As the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency draws to a close — and most especially since last month’s heartbreaking murders of 11 Jewish people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — I must admit that I don’t know whether my president is an anti-Semite.
No one else knows, either, unless she or he possesses the power to peer into Trump’s head and see what he really believes.
But we all know what he has said and done and not said and done, and the events of the past month tell us a lot:
On Oct. 5, Trump claimed that George Soros — a wealthy Jewish American businessman, a generous donor to liberal causes and a Holocaust survivor — had hired people to protest the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. There is no evidence backing up that accusation, but Soros is a favorite and frequent target of false white supremacist/neo-Nazi propaganda built around an imaginary and very old anti-Semitic conspiracy about Jews dominating finance and media and using that leverage to seize world power.
On Oct. 16, Trump declared that Americans were in imminent danger from the people in a large group of immigrants, many of them children and women, fleeing violence and instability in Honduras and other Latin American countries. Parts of the group have since begun arriving at designated southern and southwestern U.S. border points of entry and applying for asylum in accordance with U.S. and international law.
On Oct. 22, law enforcement officials called to Soros’ home in a suburb north of New York City opened his mailbox and discovered explosives and a timing mechanism in an envelope addressed to Soros. It turned out to be one of more than a dozen such devices sent through the mail to prominent liberal politicians, former government officials and celebrities known to oppose Trump’s policies. A Florida supporter of Trump was subsequently arrested and charged with distributing the explosive devices.
On Oct. 27, as the morning Shabbat service was beginning at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a man armed with multiple firearms entered the building vowing to “kill all the Jews.” He eventually killed 11 people and wounded six, including several police officers, before being arrested.
According to the suspect’s social media posts, his anger toward the synagogue had been intensified by its support for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a private nonprofit group that works with the State Department assisting refugees who seek to build new lives for themselves and their families in the United States. The suspect connected the work of HIAS to the anti-Semitic myth of a Jewish global conspiracy to displace white people. Trump’s initial reaction was to chastise the synagogue for lacking armed security; a few days later, he visited Pittsburgh to pay his respects. In doing so, however, he disregarded pleas from local officials and some families of victims and survivors that he wait until after the many funerals. Thousands of peaceful Pittsburgh residents protested his presence.
On Oct. 31, Trump falsely linked Soros to funding for those immigrant groups slowly making their way toward the southern U.S. border. On the same day, Trump posted a link on Twitter to a racist ad that his reelection committee would release two days later. The ad used racial and ethnic stereotypes to plant and magnify fears of the immigrant group just days before the midterm elections.
The timing of the ad mirrored a similar strategy Trump used with a blatantly anti-Semitic ad released by his campaign just before the presidential election in 2016. That ad featured Soros (again); Janet Yellen, then chair of the Federal Reserve; Lloyd Blankfein, then chair of the investment firm Goldman Sachs; and Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent.
To these recent events, we can add:
• Trump’s 2017 suggestion that bomb threats against Jewish community centers all over the country and vandalism in cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia might well be “false flag” operations arranged by his political opponents.
• Trump’s defense of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 in which one woman was killed and 19 other people injured when a rally participant deliberately drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Anti-Semitic white supremacists marched through the city’s streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
• Trump’s campaign use of an image collage, taken from an anti-Semitic internet message board, that included a picture of Hillary Clinton and a large red Star of David against a background of U.S. currency bills.
• Relevant, too, in this context are Trump’s repeated descriptions of the immigrants at the U.S. border as “animals,” an “infestation,” “invaders,” “rapists and killers” and other terms calculated strip people of their humanity. Similar tactics were used effectively against Jews by Germany’s Nazi propagandists to pave the way for the abuse, transport, torture and mass exterminations of the Holocaust that followed.
When questioned about anti-Semitism and his statements and actions that align with positions, propaganda and conspiracies favored by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., Trump has periodically declared himself pure.
“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” he said at a press conference less than a month after becoming president.
But talk is cheap, as Trump has demonstrated with the 6,420 false or misleading statements he has made since becoming president as of Oct. 30, according to the Washington Post’s ongoing tally.
In the factual world, the FBI released data Nov. 13 reporting that hate crimes were up 17 percent last year. Anti-Semitic hate crimes were up even more: 37 percent higher last year than in 2016. The Anti-Defamation League’s separate accounting found that acts of anti-Semitism in 2017 increased 60 percent, year-to-year.
And while kids and families found places to play in the snow that fell last Wednesday and Thursday, Creve Coeur police were called Thursday evening to the Vicino on the Lake apartment complex and found two 8-foot-wide swastikas carved in the snow just off Town and Four Drive.
The location may not have been chosen at random. Eight synagogues sit within four miles of the apartment complex, and a hospital with “Jewish” in its name, Barnes-Jewish West, is less than a mile away.
The White House likes to remind questioners that Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism before marrying Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, in 2009, and that both serve as senior advisers to the president. But Trump’s family situation doesn’t neutralize the effects of his frenzied social media activity, which helps spread the poison of anti-Semitism through code words, ideas and memes instantly recognizable to white supremacists and their ilk. By trafficking in this hooey, Trump gives it a presidential gloss of acceptability and suggests the possibility that the “right” kind of violent act might even earn the approval of the president of the United States.
Members of contemporary white nationalist/supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are well aware of Trump’s apparent embrace of their views on some issues and make no secret of their appreciation.
In the end, if Trump is not an anti-Semite at his core, it might not matter. Given his choice of words and policies and his steadfast refusal to publicly and unambiguously reject and condemn the bigots who swoon over him, he might as well be.
Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.