On Primaries, Caucuses and Hitler Comparisons

By | Jan 08, 2024

Jewish politics and power

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1. Republicans Begin Their Race to the White House

Next Monday, the Republican primary season formally kicks off with the Iowa caucuses—a chance for candidates to set the tone for states to come, and a great opportunity for America to learn once again how caucuses work, and why this archaic system is still in place.

With the eyes of the world focused on Israel and Gaza, Republican candidates cannot avoid the issue as they stump through Iowa, hop between TV studios, and try to sway registered Republicans.

But while it’s clearly a topic in the primaries, there aren’t that many differences between GOP candidates when it comes to dealing with the Gaza war. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie all have pledged their support for Israel, though they may differ in tone and in nuance. Vivek Ramaswamy stands out with his isolationist approach, but given his recent polling numbers, it seems safe to say that the sharp-tongued entrepreneur’s days as the rising star in Republican politics are over.

All these candidates seem to agree that the United States should give Israel a free hand in fighting Hamas, that Congress should approve military aid to Israel (if they could only find a way of getting Ukraine out of the aid package) and that Biden bears some sort of fault for the October 7 attack because of his willingness to engage with Iran over the release of U.S. prisoners.

Israel is an easy box to check for Republican candidates. And while it is not likely to move many caucus-goers in Iowa or primary voters in New Hampshire (January 23) or South Carolina (February 3), stating one’s support for Israel in a time of war is a threshold requirement for some GOP voter groups, including evangelicals who feel a strong emotional connection to Israel and national-security-minded Republicans who view that support as a key U.S. foreign policy interest.

Donald Trump, headed for an easy win in Iowa and with a comfortable yet narrowing lead in New Hampshire, has made comments that could be seen as controversial regarding the Gaza war, including hurling accusations at Israel’s prime minister and defense minister in the early days after October 7. But Trump has since moved on to a more standard pro-Israel line, and regardless, his MAGA devotees are not about to turn on him because of minor deviations from it.

2. Haley’s Strong Israel Card

Nikki Haley is the only contender in the race who views the Israel-Gaza issue as a chance to score important points in her attempt to capture  second place and potentially threaten Trump’s lead, if the unexpected happens and the former president loses support.

A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley’s knowledge on foreign affairs and her proven track record of backing Israel in the international body set her apart from others in the race. And Haley is not about to let this point get lost. She has made Israel a key point in her stump speeches and interviews and even coined the phrase: “It has never been that Israel needs America, it has always been that America needs Israel.”

For Haley, as for all candidates, a strong pro-Israel posture is not something that flips primary voters, but it can go a long way in bolstering her image as a well-rounded candidate and as the responsible adult in the room. In a post-Trump GOP, these are important assets, but the GOP right now is nowhere near a post-Trump era.

3. Biden Makes the Comparison

“He calls those who oppose him ‘vermin.’ He talks about the blood of Americans being poisoned, echoing the same exact language used in Nazi Germany,” said President Joe Biden of his presumed 2024 rival Donald Trump in a speech at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania on Friday. Two weeks earlier, Biden’s campaign released a graphic on X, formerly known as Twitter, titled “Trump parrots Hitler” with side-by-side quotes of the former president and the Nazi leader.

It’s now abundantly clear that Biden is deliberately walking into the controversial realm of comparing the incomparable. As election year picks up speed, Biden and his campaign advisers have made the decision to depict their rival as a Hitler-equivalent, hoping that by doing so, they’ll shock voters into understanding what Biden sees as the greatest threat to America’s democracy.

Jewish leaders, communal activists and Holocaust survivors have long warned against politically weaponizing Hitler and the Holocaust, fearing that by doing so the atrocities and uniqueness of the Jewish experience could be diminished.

Biden’s campaign is aware of this concern and has deliberated using Hitler comparisons when going after Trump. But eventually, the president decided it was the right route to pursue. According to Politico, Biden came out of a meeting he held with a group of historians last year, believing that it is his obligation to counter Trump’s comments and to call out his predecessor when he wades into authoritarian and racist rhetoric.

There is, of course, a political consideration as well. Biden’s campaign feels that enough time has passed since Trump’s presidency so that voters may become nostalgic for it, or at least forgetful of what Democrats believe is the danger that Trump poses to democracy. Drawing the comparison to Hitler or Mussolini, when fitting, could serve as a reminder to 2024 voters.

4. Mainstreaming Nazi Comparisons

Biden isn’t the first to use Nazi comparisons in the political arena. Key members of his party did so during the Trump presidency, including powerful Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina and Jewish Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York.

American politicians, Democrats and Republicans, compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to Hitler after his invasion of Ukraine, and some ventured into speculating that like the Nazi leader, Putin too will end up losing his throne because of the failed military attack.

More recently, the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel invoked numerous comparisons from Israeli politicians, opinion writers and social media influencers between the Palestinian jihadist terrorist organization and Nazi Germany.

But not all Hitler comparisons are equal. While calling Hamas “Nazis” is mainly a means for conveying the inhumanity and horror of the October 7 attacks, Biden’s political use of the comparison is more specific: Biden and his team are trying to argue that Donald Trump is actually taking America on the path that Hitler took Germany in 1933 and that, if elected democratically, he will do away with the democratic system. For them, comparing their political rival to Hitler is not a rhetorical tool, but a real-world symmetry.

How will Jewish voters react?

Some may feel uneasy about using their worst historical memory as a tool in the political game, others might believe that it highlights a real danger that rightly evokes that dark period.

5. Biden Finds His Red Line on Israel

President Biden was still on his New Year’s Caribbean vacation when the State Department issued a rare and blunt rebuke aimed at two top Israeli politicians. Denouncing “irresponsible statements on resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller offered a direct rebuke to comments made by Israeli cabinet ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, both representatives of far-right parties in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. Ben Gvir and Smotrich proposed what they called a “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians from Gaza, which is currently occupied by Israeli military forces following the October 7 attack.

These comments, the administration noted, “do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government. They should stop immediately.” The White House later added that Netanyahu himself made clear to the president and his top advisers that transferring Palestinians out of Gaza was not part of his government’s plan for the region after the war.

Then why did the Biden administration bother proactively confronting these far-right voices in Netanyahu’s government?

First, the rebuke was necessary in order to make clear to Palestinians, and to the entire world, that America opposes these measures and will do all it can to make sure they never materialize.

But it could very likely also reflect a suspicion within Biden’s team that Netanyahu cannot be trusted to rein in extremists in his government, and that just as with the judicial overhaul, the Israeli prime minister, fearing the collapse of his coalition, will eventually cave in and allow for Ben Gvir and Smotrich to advance their plans. A strong preemptive warning from Washington should be enough to make clear to Netanyahu where the red line is drawn and what the consequences would be of crossing it.

Top Image: Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0) / Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One thought on “On Primaries, Caucuses and Hitler Comparisons

  1. Robert S April says:

    Hitler’s accession of power in 1930’s Germany was a particular history in itself. It is hardly likely that such a sequence of events could follow the American Presidential Election of 2024. The USA has been politically polarized before. There have been dark moments before, and there will likely be others, in the future.

    We shall limp or stagger through this one, too. Besides, the candidates have not yet been selected; the best is yet to come. Whoever the candidate, don’t forget to register, and to be present to vote! Speak up by voting. That is the American, democratic way.

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