We now know that Donald Trump tweeted an anti-Semitic image which in fact came from a notorious white supremacist/anti-Semitic Twitter account. The most notable fact about this incident is that while it would likely destroy most presidential campaigns, in Trump’s case it will likely be no more than a two or three day story. This is in part because, at this point, it’s just not terribly surprising (dog bites man, as journos say) but also because Trump is sure to embrace or broadcast some other racist or anti-Semitic meme within a day or two. The next blow up will push this off the front pages. The second most notable thing is that the Trump campaign can’t seem to decide what its story is: unfortunate but inconsequential mistake the campaign quickly corrected? example of political correctness run amok? or it’s a Sheriff’s badge just like these nine other Trump supporter accounts are pointing out? Trump has thus far managed the genuine feat of simultaneously holding the support of a significant chunk of the right-wing Zionist community and virtually all online anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, an accomplishment we should not overlook.
It all raises the question: is Donald Trump really an anti-Semite?
If the question is: is Donald Trump a racist, the answer is straightforward: Yes.
Running a blatantly racist campaign should probably be enough to answer this question. But if it’s not, even a cursory look at Trump’s public career going back decades shows racism (albeit not always this blatant) and racial grievance are strikingly consistent themes. But is he an anti-Semite?
Here the question gets a bit more complicated. And the nature of that complexity is worth exploring a bit to understand Trump and the nature of the campaign he’s running. I don’t see any evidence that Trump is anti-Semitic in the sense of holding a particular animus toward Jews, though he does seem anti-Semitic in a way that sometimes presents itself as philo-semitism: holding stereotypical views that Jews are high achievers, good with money, etc.
So what’s the story?
One of the most telling things Trump has said during this campaign is that he doesn’t go into rallies with any script or even terribly prepared sense of what he’s going to say. He starts talking and then waits to get a feel for what the audience responds to. In other words, he homes in on affirmation.
This is largely because Trump is a narcissist. But it’s also a trait of a salesperson. You intuit and understand what the client wants or needs (not the same thing) and then get about selling it to them. For these reasons and on both these fronts, I doubt Trump believes 3/4 of what he says on the campaign trail in the sense most of us understand the word. That is to say, things we believe in or believe to be true and would largely continue to believe even if it became less helpful to do so.
Racism and authoritarianism are core Trump values that predate and are separate from this campaign. The other thing that’s very apparent about Trump is that he’s shockingly, almost totally ignorant of the details of almost every public policy issue – much, much more than even your typically caricatured politician who knows little about the issues of public life without their advisors feeding them lines. This makes him more porous to the views and desires of his supporters because he has little to no matrix of pre-existing knowledge or core beliefs to reference them against or challenge them with.
Because of this – intuiting his audience and almost total ignorance and indifference to policy questions — Trump’s core racism and authoritarianism have been amplified and accentuated, even radicalized to an almost unprecedented, perhaps unique degree by his interaction with his supporters. This is not to exonerate Trump in any way. But it’s important to see that ‘beliefs’ isn’t really a metric that is very useful with Trump. If you see a chameleon who is orange, it doesn’t tell you much about the chameleon. It just means he’s standing in front of an orange background. Trump may himself be intrinsically orange. But the analogy definitely applies.
Trump started with a racist, authoritarian message, drew around him a supporter base of racists and authoritarians and has been in a feedback loop of mutual radicalization and openness ever since. In this article Fortune did a comprehensive analysis of Trump’s twitter feed and retweets. While Trump has almost 10 million followers, his retweets were heavily weighted toward people who either are or follow highly prominent accounts (so-called ‘influencers’) in the ‘White Genocide” community. (Yes, there is a “white genocide” community.) Even weirder, Katrina Pierson, a Trump spokesperson who’s black, also follows a lot of Trump-supporting ‘White Genocide’ leaders on twitter. (Just so we’re clear, these folks don’t like black people.) Trump turns out to be the embodiment of that immortal Onion article: “Why Do All These Homosexuals Keep Sucking My Cock?” (Read it when you have a moment. It’ll be a revelation.)
Neo-Nazis and White Nationalists believe that Trump is sending them signals by RT’ing them, giving a wink-wink that he’s their guy. Dave Weigel quotes a guy named Andrew Anglin, who writes for the major neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, who says, “The evangelicals will listen to his pro-Israel statements, while we will listen to his signals. By pushing this into the media, the Jews bring to the public the fact that yes, the majority of Hilary’s [sic] donors are filthy Jew terrorists.”
I don’t think this is actually how this works. I don’t think Trump is sending signals by frequently retweeting white nationalists and alt-right racists or bringing their ideas into his speeches. I think these are the circles he and his key advisors are circulating in — online and off. Their ideas resonate with them and they adopt them; at least they pass them along. Does he know they’re “alt-right” or “white nationalist” as opposed to another Trump diehard keeping it real? Maybe. But I doubt it.
In the case of Jews, I think Trump is an anti-Semite in the sense of believing in stereotypes of Jews – there’s quite a bit of evidence of this. But I don’t think he has a standing hostility for Jews. It just happens to be that the white nationalists and alt-right racists he’s bonded with so deeply are virtually all also anti-Semites. So that’s just another part of the milieu, the pool of hate filth he’s swimming in. It’s almost akin to the way adaptive genetic mutations can sometimes drag along unrelated genetic traits simply because they’re proximate to each other on the DNA strand.
Perhaps I’m naive and Trump is very tactical about all of this. But I very much doubt it. That would be inconsistent with everything I’ve observed about the man. One might say, with tongue very much in cheek, “Jews have nothing to worry about. Trump’s not an anti-Semite. He’s just very deeply steeped in the neo-Nazi subculture. So these things slip in some time.”
For Jews, I think this is kind of true, in an immediate sense. He has no beef with them, at least not yet. But the whole bizarre story — the neo-Nazi Star of David incident, the countless retweets of white supremacist memes and twitter accounts – tells us one thing clear: Trump repeatedly repeats, broadcasts, embraces racist memes because he and his campaign are racist. It’s not in the articulate and often systematic way you’ll find with many ‘professional’ white nationalists. But he’s running in that crowd and he frequently hears stuff he likes and agrees with. The fact that it’s hardcore, often blatant racism rather than the sort of prettied-up version that passes as ‘extreme’ but acceptable in the mainstream political dialog is simply irrelevant — both because Trump doesn’t really know the difference and because he doesn’t or wouldn’t care if he did. Again, that’s the crowd he’s running in. He feels right at home. The Star of David brouhaha is in a sense the exception that proves the rule. Trump keeps ‘accidentally’ retweeting and embracing authoritarian racism because he’s an authoritarian racist.
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