In a political climate in which the divide between liberals and conservatives continues to grow, there is no better example of their diametrically opposed positions than the discussion about whether President Donald Trump is responsible for a growing tide of anti-Semitic invective and violence.
For liberals, the connection between Trump’s coarse rhetoric and his willingness to sometimes pander to, and even encourage, questionable figures on the far right is irrefutable evidence that his behavior has unleashed hate groups and endangers Jews.
Few on the left question the idea that Trump was somehow indirectly responsible for both the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings.
Conservatives dismiss these arguments because of Trump’s unprecedented support for Israel (which infuriates right wing anti-Semites who attack Jews), close family connections to Jews and willingness to also sometimes say the right things about anti-Semitism.
They also point to the fact that many on the left are willing to tolerate left-wing anti-Semitism which right-wingers argue has wider appeal and more mainstream platforms than those of the more marginal figures on the far right.
But when the administration does things like inviting cartoonist Ben Garrison to a White House social media summit, there’s no way for conservatives to avoid confronting some unpleasant truths about the Trump presidency.
Garrison came under fire in 2017 for penning a cartoon that was undeniably anti-Semitic. The illustration, which was, according to Garrison, commissioned by far right radio talker/conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, depicts former Trump National Security Advisor General H.R. McMasters and retired Army general David Petraeus as marionettes being manipulated by left-wing philanthropist and political donor George Soros, who is himself being manipulated by a large hand labeled "Rothschilds."
There’s no way to spin that cartoon as anything but a recycling of traditional anti-Semitic themes about Jews and money and power. Nor is there any possible defense for Garrison’s presence at any government-sponsored event.
In a more normal presidency, Garrison would have been disinvited as soon as his record was publicized. But the Trump presidency is anything but normal. It took several days of stonewalling for the president's people to realize they had a problem.
Garrison was still on the guest list as of Tuesday and the White House defended Garrison’s presence by saying that Trump wanted "to engage directly" with those who had suffered "discrimination" by large social media companies. But Wednesday, Politico was reporting that Garrison wouldn’t show up; Haaretz reported his invitation was revoked.
As Trump demonstrated in the aftermath of his "fine people on both sides" statement about the August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia when he seemed to wrongly conflate those who merely opposed the removal of Confederate statues with violent hate groups, he thinks all apologies are signs of weakness.
Rather than understanding that efforts to make it clear that he did not think that Nazis were "fine people" was vital, Trump chose not to retract a remark that could easily be interpreted in that way. Rather than cleaning up his own messes, Trump always thinks any kind of walk back - even those in which he condemns hate - do more to validate his critics than help him or clarify what he actually believes.
For most of his supporters who, as a political truism about his appeal reminds us, "take him seriously, but not literally," none of this matters.
But the problem with the social media summit is that it is exactly the kind of atmosphere in which it is important for the president to draw distinctions between legitimate conservative positions and those advocated by right-wing trolls who may engage in anti-Semitism.
Like liberal beliefs about Trump’s connection to anti-Semites, it is a matter of faith among most conservatives that, like most of the mainstream media, social media giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter are prejudiced against the political right.
Those charges are backed up by incidents such as the way Google sought to censor PragerU, a conservative advocacy group connected to Jewish radio host and author Dennis Prager that produces informational videos. They also allege that Twitter has engaged in so-called "shadow banning" of conservatives that restricts the reach of their tweets and that Facebook hides conservative topics.
Of course, liberals have their own list of grievances against these companies, not the least of which is that their indifference to Russian bots undermined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign against Trump.
But along with legitimate complaints about the untrammeled power of these companies and questions about whether they need be regulated, come an avalanche of crackpot conspiracy theories that are best left to fester in the fever swamps of the far right and left where anti-Semites spawn hate rather than being aired at White House events.
The Garrison invitation and the presence of others who say or write things that are more in tune with extremism than the policies that the administration has pursued (such as reversing the Obama administration’s reticence about investigating anti-Semitic activity on college campuses and redefining its definition of the term to include anti-Zionist incitement) make it clear that it isn’t good enough for Trump’s defenders to dismiss any carping about the summit’s invitation list as partisan posturing.
So long as the president allows members of his staff to get away with gaffes like inviting Garrison to the White House or is unwilling to walk back his Charlottesville statement to make clear his opposition to hate, it doesn’t suffice for him to claim he’s the "least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen."
Allowing the administration to be linked with far right conspiracy theorists at the social media summit lends credence to critics who point out that violence against Jews has risen on his watch.
Nor is it enough for conservatives to point out the hypocrisy of liberals who are not willing to cast out from their ranks those who engage in anti-Semitism - such as Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) or Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) The failure of House Democrats to punish Tlaib and Omar doesn’t excuse Trump’s mistakes, any more than what he does or says justifies the willingness of many liberals to rationalize or ignore the growth of left-wing anti-Semitism operating under the veil of anti-Zionism.
That Jewish conservatives aren’t just as outraged about the Garrison cartoon and its author being welcomed to the White House as they were about a recent anti-Semitic cartoon published in the international edition of The New York Times is partly explained by the fact that the latter publication is far more important than Cernovich’s website.
But it also demonstrates that just as some partisans on the left wrongly believe anti-Semitism to be a purely right-wing phenomenon, many on the Jewish right have come to think it’s only worth denouncing hate when it comes from the left.
Trump isn’t an anti-Semite and his support for Israel ought to cut him some slack. Nor is there any real evidence that Trump can be linked to violent anti-Semites who also hate him because they think he’s a friend of the Jews.
But by allowing the social media summit to be tainted by anti-Semitic extremists he is once again forcing his Jewish supporters to engage in exactly the sort of cognitive dissonance about hate that they think has delegitimized the Democrats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin
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