President Trump urged Americans to "fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms," including antisemitic threats targeted at Jewish community centers, speaking on Feb. 21 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The Washington Post)

After days and days of being urged and implored and criticized, Donald Trump finally came out today and condemned the rise in anti-Semitic incidents the country has seen since he was elected. Which raises the question: Why was it so hard to get him to do it?

Any other president, the first time the question was asked, would have said, “Of course I condemn those actions in the strongest possible terms. Hatred has no place in our diverse society,” etc., etc. But with Trump it was like pulling teeth.

Here’s what finally happened today:

President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced the recent rise in bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country, saying the anti-Semitism and racism that is troubling America must be addressed.

“Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” Trump told NBC News in an exclusive interview, after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. …

“I think it’s terrible,” Trump said of the anti-Semitic threats. “I think it’s horrible. Whether it’s anti-Semitism or racism or any — anything you wanna think about having to do with the divide. Anti-Semitism is, likewise, it’s just terrible.”

There — was that so hard?

This came after his daughter Ivanka — a convert to Judaism herself — tweeted that “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC” last night, and the White House issued a statement saying, “Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.” 

A young Israeli man who also holds U.S. citizenship was arrested in Israel on March 23, in connection with a wave of threats made to Jewish community centers in the U.S. and several other countries in past months, according to the FBI and local authorities. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The trouble, though, is that he hasn’t made it abundantly clear. To the contrary, this isn’t the first time Trump has had to be browbeaten into a grudging disavowal of ethnic or religious hatred, often being spread in his name. After he was endorsed by former KKK leader David Duke, he denied knowing who Duke was, and said, “David Duke endorsed me? Okay, all right. I disavow, okay?” Which is not exactly a firmly principled condemnation.

It isn’t an accident that every neo-Nazi, white nationalist and anti-Semite in the United States seemed thrilled to no end by Trump’s candidacy and his victory. His campaign was built on antipathy toward immigrants and foreigners and Muslims. He made Steve Bannon, head of the white nationalist website Breitbart, the CEO of his campaign and then his senior adviser in the White House. His rhetoric about America being controlled by a shadowy cabal of “elites” resonated deeply with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, whether that is what he intended or not.

While other politicians might couch their advocacy for special rights for Christians (like the right to ignore anti-discrimination laws they don’t like) as simply about “religious freedom” in the abstract, Trump made it clear that it was Christians in particular he sought to protect. “We are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” he proclaimed while standing on a stage filled with Christmas trees, vowing to end the scourge of inclusiveness represented by people saying “Happy holidays.”

Few things Trump offered his supporters were more important than permission, the permission to not just let their ugliest feelings out but shout them in the loudest voice possible, as a blow against “political correctness.” If you want to use bigoted language or tell somebody to get out of your country, go right ahead — you’ve been liberated. So when just after his election, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” from a stage in Washington and was met with Nazi salutes, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Nor is it some kind of coincidence that in the days following the election, there was an explosion of bias-related incidents across the country directed at racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

But that still doesn’t explain why it was so incredibly hard to get Trump to condemn this new wave of anti-Semitic incidents, which includes dozens of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and the recent desecration of headstones at a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, an act with profound historical resonance. It would have been so easy. So what held him back?

The best explanation I can offer is that for Trump, everything is personal, and even acknowledging that anti-Semitism increased following his election was tantamount to saying that he himself is an anti-Semite. That’s certainly how he dealt with a question about it at his press conference last week. In a bizarre exchange, a reporter for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish magazine began his question by saying, “I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic,” going on to mention Trump’s Jewish grandchildren. “However, what we are concerned about, and what we haven’t really heard be addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.” Trump then interrupted him, told him to sit down, accused him of lying and issued a defense of himself, ignoring the question about anti-Semitic incidents:

TRUMP: Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism — the least racist person. In fact, we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican.

[Journalist tries to redirect Trump to question about anti-Semitic incidents]

TRUMP: Quiet, quiet, quiet. See, he lied about — he was going to get up and ask a very straight, simple question. So you know, welcome to the world of the media. But let me just tell you something — that I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question because people that know me — and you heard the Prime Minister, you heard Netanyahu yesterday — did you hear him, Bibi? He said, I’ve known Donald Trump for a long time, and then he said, forget it.

So you should take that, instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine a less insulting way that question could have been asked. Yet Trump still reacted with hurt that he then turned around in contempt toward the questioner. You can attribute a certain tone-deafness to Trump’s staff, as when it issued a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that didn’t mention Jews. But for Trump, everything is about him. Not only that, the world is divided into friends and enemies. Are anti-Semites his enemies, or his friends? For most everyone else, the answer is obvious. But not for Trump.

The real answer to that journalist’s question is that there isn’t much the federal government can do about anti-Semitism. Crimes can be investigated and prosecuted, and hate crime laws can enhance the sentences of the perpetrators. But the only real power the president has is the bully pulpit, which he can use to help define what is and isn’t acceptable in American society. Trump finally got around to doing that — but it was obviously against his will.