In his Tuesday speech, President Trump was light on specifics, except when it came to one of his favorite subjects — crimes committed by immigrants.
Trump celebrated the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE. It will, among other things, put out a regular report on the illicit doings of the undocumented. “I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims,” he said. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests." (It will be paid for by money spent, in the Obama years, on advocating for undocumented immigrants.)
The program is controversial (when Trump referenced it Tuesday, Democrats groaned). There's no evidence that immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans, and critics worry the reports will skew public opinion unfairly. “Let's be clear about what Donald Trump is doing,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote on Facebook. “He is stirring up fear and hatred against immigrants and trying to divide our nation.”
There's a reason Trump's opponents are so worried. This strategy — one designed to single out a particular group of people, suggesting that there's something particularly sinister about how they behave — was employed to great effect by Adolf Hitler and his allies. In the 1930s, the Nazis used a similar tactic to stir up anger and hatred toward Jews. Professor Richard Weikart of California State University explained that Nazi leaders used different kinds of communication tools to sell the message that “Jews are criminal by disposition,” as a 1943 Nazi directive to the German press put it. “The Jews are not a nation like other nations but bearers of hereditary criminality,” the order said. Germany, in other words, was out of control, and only Nazi anti-Semitic policies could “restore order.”
To spread these ideas, there were books (like the pamphlet pictured above) and films that portrayed Jews as subhuman. “The Eternal Jew,” released in 1940, depicted Jews as wandering cultural parasites, consumed by sex and money. Newspapers such as Der Stürmer printed anti-Semitic cartoons regularly. “By the late 1930s, the increasingly fanatical tone of Nazi propaganda reflected the growing radicalization of the regime's anti-Semitic policies,” the BBC explained. “The Jewish stereotypes shown in such propaganda served to reinforce anxieties about modern developments in political and economic life, without bothering to question the reality of the Jewish role in German society.”
An illustration from the book “Der Giftpilz,” published in 1938 and intended for children. The book taught negative myths about Jewish people.
Even art exhibits reinforced this message. In 1937, “The Eternal Jew” exhibition opened in Munich. Its stated purpose was to show “the 'typical outward features' of Jews and to demonstrate their allegedly Middle Eastern and Asiatic characteristics,” the BBC said. “The exhibition also attempted to 'expose' a worldwide 'Jewish-Bolshevik' conspiracy.” More than 5,000 people visited every day. Secret Police reports suggested (proudly) that the show led to a sharp rise in anti-Semitic feelings and even violence.
Of course, a regular government report is a far cry from the Nazis' aggressive, constant drumbeat against the Jews. Third Reich officials had significantly more control over what people were exposed to than any American president. They controlled the media and decided what kinds of art were and were not allowed in the country. Drawing a straight parallel between Trump and Hitler is “misguided,” Weikart said. “Hitler’s great crime was to launch an expansionist war and kill millions of people in the name of human biological inequality,” he wrote. “This issue doesn’t really rise to that level, does it?”
The point is not that VOICE equals the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. But when leaders use the levers of government to drum up fear of one group of people, we should all be worried.