When is a tweet by the U.S. president to a Jewish journalist just another insulting childish nickname and when is it an anti-Semitic slur?
It is a distressing sign of the times that this is a question even worth dwelling on. But on Sunday, shortly after Trump again denigrated the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd, with his designated nickname “Sleepy Eyes,” angry charges of hate speech began to fly across social media – even though it’s hard to find any evidence to back up that claim.
Many outraged tweeters argued that the president had chosen that particular schoolyard insult for Todd because he is Jewish.
In response came counterclaims – mainly from Trump supporters, but also from a large number of Jews who are no fans of the president – that linking the epithet to the Holocaust was, to use one of the president’s favorite terms, fake news.
If the president indeed chose his description of Todd based on racial characteristics, he made the call a long time ago. The first occurrence took place during the 2012 presidential election, back when Trump was just a reality TV star flirting with politics and magnifying his celebrity through Twitter.
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He continued to use the nickname over the next few years, hitting back whenever he felt Todd had criticized him, and then brought the term into the Oval Office.
Whether it has been “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco Rubio or “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, Trump has consistently shown a penchant for choosing a nickname and sticking to it.
In April 2017, Todd offered a barbed rejoinder:
If Trump had a perfectly innocent reason for deciding that Todd’s eyes looked “sleepy,” he chose not to share it with him, the TV newsman told entertainment website The Wrap last November.
“I’ve asked him what the sleepy eyes means. He doesn’t know,” Todd told the website. “He said once, ‘I give someone a nickname I stay with it. Sometimes I give someone a nickname and I can’t remember how I came up with it, but I stick with it.’”
Todd added that Trump considers hurling schoolyard insults on Twitter, even as president, to be playful entertainment. “He loves it. It’s funny. That’s always what makes covering him so difficult. When you think he’s at his most vicious, he will say ‘No, no, we were joking. Aren’t we all part of the game?’”
The insult crossed into the real world recently when, speaking at a Pennsylvania rally, Trump called Todd not only “Sleepy Eyes” but also a “sleeping son of a bitch.”
Over the past weekend, however, a Twitterstorm erupted over Trump’s most recent “Sleepy Eyes” slam. Trump was accused of dog-whistling, with tweets pointing out instances of white supremacists and anti-Semites describing Jews as having “sleepy eyes.”
The evidence to back this up is relatively thin, though.
The only direct “sleepy eyes” reference is on the racist website “Gentile Nation.” This offers instructions on “How to recognize and identify a Jew” through physical features, and bearing the creative byline “John Doe Goy.”
Cataloging Jews feature by feature, the description of “Jewish Eyes” reads: “There are several types of Jewish eyes: The lizard-like Asiatic eyes, as seen in the photos directly below, the pop eyes and the sleepy and sometimes bulging eyes, the sad sack eyes.”
There is also a mention of “sleepy eyes” on an anti-Semitic forum called Stormfront, which claims to be for the “embattled white minority.”
But searches in both English and German fail to uncover hard proof that would back up the numerous assertions on Twitter that “sleepy eyes” was common in Nazi propaganda as one of the criteria included in Nazi instructions for the German secret police to identify Jews, and the accompanying partisan clamor.
The closest reference is a description of Jewish eyes by a Nazi-trained child contained in a story in an anti-Semitic children’s book published by Julius Streicher, the founder of Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.
“The eyelids are mostly thicker and more fleshy than ours. The Jewish look is wary and piercing. One can tell from his eyes that he is a deceitful person,” it states.
One left-wing blog outlined three possible explanations for the “Sleepy Eyes” nickname:
“1. It’s a complete coincidence
2. Trump used it knowingly (because there are “good people on both sides”).
3. Trump unknowingly integrated it into his vocabulary from e.g., his father, his son, [Steve] Bannon, [Sebastian] Gorka or other anti-Semites he hung out with.”
As in many recent partisan Twitter wars, some of the most impassioned arguments come from highly dubious accounts – leaving one to wonder who benefits from creating bots that argue over Trump and anti-Semitism.
Whoever is responsible, it adds another layer of confusion to the already perplexing online landscape in 2018. Not only do we not know whether information is real; it is also unclear how many of those arguing are as fake as the points they are making.