In an unexpected journey from reality television fame to a brief presidency and a potential return, Donald Trump has consistently portrayed himself as a shrewder alternative to Washington’s often inept political class, even dubbing himself a “very stable genius.” However, when confronted with accusations of echoing Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric in relation to immigrants entering the U.S. unlawfully, Trump claimed ignorance of the Nazi dictator’s similar use of language.
“I never knew that Hitler said it,” Trump asserted in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, emphasizing that he had never read Hitler’s biographical manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” This denial of knowledge about one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century is remarkable for someone seeking the presidency, a role deeply rooted in historical understanding. Yet, this pattern of claiming ignorance, especially regarding individuals espousing racist or antisemitic views, has become a recurring tactic for Trump.
During his 2016 campaign, when endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, Trump insisted he had no awareness of Duke’s background as a white supremacist. Despite Duke’s notoriety as, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite,” Trump stated, “I don’t know anything about David Duke.” This strategy of disavowing knowledge was similarly employed when confronted about QAnon, a conspiracy theory alleging Democratic involvement in a satanic pedophilia ring, and the Proud Boys militia group, organizers of the Capitol assault in 2021.
Even in matters of American history, Trump has professed unawareness. At a rally in Nevada, he claimed to have sought the definition of Reconstruction from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, illustrating a lack of familiarity with a pivotal period post-Civil War. Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer emphasized the importance of a president having a basic understanding of history, citing Reconstruction as a crucial moment for civil rights and race relations.
Trump’s statements regarding Hitler, particularly given his New York upbringing with a substantial Jewish population, are notable. Despite participating in Holocaust memorial events and condemning Holocaust deniers, he insisted on having no knowledge of Hitler’s words. Notably, in 1990, journalist Marie Brenner reported that Trump’s ex-wife claimed he had a copy of Hitler’s speeches, “My New Order,” though Trump later denied reading it.
Amid criticism, Trump maintained that his message about immigrants “poisoning” the country’s blood was vastly different from Hitler’s, asserting zero racist intent. Despite the repeated use of “poisoning” references, Trump contended that his focus was on those entering the country illegally and posing threats, rather than echoing Hitler’s dehumanizing rhetoric. This raises questions about the importance of historical awareness in a leader and the motivations behind disavowing knowledge of contentious figures and ideologies.