FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz criticized Republican challenger Scott Jensen on Thursday for repeated comments that equated masking rules and other restrictions the governor imposed early in the COVID-19 pandemic with the rise of authoritarianism in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
Walz said such casual Holocaust comparisons, especially in today's charged political environment, are unacceptable. A stream of Jewish community leaders have also said Jensen was offensive and distorted history by minimizing the Holocaust.
“Being wrong is one thing,” Walz told The Associated Press in an interview at the opening of the Minnesota State Fair, one of the many events canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. “Being told by people who know this issue that you’re wrong, and then continuing on, that becomes a character and a judgment issue."
Jensen, a family physician and former state senator, built his campaign, especially in its early days, on a platform of vaccine skepticism and opposition to the Walz administration's management of the pandemic.
Jensen's latest remarks drew attention this week when a local Jewish website, TC Jewfolk, posted video of his speech in April to a “Mask Off Minnesota” event, at which he talked about gradual erosions of freedom in Germany in the 1930s, and compared it with Walz's gradually increasing restrictions in the early months of the pandemic.
“And then the little things grew into something bigger. Then there was a night called Kristallnacht. The night of the breaking glass. Then there was the book burning, and it kept growing and growing, and a guy named Hitler kept growing in power, and World War II came about," Jensen told the group.
Jensen stood by his statements in a defiant social media video Tuesday.
“When I make a comparison that says that I saw government policies intruding on American freedoms incrementally, one piece at a time, and compare that to what happened in the 1930s, I think it’s a legitimate comparison," Jensen said. "It may not strike your fancy, that’s fine. But this is how I think and you don’t get to be my thought police person.”
Jensen returned to the theme that night at a Republican Jewish Coalition event, saying the governor's restrictions were all about compliance and control.
Ethan Roberts, director of government affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said comments like Jensen's trivialize the Holocaust.
“Generally speaking, no one should ever compare things to the Holocaust unless we're talking about genocide. Full stop,” Roberts said. “Such comparisons are inflammatory. They're deeply, deeply historically inaccurate.”
The Holocaust wasn't a story about incrementalism, Roberts explained, it was a story about genocide. And to equate it with masks that were intended to protect people is “an extremely bad analogy,” he said.
Jensen is far from the only politician to get in trouble for Holocaust comparisons. Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, of Colorado, was condemned last year for accusing Gov. Jared Polis of sending “brown shirts” to shut down restaurants during the pandemic, and for accusing President Joe Biden of sending “needle Nazis” to coerce vaccinations.
Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, apologized last year after comparing House floor coronavirus safety measures to how the Nazis made Jews wear stars of David and sent them to the gas chambers. GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, called the comparison “appalling.” Earlier this year, Republican Rep. Warren Davidson, of Ohio, apologized to Jewish groups after comparing mask and vaccine mandates to Nazi practices.
There’s been a steady increase in the use of Holocaust and Nazi analogies across the country over the last few years, said David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.
“At the end of the day, there is no logical comparison to be made, and regardless of how passionate someone might feel, they have to realize it’s a bad and deeply offensive comparison," Goldenberg said.
Jensen wasn't available for an interview Thursday, with his campaign citing a busy schedule of State Fair events. He left a campaign event early on Wednesday before reporters could ask him about the controversy, but his running mate, former Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, was dismissive.
“We know the game. I mean, I've been a victim of it, Scott's been the victim of it for a long time. You take 10-second sound clips and then everybody, it's the age of outrage on Twitter," Birk told reporters.
Steve Karnowski, The Associated Press