WASHINGTON — Former Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman excoriated Donald Trump for urging his supporters at a weekend rally to raise their right hands and promise to support him, a gambit Foxman said evoked echoes of Hitler salutes from Nazi rallies in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Let’s do a pledge. Who likes me in this room?” the Republican presidential candidate asked a large crowd Saturday in Orlando, Florida. “Raise your right hand: ‘I do solemnly swear that I — no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever — will vote, on or before the 12th for Donald J. Trump for president.'” (Trump misstated the date of the Florida primary, which will be held on March 15.)

As the audience enthusiastically complied with his request, the candidate told them: “Don’t forget you all raised your hands. You swore. Bad things happen if you don’t live up to what you just did.”

For Foxman, who was born in Poland in 1940 and was saved from the Nazis by his Catholic nanny, watching Trump whip up his supporters in this fashion was extremely disturbing.

Abraham Foxman (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

Abraham Foxman (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

“As a Jew who survived the Holocaust, to see an audience of thousands of people raising their hands in what looks like the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States of America,” he told The Times of Israel.

“We’ve seen this sort of thing at rallies of neo-Nazis. We’ve seen it at rallies of white supremacists. But to see it at a rally for a legitimate candidate for the presidency of the United States is outrageous.”

Beyond his horror at seeing a hand-raising tactic similar to that adopted by the Nazi Party to signal obedience to their leader, Foxman said what made the Trump episode more egregious is his conviction that the Republican frontrunner was well aware of the resonance.

“It is a fascist gesture,” Foxman said. “He is smart enough — he always tells us how smart he is — to know the images that this evokes. Instead of asking his audience to pledge allegiance to the United States of America, which in itself would be a little bizarre, he’s asking them to swear allegiance to him.”

Furthermore, Foxman added, “He even threatens that if they don’t, they will suffer and be punished. This is so over the top for a man who really doesn’t come out of the underground. He is a man of the world. Even though he proclaims he doesn’t know who David Duke was, or the other white supremacists, we know very well that he knows. So he’s playing to an image.”

People raise their arms as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ask them to pledge that they will vote for him during a campaign rally at the CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

People raise their arms as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ask them to pledge that they will vote for him during a campaign rally at the CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

Last week, Trump refused to immediately reject the endorsement of Duke, a white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. When asked by Jake Tapper on CNN, Trump claimed ignorance of Duke’s support or that of other white supremacists backing his bid for the White House. After a storm of controversy erupted over his response, Trump tweeted his disavowal of Duke later that day.

‘This is the summit of his own intoxication with what he perceives as his leadership quality’

Saturday’s incident, according to Foxman, marked the low point of a series of campaign controversies through which Trump has not merely managed to survive as a candidate, but to benefit. “I think he was intoxicated with all the things that he’s already got away with, and it led him to this,” said Foxman, who spent his adult life fighting bigotry, which included a three-decade stint as national director of the ADL. “This is the summit of his own intoxication with what he perceives as his leadership quality.”

While Trump’s behavior during this election season has been the source of much consternation for Foxman, he finds it even more troubling that the billionaire businessman evidently appeals to such a large segment of the American public.

“When he said, ‘I can walk down the street on Fifth Avenue and kill somebody and my supporters will not desert me,’ he knows exactly what buttons he’s pushing. Or when that guy interrupted his speech. People in that situation may think internally, ‘Oh, I want to punch him in the mouth.’ But you don’t say it, you don’t say it, because it’s not civilized. But he said it and it was applauded,” Foxman bemoaned.

The real-estate-mogul-turned-politician continues to “break all the taboos of civil behavior,” said Foxman sadly, yet his supporters find him “increasingly appealing.”

An unprecedented moment in American politics

According to Foxman, Trump’s Saturday rally marked an unprecedented moment in American political history, one that prompts no comparison to any other candidate who has sought the presidency. “You can find some authoritarian, semi-fascist tinges in Southern politics during the segregationist era,” he said. “But there’s never been anything like this, and nothing on this scale.”

An attorney who headed the ADL from 1987 until his retirement last year, Foxman has been a close observer of anti-Semitism and other kinds of discrimination and prejudice in the United States.

He said Trump’s rhetoric and proposals — and the support they have elicited from neo-Nazis, white supremacists and racists — combine to make Saturday’s hand-raising rally something that should alarm Americans. “I am a Holocaust survivor and this made me quiver,” he said.

While Trump continues to lead the way in the Republican presidential contest, heading the field with 384 delegates and 12 states won, Foxman does not believe he will make it all the way to the White House in January 2017.

‘If the intoxication we are seeing continues, more and more people will realize that this is not a person that they want to be led by’

“There’s a long, long way to go, but I remain an optimist. I’m an optimist about the American people,” he said. “I think the American people are rational and reasonable at the end of the day. And I think that if the intoxication we are seeing continues, more and more people will realize that this is not a person that they want to be led by.”

Nonetheless, the fact that Trump is resonating with millions of Americans, and that his audience responded enthusiastically to his call to raise their hands and pledge their support for him, leaves Foxman deeply concerned.

Many Americans plainly found Trump’s hand-raising antics offensive — as reflected by a social media uproar, replete with comparative photos of 1930s Germany and 2016 America — but Foxman saw the response from those present at the Saturday rally as reflecting a lamentable reality of the political moment, where the more obscene Trump becomes, the more attractive some see him as a candidate.

“What scares me is he’s broken all these taboos and it’s helped him,” Foxman said. “That frightens me. It frightens me that there are all these things that we’ve worked so hard on, but one after another he breaks these taboos and the people applaud him and come back for more.”