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DeSantis' immigration stunt echoes nation's antisemitic legacy

Ken Burns' latest series focuses on U.S. anti-immigrant rhetoric during the Holocaust, and it features striking similarities to right-wing behaviors today.


Ken Burns’ latest documentary series for PBS, chronicling our country’s posture toward Jews fleeing the Holocaust, is chock-full of comparisons to present-day America. 

To be clear, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” was conceived with modern-day parallels in mind. Burns told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday that it’s important to reckon with that past, because “in this story are the seeds of what’s going on now.”

But even that doesn’t fully brace viewers for the language Americans used to condemn Jews seeking refuge from Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime and the similarities between those denunciations and the anxiety conservatives voice over mostly nonwhite immigrants’ arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Ultimately, the documentary discards the rosy portrayals we’re often fed depicting Americans as caring liberators of European Jews, and it instead shares an accurate portrayal of the many Americans who denounced Jewish immigrants with language similar to that used by today’s anti-immigrant hard-liners. 

I found it to be a vital watch, particularly now, as we witness right-wing governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona flying migrants all over the country to demonize them and deter them from finding refuge in their states

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is that we are not a sanctuary state,” DeSantis said after he authorized flights to drop off migrants seeking asylum in Texas at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington. “We will help facilitate that transport for you, to be able to go to greener pastures.”

The first episode of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” highlights the prevalence of eugenics — that is, racist pseudoscience upholding white supremacy — among conservative thought leaders during the early 20th century. Similar to the present day, believers ran the gamut, from businesspeople to politicians to purported civil rights activists. And they all adopted a belief — now known as the “replacement theory” among conservatives — that Jews were part of a conspiracy to destroy America.

Henry Ford and President Calvin Coolidge were just a few of the well-known figures who espoused blatant antisemitism, with Coolidge infamously calling for immigration to be slowed because “America must be kept American.”

In that slogan, we can hear the makings of the deeply racist, Trump-obsessed “Make America Great Again” movement. 

Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, took his predecessor’s antisemitism even further when he instructed his State Department to refuse visas to anyone who might need public assistance, which included many Jews who escaped Germany with little to their name in the lead-up to Hitler’s reign. 

President Donald Trump revived that policy, known as the “public charge” rule.

Burns’ film is full of throughlines like this, ones that connect our nation’s history of antisemitic bigotry to the racist immigration legacy that Republicans are establishing in the present. It is, at once, a window into the past and a mirror showing present-day America an ugly reflection of who we are.

Check out a trailer for the series below: