Since the slaying of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh on Saturday, allies of President Trump have hastened to reassure the public that the president’s rhetoric played no role in inciting the deadly violence. “The president cherishes the American Jewish community for everything it stands for and contributes to our country,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, choking up, on Monday. “He adores Jewish Americans as part of his own family.” Outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley demanded that critics “have some respect for these families & stop the blame.” USA Today columnist James S. Robbins says it’s “factually incorrect and morally wrong” to say Trump could be encouraging anti-Semites: “This is a president whose high-profile daughter Ivanka is an observant modern Orthodox Jew and whose Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a trusted White House envoy and personal adviser.”
Trump does, indeed, have Jewish family members and supporters. But he also revels in the anti-immigrant paranoia that the far right loves. Along with Fox News, Trump has spent weeks stoking panic about the prospect of “invasion” by a “caravan” of migrants walking from Honduras toward the United States, in an unarmed group composed of men, women and children, mostly planning to seek asylum. His allies have singled out one antagonist responsible for both the migrant caravan and protests against Trump’s administration: George Soros, the Jewish activist and philanthropist who fled Hungary as a refugee child after the Holocaust.
For American white supremacists, hysteria about immigrants is inextricable from anti-Semitism: Many of the far-right nativists who cheer Trump’s immigration rhetoric are also obsessed with Jews. When prominent Republicans warn that a powerful Jew is secretly funding an invasion by foreigners, it doesn’t matter how many Jewish grandchildren the president has — he and his party are fueling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the sort that the suspect in the Pittsburgh shooting posted on social media just before he walked into Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday.
For decades, white supremacists have accused Jews of promoting immigration to, as the 1995 “White Genocide Manifesto” by white supremacist David Lane put it, “mix, overrun and exterminate the white race.” Earlier generations of white nationalists, particularly those who fought violently against the advances of the civil rights era, accused Jews of promoting interracial marriage with the goal of “mongrelizing” white people — and of funding the NAACP. Contemporary white supremacist rhetoric echoes these themes: An Oct. 29 post on the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, responding to the synagogue shooting, accused Jews of advocating for “race-mixing and unlimited third-world migration” and complained that “Jews and their propagandists keep acting like there is no logical or rational explanation as to why anti-Semitism exists.”
When white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” they weren’t referencing a sudden plague of Jewish body-snatchers, seeking to take over their lives. They were referencing the theory they regarded as truth: That Jews are engineering a “genocide” of the white race through immigration. Close Trump ally Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has gestured toward this theory as well, tweeting that “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.”
It’s impossible to overstate the centrality of Jews to the white supremacist worldview: While their hatred and fear about racial purity is directed toward people of color, it is Jews who they believe are nefariously orchestrating the dilution of that purity. To white supremacists, Jews are invested with inordinate power, controlling the United States government and mass media as well as global financial systems — a worldview drawn straight from the 1903 Russian forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The ubiquitous white-supremacist conspiracy that posits the Jew as sinister controller of nonwhite Americans has led repeatedly to episodes of deadly violence. In 1984, members of the white supremacist terror group the Order murdered Jewish talk radio host Alan Berg after swearing an oath to “deliver our people from the Jew.” The Order was inspired by the 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” a seminal white-nationalist text that posited that the U.S. government was controlled by a sinister Jewish group known as the Zionist Occupation Government. In 1999, white supremacist Buford Forrow Jr. shot five people at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles to stave off what he called the “decline of the white race” and offer a “message to America by killing Jews.” Ten years later, white supremacist James von Brunn fatally shot a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, leaving a note that said, “Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America’s money. Jews control the mass media.” Years prior, von Brunn had written an anti-Semitic book titled “Conquest Through Immigration.”
Trump’s entire strategy for next week’s elections has revolved around ginning up hysteria about immigration. The migrant caravan has been cast on Fox News as an “invasion” by sinister, potentially diseased foreigners eager to “break into our homes” — echoed in the resolve of Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Pittsburgh shooting, to punish Jews for bringing in “invaders.” Trump has repeated the claim that a group traveling on foot from Central America to claim asylum constitutes an “invasion” and speculated that “gang members” are involved. This week, he took the extraordinary step of ordering that thousands of troops be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border, raising the grim specter of violence toward those seeking asylum.
Republicans have refrained from stating directly that Jews as a whole are responsible for the migrant caravan, but several elected officials and countless right-wing commentators have blamed one Jew in particular. Before the string of mail bombs and the synagogue shooting, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) baselessly speculated on Twitter that the migrant caravan was funded by Soros. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) echoed the sentiment. “Soros may be funding this,” he said. On Wednesday, Trump said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Soros was funding the caravan, though there’s no evidence that he is. (I work for Media Matters, which received a $1 million grant from Soros in 2010, eight years before I joined.)
And while Trump may hope to stoke reactionary fear among regular voters, white supremacists — the most strident and violent anti-immigrant voices in the United States — are rejoicing in his rhetoric. Trump’s announcement this week that he wanted to end birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants was greeted with enthusiasm on Stormfront.org, a white nationalist message board. “Stopping birthright is essential,” one poster wrote. “Every Country should follow suit,” another wrote. The Daily Stormer reacted with glee. “None of these dirt-weasels are getting out!” wrote the site’s founder, Andrew Anglin. The post went on to praise Trump’s plan for “open air concentration camps” and called the announcement a triumph over “the filthy lying JEWS.”
On message boards such as 4chan and 8chan, anti-Semitism blooms in a hothouse of anonymity — and open celebration followed the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue. This week, a poster on 4chan wrote, “ROBERT BOWERS IS A HERO AND HE SHOULD HAVE KILLED MORE.” Another wrote, “Robert Bowers is an American hero and I’m certain there are more out there like him, biding their time.” The white supremacist website Occidental Dissent disdained the violence of the shooting — but only in strategic terms. “We will never hear the end of Pittsburgh because Jews control the media,” wrote the site’s founder, Hunter Wallace, who added that the “deaths are being exploited to push all of the usual Jewish narratives about political correctness, censorship and refugee resettlement."
The white supremacist theory that Jews are foes of the white race who seek its destruction has provoked violence before — including synagogue bombings and murders. Last weekend, it led to the deadliest attack on Jews in American history and plunged a city into mourning.
The Republican Party’s wide embrace of white nationalist rhetoric on immigration — the language of “invasion,” of disease, of the need for violent retribution — has clearly emboldened white supremacists. In doing so, the GOP and its leader have also stoked the flames of anti-Semitism, whether they intended to or not. It is impossible to mainstream elements of white supremacist discourse without strengthening its core precepts in the process. In cynically invoking Soros to gesture at well-established anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Republicans have created a superheated rhetorical environment — one that undeniably contributed to the Pittsburgh tragedy.
This week, the Pittsburgh Jewish community has faced a challenge unprecedented in American Jewish history: It has had to determine how to properly fulfill Jewish mourning rituals, which demand constant vigils and swift burial, with the autopsies and crime-scene protocols that follow a mass slaughter.
On Tuesday, some chose to enact that mourning fiercely and in public, a form of somber protest toward the president, whose words and actions helped propel the ideology that caused those deaths. Trump insisted Wednesday that the protests hadn’t happened, but they did. Under a cloud-dappled sky, signs and banners were unfurled among the grieving Jews of Pittsburgh. One read, “Your words have consequences.” Another simply said: “Trump: Denounce White Nationalism Now.”