Trump refers to Hispanic migrants as if they are an infectious disease while he detains them in inhumane detention centers. We must learn from history.
In an article published in 2007, Andreas Musolff, a scholar working in ‘critical discourse analysis’, showed how the metaphors employed by Hitler in Mein Kampf advanced the idea that the German nation was an organic body that needed to be cured from a deadly disease caused by Jewish parasites. Metaphor, Musolff noted, is ‘a stylistic device of “meaning transfer” based on a tacit comparison.’
We use metaphors all the time in everyday speech; indeed, one can argue that ‘past-making’ disciplines such as history are nothing but an extended metaphor, ways of substituting narratives about the past constructed in the present for something that no longer exists. Problems arise when we find the content of metaphors, their imagery, dangerous, offensive, or rhetorically and politically inflammatory. Since the power of metaphors resides in their ability to allow us ‘to derive conclusions from the respective source concepts by treating them as seemingly unproblematic assumptions or presuppositions’ when people are compared to diseases the consequences can be alarming.
For Hitler, in Mein Kampf – and for many other Nazi ideologues – Jews were a disease that threatened the purity of the Aryan Volk. Like a cancer that grew unstoppably, Jews deliberately, parasite-like, battened on the organic body of the Aryan race, poisoning its blood, aiming to destroy it. As Hitler wrote, the Jew ‘is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who, like an infectious bacillus, keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also similar to that of spongers: wherever he appears, the host nation dies out after a shorter or longer period.’ Nowhere was this image of Jews as an infectious bacillus, deliberately aiming to exterminate the people among whom they live, more explicitly rendered than in the scene in Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), Goebbels’ infamous film which pans from shots of hordes of traditional, shtetl-dwelling Jews to shots of hordes of rats.
Only the Nazi Party offered the solution: to cure the body by removing the disease, under the direction of a powerful leader. When the Jews were shut in the Lodz ghetto, for example, it was with the pretext that they were carriers of typhus. Jews as carriers of epidemics turned swiftly into Jews as an epidemic. Although that particular ghetto was the last to be liquidated, in August 1944, it was continually talked about by the Nazis as a ‘plague-boil’, an infectious danger that sooner or later had to be removed for the health of the German population.
When President Trump described Baltimore as a ‘disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess’, his words could be taken literally. Although there are probably no more rats per person in Baltimore than in New York City, the center of Trump’s prized property empire, he could be talking literally about the number of rats in the city. But when he holds Elijah Cummings, the black congressman who holds the district, responsible for the mess, in a city which has one of the highest African American populations in the US by proportion, things seem less clear. Besides, when he added that Baltimore is a place in which ‘no human being would want to live’, it seems the ‘rats’ he is describing might not be just rats. Otherwise, why would CNN anchor Victor Blackwell cry on air, trying to explain to the President that the people who live in Baltimore ‘get up and go to work there, they care for their families there, they love their children, who pledge allegiance to the flag, just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir’?
The ‘only’ difference between Trump’s use of the language of disease to describe African Americans and where they live and Hitler’s, is that for Hitler and the leading Nazis, such language was not so much metaphorical as literal. They truly believed that Jews were a kind of cancer on the organic body and eradicated them as such. Trump’s words seem, for the time being at least, to be remaining just about on the side of metaphor, implying not that African Americans or Latin American migrants are infectious diseases but that they carry them and live in places which incubate them. The difference is meaningful on the one hand but trite on the other, as the metaphorical can all too easily slip into the literal. As the recent events in El Paso show, Trump’s radical right supporters in the US may already find it hard to see a difference. If Trump is not, as he vociferously claims, a racist, then he could do worse than stop speaking like Hitler.
Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute. See his profile here.
© Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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