Lately, it has become self-evident, at least in some liberal circles, that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite.
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Following Trump’s bizarre news conference last week, including his unprovoked scolding of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish reporter who simply asked him if he’s concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in America, Bradley Burston argued in Haaretz that “Yes, Donald Trump IS an anti-Semite.” Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, accused Trump of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial for his refusal to mention Jews in the administration’s statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
There is no doubt that the president is troublingly tolerant toward displays of anti-Semitism. The evidence is just too compelling.
To begin, there are his repeated retweets of white supremacists, his initial hesitance to disavow the endorsement of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, and let’s not forget the “Sheriff’s Star” controversy. Then there was this campaign ad filled with anti-Semitic dog-whistles. And the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor. And the omission of Jews from his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, with the strange excuse that, well, Nazis killed other people too.
And, of course, there’s Trump’s insistent, mind-boggling refusal to address the wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in the months since he got elected: desecrated synagogues, proliferation of anti-Semitic imagery in social media, a wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers – Hell, even PewDiePie is apparently in on it.
All this presents a pretty strong case that Trump is, at the very least, indifferent to anti-Semitism. But as a case for Trump being anti-Semitic himself, this is dubious. Most of this can be seen as simple opportunism, Trump refusing to disavow the one group in America that actually likes him: racists. The omission of Jews from the Holocaust Remembrance statement and the ensuing defensiveness about it could just as well be yet another screw-up of an incompetent administration that, instead of admitting errors, prefers to double down on them.
And yes, Trump did berate a Jewish reporter who asked him a question about anti-Semitism. That, in itself, is not evidence of anything. Trump berates all journalists.
And yes, when asked about the rise in anti-Semitic incidences during his joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump did respond by touting his Electoral College victory. Again, that in itself is not proof of anything other than the fact that Trump is a huge egomaniac. What else is new? Trump will likely tout his Electoral College victory if you ask him the time, let alone a question that he’s not interested in answering.
So no, Trump is probably not the “least anti-Semitic” person you’ll ever meet, as he claimed last week. The curious phraseology of that sentence, which seems to imply that all people must be at least somewhat anti-Semitic, is evidence of that. But Trump is likely not an anti-Semite himself – as much as a racist 70-year-old billionaire can be, anyway.
Accusing Trump of being anti-Semitic ignores everything we know about the man – namely, that he has no ideological bone in his body. Moreover, it is dangerous, in that it detracts from the credibility of other criticisms of Trump, and distracts from some of the really horrible things that he does.
So if Trump is not an anti-Semite, what is he, and how can we explain his insistent refusal to denounce the anti-Semitic tendencies and actions of some of his supporters?
To answer this question, we first have to remember some of the things that we know for certain about Trump. One: He is a consummate opportunist. Trump will literally say anything to win, and his tendency to say whatever best suites his interests at the moment, even at the price of self-contradiction and moral abasement, is well documented.
Trump rode a huge wave of nativist rage all the way to the White House. Now that he is an astoundingly unpopular president, anyone who thinks he will risk alienating the radical base that got him elected – again, the one group of people in America that still feels enthusiastic about his presidency – is delusional.
But there isn’t a trace of ideology here. Suggesting that Trump has a coherent worldview is an insult to the concept of coherence. His whole life, the only belief that he has consistently adhered to is the enrichment and gratification of Donald J. Trump. That is how his administration can include both Steve Bannon and Steven Mnuchin. If you’re looking for a common thread here, it’s not that all three are anti-Semites. It’s that all three are racist kleptocrats.
Two: Trump is thin-skinned and easily triggered. He is also paranoid, meaning he sees hostility everywhere. The most innocuous question can sometime make him snap.
Three: Trump is an authoritarian who hates dissent and viciously attacks those who defy him. He hates the Hollywood liberals who mock him. He hates the courts that deny him. He hates the press that scrutinizes him. He hates academia for bothering with facts that contradict his statements. Know what these industries and institutions all share? A disproportionate number of Jews.
Last, but not least: Trump is very, very crass.
All of this combined creates the appearance of anti-Semitism. But the truth of the matter is, Jews are not the center of this story. In the month since his inauguration, the Trump administration has implemented some horrible policies against Muslims, refugees, immigrants, LGBT people and women. To date, there have been no policies targeting Jews specifically. You might argue those are coming, but this is doubtful.
Building up Trump’s anti-Semitism seems right, but is hugely distracting from the really horrible things Trump is doing to other marginalized groups, who find themselves in much more precarious positions these days. Muslim-Americans, for instance, have been exposed to far more violence and vitriol in the past three months.
The truth is, as troubling as Trump’s refusal to acknowledge anti-Semitism is, Jews are not the target of this administration. At best, they are collateral damage.