functioning and transportation systems running so people could reach those hospitals. From dehydration, from stress, from acute poverty. From a lack of air conditioning during a months’ long power outage, and so on.
Writing, in “The Eichmann Trial,” about those who refuse to accept the Nazis’ genocide against the Jews of Europe, Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote that, “Deniers build their pseudo-arguments on traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes and imagery. They contend that Jews created the myth of the Holocaust in order to bilk the Germans out of billions of dollars and ensure the establishment of Israel. Once again the devious Jews have harmed innocent multitudes - Germans and Palestinians, in particular - for the sake of their own financial and political ends.”
Elsewhere, Lipstadt noted that: “If you devictimize a people you strip them of their moral authority.”
When I was growing up in England, one of the more notorious academic figures was a historian named David Irving, infamous for his repeated denials of the Holocaust. Eventually, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel, claiming that what she had written about him ruined his career. While testifying, he was presented with a statement he had made in 1991, arguing that, “The biggest lie of the lot, the blood libel on the German people, is the lie that the Germans had factories of death in which they liquidated millions of their opponents.”
After a four-week trial, Irving lost his libel case. He lost because, it turns out, facts do matter.
One has to ask why a person would go to such lengths to deny the suffering of others? What political project, what ugly emotions, what warped vision of humanity compel the David Irvings of this world to invest intellectual energy into denying what most people know are undeniable facts?
Of course, hurricanes aren’t holocausts. There was no intent to inflict pain and suffering. What happened in Puerto Rico was a natural disaster compounded by a politically inept response. But in Trump’s inability to accept the epidemiological data on the increased death toll, in his seeing of conspiracies, and in his assumption that Puerto Ricans have nothing better to do than to make up stories of victimhood, one sees all of the psychological hallmarks of Holocaust denialism.
For Holocaust deniers, Germany and its Nazi leadership were the innocents at the wrong end of a smear campaign. Instead of Jews being the Holocaust’s victims, they were its fabricators; Nazis its victims. How fitting that Trump, the man who said some neo-Nazis demonstrating in Charlottesville were “very fine people,” is using the language of Holocaust Denial in his bizarre campaign of Hurricane Denialism. How fitting and how very vile.
Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.”