Given what we know about President Trump four years into his political career, we can make some fairly safe assumptions about his motivations and tactics. We can assume, for example, that a primary motivation in most of his rhetoric is reinforcing his political position and appealing to his political base. Trump’s disparagements of his opponents are often clumsy but, sometimes solely through sheer repetition, often stick.
Earlier this year, Trump decided to highlight four Democratic congresswomen as an embodiment of the opposing party. Those four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — are all women, all minorities and all liberal. Ocasio-Cortez, in particular, has become a lightning rod among conservatives; by focusing on her and her “squad” (as they call themselves), Trump hopes to expand the antipathy she engenders on the right to Democrats more broadly.
Last month, Trump amplified his attacks on the four by grouping them together as anti-American and anti-Semitic, charges that in his articulation are often treated as equivalent. As we’ve noted, his evidence to bolster those claims is based almost solely on wild misrepresentations of comments some of them have made or on framing their political views as necessarily unpatriotic. At a rally in North Carolina last month, he walked through his charges against Omar in particular, revealing that they were heavily influenced by memes that had propagated through conservative media.
It was at this rally that the crowd chanted, “Send her back!” — a repurposing of Trump’s racist tweet about the four congresswomen “going back” to where they came from.
Trump has also seized upon twin controversies earlier this year centered on Omar. At one point, she claimed that Israel’s power in U.S. politics was a function of “Benjamins” — a slang term for money. She later apologized for her use of the term, arguing that she’d meant the power of the pro-Israel lobby.
The following month, she got into a back-and-forth with Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) after saying at an event in D.C. that she wanted to “talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Lowey criticized tropes that “accuse Jews of dual loyalty” to the United States and Israel, prompting Omar to reply that she “should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”
"Throughout history, Jews have been accused of dual loyalty, leading to discrimination and violence," Lowey replied, "which is why these accusations are so hurtful."
After the "Benjamins" kerfuffle, Trump weighed in.
“Anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress,” he said during comments made before a Cabinet meeting. “Congressman Omar is terrible, what she said. … What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology — and that’s what it was; it was lame, and she didn’t mean a word of it — was just not appropriate. I think she should resign from Congress, frankly. But at a minimum, she shouldn’t be on committees, and certainly that committee.”
A curious claim, given that Trump said at a Republican Jewish Coalition dinner in December 2015 that the group was “not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”
After the “dual loyalty” exchange, Trump highlighted calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Omar to step down from the House Foreign Relations Committee.
“A dark day for Israel!” he wrote on Twitter.
Why lift up this feud? Again, because Trump thinks it helps him politically and reinforces his political base. By highlighting that Pelosi was asked to take an action she wasn’t going to take, he paints Democratic leadership with the same anti-Semitism brush he has deployed against Omar.
The problem is that it's patently disingenuous. That was made clear this week, as Trump made his own assertions about where the loyalties of American Jews should lie.
On Tuesday, speaking to reporters, he expressed frustration about calls to restrict aid to Israel in the wake of that country announcing that it would bar Tlaib and Omar from visiting. (A ban, we’ll note, that Trump advocated.) He again tried to assert that the Democratic Party broadly had behaved inappropriately.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone?” Trump asked. “Where have they gone, where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
That Trump claims to think that the Democratic Party should be more loyal to Israel than to two of its members is one thing. But that he asserted that Jews who vote for Democrats are somehow “disloyal” is another thing entirely.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which supports Trump, argued that the president was suggesting that Jewish Democrats were not being loyal to themselves. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — a lawyer for Trump — suggested on Twitter that Trump’s true meaning was obvious: Jewish Democrats were disloyal to Israel.
As he often does at moments of controversy, Trump leaned in. On Wednesday morning, he was explicit, saying that “if you vote for a Democrat, you’re being disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”
Dual loyalty, indeed.
Trump had earlier tweeted a long quote from conservative commentator and conspiracy theorist Wayne Allen Root.
“President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world...and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God...But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore.”
"Wow!" Trump added at the end.
That quote is problematic in a variety of ways. One is that it compares Trump to Jesus multiple times — “King of Israel,” “second coming” — an odd analogy to use when discussing the views of adherents of Judaism. Another is that it presumes Root and Trump know better than American Jews how they should feel about Israel. (As we noted on Tuesday, most Jewish American voters vote Democratic.) A third is that Trump is amplifying a claim that Jews in America “don’t even know what they’re doing or saying,” a reiteration of his “total lack of knowledge” line.
That Trump doesn’t see that quote as problematic is itself revealing. One of his most fervent pockets of support is white evangelical Protestants, a group that consistently sides with him on political and policy questions. His approach to Israeli politics often lines up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it also reflects priorities that have been central to evangelical politics for years.
In other words, Trump’s approach to the politics of Israel probably is driven in part by the same motivation that drives so much of what he does: delivering for his base. Root’s articulation of how Trump is viewed lines up much more squarely with an evangelical view of leadership than a Jewish one.
It’s somewhat akin to his campaign-trail outreach to black Americans, a superficial outreach that seemed, at least in part, to be aimed at demonstrating to his base that he wasn’t racist. His reflexive insistence that Democrats are anti-Semitic seems to be much more about demonstrating to his base the fervency of his adherence to Israel than to be offering real, considered criticism of his opponents. Telling Jewish Americans that they are disloyal if they aren’t focused on Israel is something that almost certainly appeals a lot more to conservatives such as Root than it does to Democratic Jews.
Trump is not someone who deals in nuance. He has no patience for criticism of Israel because, for him right now, it’s all or nothing. His style is a constant full-court press on the things he thinks his supporters want to see.
But here there’s some additional subtext: Trump would also like to reinforce that support for a country is all or nothing. Why he finds that appealing probably doesn’t need articulation.