Researchers calculate that almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria due in part to lackluster rescue efforts. President Donald Trump has rejected any suggestion that the federal government had failed. Earlier this month he touted rescue efforts on the island as “fantastic.”
On Thursday morning, he went further, posting a tweet in which he outright lied about the death toll.
Obviously, the main purpose of Trump’s tweet was to shirk responsibility for his failures. As president, he is responsible for federal disaster relief efforts and the fact that so many people died in Puerto Rico reflects poorly on him. So he lies about it.
In doing so, he echoes those who have long denied acts of genocide, including Holocaust deniers and deniers of the Armenian genocide. It’s true that the deaths in Puerto Rico weren’t intentional and therefore don’t rise to the horrific level of genocide. But denying them can still serve many of the same purposes as denying planned atrocities.
First, denying the deaths in Puerto Rico functions as a kind of boast. Trump is insisting that he can get away with saying anything. This is a common tactic used by fascist leaders. Their propaganda “is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the classic Origins of Totalitarianism. “For in their opinion, fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
Jason Stanley, author of the recent book How Fascism Works, explains that “signing onto the leader’s lies functions as a loyalty oath.” Lying about the victims in Puerto Rico, in particular, turns a nonpartisan discussion about human life and how best to prevent its loss into a purely partisan question of fealty to the president. Caring about those people over there who are not us (never mind that these particular dead were Americans too) and admitting they suffered becomes a sign of weakness and disloyalty.
In this way, genocide denial also strengthens nationalist identity and in-group loyalty. This is why, as Lancaster University politics professor Sossie Kasbarian said, the denial of the Armenian genocide “is a foundation of the Turkish state and a cornerstone of its foreign policy.” Erasing atrocities can function as especially strong fuel for nationalist sentiment by affirming the virtues of the in-group and denying the humanity, or even existence, of the out-group.
Sharing such a big, obvious lie ties loyalists together in the belligerent celebration of a mystical, guiltless past. It fits with Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again.” In this view, the United States should always be proud of itself, and the deaths of people of color, in the past or the present, are irrelevant or nonexistent.
Denying violence isn’t just a way to stoke nationalism, though. It’s also a way to extend violence. This is why Gregory Stanton of George Mason University described genocide denial as the last stage of genocide, “the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows a genocide.” Adam Jones, author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction adds that people often “distort and recast genocide as a heroic or defensive narrative.” By doing so, they are often “paving the way for future genocides and abuses.”
Denial enables further atrocities in part because denial is, by its nature, conspiratorial. If the Holocaust didn’t happen, then someone is trying awfully hard to distort the truth and present Jewish people as victims. Holocaust denial is anti-Semitic not just because it erases the reality of Jewish suffering, but also because it blames “Jewish media” for supposedly inventing the genocide in the first place. The Holocaust itself becomes an excuse for hating and scapegoating Jewish people.
Trump, who has long embraced conspiracy theories, did the same in his denial. After his first tweet, the president claimed that the death count for Maria was invented “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.”
That is not merely a falsehood to gain immediate political advantage. Trump is calling for people to vote against Democrats, but beyond that, he’s trying to delegitimize Democrats. If Democrats were lying about death tolls for political advantage, they would be violating the norms of democracy and decency. In that case, they should be treated not as a loyal opposition but as enemies.
What’s most frightening about genocide denial is that it’s not really denial. It’s a threat. If you can murder thousands or millions of people and then simply say it never happened, then you can murder thousands again, and again, on and on, as often as you like. Genocide denial is a way of saying, “We don’t care that we hurt you, and we will hurt you more if we feel like it. Neither human feeling nor facts will stop us.”
Again, the deaths in Puerto Rico were not a genocide. But Trump’s casually vindictive indifference to them is still a warning. If another hurricane headed toward Puerto Rico, he is telling us, he would do nothing differently. To him, the lives ― and deaths ― of people of color do not matter. He’s willing to lie about 3,000 dead. Who knows what else he’s willing to do?
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.