There’s no more doubting it, no more excusing it, no more defending it, no more trying to explain it away. We’re past the time when having a Jewish son-in-law makes it okay to spew paranoia and conspiracy theories. A line has finally been crossed, and we need to acknowledge a cold and very scary truth: Donald Trump is openly trafficking in the types of anti-Semitic slurs that have been used to justify the hatred of Jews for decades.
I don’t write those words glibly, or casually. They’re not words I ever thought I’d need to write about the nominee of a major American political party. And it’s true that Trump’s allegation Thursday that a global financial cabal is secretly working hand in hand with the media to destroy the United States doesn’t include the word “Jew.”
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t need to. Trump is using barely coded words that directly echo one of the most ancient of all anti-Semitic libels. Jews have long been accused of controlling the global financial system. Jews have long been accused of controlling the media. And Jews have long been accused of being disloyal citizens secretly working to maneuver governments to pursue disastrous policies solely for their own benefit. Trump has now chosen to combine all of those charges into a single paranoid and hate-filled rant.
It’s worth looking at the key phrases from his comments yesterday at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida (you can read a fuller transcript here):
It's a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities…
We've seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors...
This is a struggle for the survival of our nation. Believe me. And this will be our last chance to save it on November 8. Remember that.
This election will determine whether we're a free nation, or whether we have only an illusion democracy but in are in fact controlled by a small handful of special global interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.
Michelle Obama said Thursday that Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women had “shaken me to my core.” His resurrection of a hoary anti-Semitic canard has done the same to me.
That’s because Trump, who commands media attention like no presidential candidate in recent history, openly used phrases more commonly spoken by those who hate Jews or want to do them harm. David Duke, a white supremacist who backs Trump, said earlier this year that a legal case involving the mogul could help “expose the entire Jewish manipulation of the American media, the American political process, control of politics in America and truly how they are the dominant and dangerous power that exists in the United States.” Remove the word “Jewish,” and Duke’s broader point — that there’s a group secretly controlling and trying to harm the US — closely echoes Trump’s comments Thursday.
Intentionally or not, Trump has revived some of the ugliest of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Taking those out of the box is much easier than putting them back in.
Donald Trump has dabbled in anti-Semitism before
It’s no secret that Trump has long drawn the support of many from the American far right, including its fetid racist and anti-Semitic constituencies. The Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi website, endorsed him less than two weeks after he launched his candidacy. In a prescient article in August 2015, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos detailed Trump’s support among white nationalists, who were drawn to his derisive comments about Mexicans and his threats to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Some of those supporters have lashed out at journalists writing critically about Trump with explicitly anti-Semitic language and imagery, something Trump and his family have been slow to condemn. When journalist Julia Ioffe profiled Melania Trump, she was hit with a barrage of hate that included an anonymous caller playing a Hitler speech while others took to Twitter to post doctored photos with her face superimposed onto a picture of a prisoner at Auschwitz. The Daily Stormer called her a “filthy Russian kike.”
The language was vile and frightening. Melania Trump’s response? Ioffe, she said, had “provoked” it.
Melania Trump’s wink-nod response to openly anti-Semitic remarks has been the rule, not the exception. When Duke publicly endorsed Trump in February, the mogul’s initial response was to falsely claim that he didn’t know who Duke was. That was a lie; Trump had denounced Duke as far back as 1991 and in 2000 described him as “a bigot, a racist, a problem.” It took Trump weeks to grudgingly disavow Duke’s support and condemn white supremacy more broadly.
That hasn’t stopped Trump and his family from continuing to use language and imagery that carry anti-Semitic undertones or from retweeting comments from supporters with Twitter handles like @WhiteGenocideTM.
Last December, for instance, Trump gave a widely panned speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in which he said that Jews use financial contributions to influence American policy (“You want to control your own politician”), refused to say whether Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel (“I want to wait until I meet with Bibi”), and questioned Israel’s willingness to strike a peace deal ("I don’t know that Israel has the commitment to make it”).
In July, Trump tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a backdrop of American dollars with a red six-pointed star in the corner. That type of star has for centuries been associated with Jews, who call it the Star of David.
A detailed PolitiFact investigation noted that the image came from an alt-right message board used by neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites. The head of the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that the message had “obvious anti-Semitic overtones,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan — who has since emerged as one of Trump’s favorite Republican whipping boys — said at the time that “anti-Semitic images” have “got no place in [a presidential campaign].” Trump defended the use of the six-pointed star — which he said was meant to be a “sheriff’s star” — but later replaced it was a different image.
More recently, my colleague Libby Nelson has detailed how Donald Trump Jr. tweeted and instagrammed a “Deplorables” meme that included Pepe the Frog, a symbol now used by white supremacists and the alt-right, and claimed that if his father had acted like Hillary Clinton, “they’d be warming up the gas chamber.” The ADL, which has routinely criticized the Trump campaign, responded to the latter comment by tweeting that “trivialization of the Holocaust and gas chambers is NEVER okay” and asking the younger Trump to retract the comment. He didn’t.
Donald Trump, his campaign staff, and their political allies have tried to rebut accusations of anti-Semitism by arguing, variously, that they have no control over what their supporters say, that they didn’t know what certain images meant, and that controversial comments like Trump Jr.’s gas chamber remark were meant as jokes. They also note that Trump has promised to tear up the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which many American Jews see as a potentially existential threat to Israel.
Their go-to defense, however, has been to point out that Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism to marry her Orthodox Jewish husband, Jared Kushner, and that their children are Jewish. Kushner, in turn, has publicly stood up for his father-in-law, penning an op-ed in the New York Observer (which he owns) arguing that the worst that could be said about Trump was “that he has been careless in retweeting imagery that can be interpreted as offensive.”
Kushner tried to bolster his own case by noting that he was the grandson of Holocaust survivors, a comment that infuriated members of his own family. In a blistering Facebook post, one of Kushner’s cousins wrote that “for the sake of the family name, which may have no meaning to you but still has meaning to others, please don't invoke our grandparents in vain just so you can sleep better at night. It is self serving and disgusting.”
The argument that having Jewish relatives means Trump can’t hold anti-Semitic thoughts or express anti-Semitic slurs is a facile one. A racist can have black friends. A misogynist can have a wife or daughter. And a person willing to resurrect the sort of ancient canard long hurled at Jews deserves to be judged based on what he says and does, not given a free pass due to his daughter choice of husband.
This is why Trump’s new comments cross a line
Many of Trump’s supporters, including some Jews, will be willing to give Trump’s latest comments a pass. Hatred of the media is widespread in Republican circles, and it’s easy to understand why voters who have seen their jobs disappear due to free trade and globalization would be drawn to a candidate who opposes both.
But there’s been something uniquely dangerous to Trump’s newest comments, which normalize rage and tell his voters that it’s okay to feel anger and hate — and that it’s okay to express it. More than that, Trump paints the coming election in apocalyptic terms that suggest the fate of the republic is literally on the line. Taken to its logical extreme, that means his voters are duty-bound to identify the group responsible for bringing the nation to the precipice and to make sure it doesn’t succeed.
Jews are the one group that has historically been accused of running a secret international cabal that controls both global financial institutions and the media and uses them for their own benefit. Versions of the slur can be seen in the pages of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and were used by Nazi propagandists like Joseph Goebbels, who in 1935 warned of “the absolute destruction of all economic, social, state, cultural, and civilizing advances made by western civilization for the benefit of a rootless and nomadic international clique of conspirators.”
Trump obviously isn’t a Nazi, and he isn’t espousing violence toward Jews. But whether Donald Trump is or isn’t personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant. Through words and deeds, his latest comments have taken implicitly anti-Semitic language from the fringes of the alt-right and injected it squarely into the mainstream of American political discourse. And if history teaches anything, it’s that fanning hatred is far easier than extinguishing it.