In the hours after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, President Trump’s allies were at pains to point out that Robert D. Bowers, the alleged shooter, was in fact anti-Trump. Never mind that the Bowers disliked Trump because he felt he was too soft on “the k--- infestation,” he wrote online, using a slur for Jews. “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist,” Bowers wrote on one of his social media accounts. But to the president’s defenders, this was a hopeful moment, one they could use to separate Trump from the carnage at Tree of Life. There was an important difference between “a shooter who hates Trump,” wrote conservative writer David French, and the man who loved Trump who sent Trump’s critics all those pipe bombs. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt pointed out that anti-Semitism “transcends the left/right divide.” In these defenders’ minds, this absolves Trump of any guilt.
Trump has had enough to say about the Jews that his supporters may easily make certain pernicious inferences. During the campaign, he joked at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition that it wouldn’t support him “because I don’t want your money.” A campaign-era tweet about Hillary Clinton superimposed a Star of David over dollar bills. He said the white-supremacist marchers at Charlottesville last year were “fine people.” After I published a profile of Trump’s third wife, Melania, that displeased her — and his supporters — the alt-right deluged me with anti-Semitic insults and imagery, culminating in clear death threats — such as an image of a Jew being shot execution-style or people ordering coffins in my name. When Trump was asked to condemn these attacks by his supporters, he said, “I don’t have a message” for them. That day, my terrified father called me and pointed out that it was the 26th anniversary of our family’s arrival in America.
Why had we come from the Soviet Union in the first place? My mother tells the story this way: “The decision came one summer when my little daughter was 6 months old and my older one was 5,” she said in a recent interview. “There were these persistent rumors of pogroms, because it was the upcoming 1,000th anniversary of the Orthodox Church in Russia. … People were saying that the police had lists of Jews and their addresses, and they would give them out.” She began to talk about her maternal grandmother, Riva, a pediatrician who had to care for all her siblings after a pogrom had riven their Ukrainian town in the early years of the 20th century. “Her parents,” my mother recalled matter-of-factly, were slaughtered “in front of nine children. All of them were there, forced to watch how their parents were brutally murdered.”
My mother had been deeply resistant to the idea of emigrating, but that day she gave my father dispensation to start the process: She understood, suddenly, that she lived in a political climate so tolerant of anti-Semitism that, by 1988, a pogrom was truly plausible. The nation was steeped in anti-Semitism. In the years after the nation lost 1.5 million of its Jews to the Nazis, Joseph Stalin had ushered in a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” including Jewish doctors who were supposedly poisoning their Gentile patients. Suddenly, Riva’s patients believed the government propaganda that she was trying to poison their children. Her daughter, my grandmother, told me recently that, even after watching her parents’ execution, surviving two world wars and a civil war, “this was the closest I’ve ever seen her to suicide.”
The campaign continued for decades, with Jewish quotas at universities, informal bans on Jews serving in certain politically sensitive professions, and constant anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda. In 1988, the year of my mother’s panic, ultranationalist, anti-Semitic groups such as Pamyat (“Memory”) emerged. They were curated and controlled by the KGB to galvanize the patriotic Soviet masses against the pernicious influences of the pro-Western — and heavily Jewish — intelligentsia. All of this gave license to casual anti-Semitism in daily life. The state didn’t have to tell everyday commuters to call my grandmother a “k---” in a crowded Moscow subway car. It didn’t have to. It had made its preferences perfectly clear.
Culpability is a tricky thing, and politicians, especially of the demagogic variety, know this very well. Unless they go as far as organized, documented, state-implemented slaughter, they don’t give specific directions. They don’t have to. They simply set the tone. In the end, someone else does the dirty work, and they never have to lift a finger — let alone stain it with blood. I saw it while reporting on Russia, where, after unexpected pro-democracy protests and the annexation of Crimea, Putin created an environment so vicious, so toxic (he called his critics “national traitors” and “a fifth column”) that, when assassins killed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov at the foot of the Kremlin walls in 2015, it was easy for people to blame the divisive political rhetoric as if it were a spontaneous weather pattern, rather than Putin himself for creating it. And everyone understood immediately the message it sent: Dissent is a deadly business. Putin may not have ordered Nemtsov’s assassination, but Russia’s elite could clearly see he wasn’t too upset about the outcome.
When I was faced with the anti-Semitic rage of Trump supporters defending “Empress Melania,” I saw it clearly: Should Trump win the election, his followers — some of whom threw the word “k---” around as happily as they use the n-word — would be heartened and empowered, and they would quickly surpass the gas-chamber Twitter memes they were then deploying.
In the 2½ years that followed, Trump’s tune has become a deafening roar. The closing ad of his campaign reprised the kind of anti-Semitic tropes that populated “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”: “It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities,” Trump’s voice said, as pictures appeared of then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen (a Jew), billionaire progressive donor George Soros (a Jew) and then-Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (also a Jew). The ad was called “Donald Trump’s Argument for America.”
In fact, Trump had so much to say about the Jews that his Jewish son-in-law has had to publicly defend him as “not an anti-Semite.”
But the anti-Semites have not been convinced. A month after he had ordered his trolls to attack me, white supremacist Andrew Anglin told the HuffPost what he thought of Trump’s refusal to denounce them. “We interpret that as an endorsement,” he said. To his readers, he wrote, “Glorious Leader Donald Trump Refuses to Denounce Stormer Troll Army.” When Trump blamed “both sides” for Charlottesville, his supporters heard him loud and clear: “I knew Trump was eventually going to be like, meh, whatever,” Anglin said. “Trump only disavowed us at the point of a Jewish weapon. So I’m not disavowing him.” Many others in the alt-right praised Trump’s statement as moral equivocation on Charlottesville. To them, this, rather than the forced, obligatory condemnation, was the important signal. (According to the Anti-Defamation League, the incidence of anti-Semitic hate crimes jumped nearly 60 percent in 2017, the biggest increase since it started keeping track in 1979. What made 2017 so different? It was Trump’s first year in office.)
When Trump called himself a nationalist in Houston last week, the alt-right knew exactly what he meant. One alt-right commenter was elated because nationalism “is inherently connected to race.” Another wrote that he was “literally shaking” with glee. Still another wrote “THE FIRE RISES.”
The president did not tell a deranged man to send pipe bombs to the people he regularly lambastes on Twitter and lampoons in his rallies, so he’s not at fault. Trump didn’t cause another deranged man to tweet that the caravan of refugees moving toward America’s southern border (the one Trump has complained about endlessly) is paid for by the Jews before he shot up a synagogue. Trump certainly never told him, “Go kill some Jews on a rainy Shabbat morning.”
But this definition of culpability is too narrow, too legalistic — and ultimately too dishonest. The pipe-bomb makers and synagogue shooters and racists who mowed a woman down in Charlottesville were never even looking for Trump’s explicit blessing, because they knew the president had allowed bigots like them to go about their business, secure in the knowledge that, like Nemtsov’s killers, they don’t really bother the president, at least not too much. His role is just to set the tone. Their role is to do the rest.