Donald Trump is not known for pulling his punches. Sexist? He boasts about groping women and agrees that his daughter Ivanka is a great “piece of ass.” Racist? Mexicans are “rapists” and can’t be trusted to make just legal decisions. Immigrants? They’re “bad hombres” who traffic drugs and slaughter innocent American citizens on the streets. Muslims? Exclude them all or face a bloodbath. Hillary Clinton threatens gun ownership? “Second amendment people” might be able to do something about that.
In the past few weeks, Trump has begun leveling accusations that smack of anti-Semitism, too, but much less openly than the xenophobia he has directed at other groups all through the campaign. The conspiracy theories Trump has been talking up recently play on long-standing tropes used against Jews for decades or even centuries, and the echoes are unmistakable for many of Trump’s alt-right followers and for Jews who are familiar with the history of anti-Semitism. But his language veils the bigotry in a much more subtle way than when Trump talks about Mexicans or Muslims — so much so that it’s not clear that Trump himself fully understands the implications of what he’s saying.
Shortly after Republicans started to disavow Trump over his 2005 remarks about women, the candidate began blaming his troubles on a conspiracy by Clinton and her allies in the media and global finance. Clinton, he said, is colluding with international bankers to undermine the nation and control the world. She pretends to help working-class people and black people, but she is really exploiting them for her own benefit. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors,” Trump announced in West Palm Beach, Fla. The press is also complicit, he argued in that same speech: “The most powerful weapon deployed by the Clintons is the corporate media, the press.” All these are old canards straight out of the phony “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” conspiracy theories about wealthy, international Jewish bankers plotting to destroy the nation and take over the world, controlling politicians with their wealth or through the power of the media that they dominate (the “Jew York Times” is a commonplace in neo-Nazi parlance). These Jews exploit poor and vulnerable people for their own nefarious ends while pretending to be allies. The only missing assertion is the blood libel. Clinton can be understood as either a closet Jew (like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to anti-Semitic claims in the 1930s and 1940s) or a patsy of the worldwide Jewish cabal, which uses unwitting non-Jews to advance its agenda.
Trump’s alt-right followers, who have demonstrated their embrace of his overtly bigoted positions with blasts of racist and xenophobic tweets, shouts at rallies, and discussions on their websites, have certainly understood the anti-Semitic implications of these particular allegations. The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others, as well as the violent threats against their lives and their families, has made that clear. In the past few days, a new Nazi-inspired expletive has been reported at Trump rallies: “Lügenpresse!” (lying press), which The Washington Post has noted is a “common slogan among . . . members of xenophobic, right-wing groups.” There is no evidence Trump’s rallies are producing significantly more anti-Semites — the number of people who hold “deeply” anti-Jewish views has hovered in recent years between 12 to 17 percent of the U.S. population. But there is a danger that like racists, those who already hold bigoted positions against Jews now feel emboldened to act or be more outspoken about their beliefs.
But unlike his other incendiary remarks, Trump’s anti-Semitic assertions are implied rather than stated openly. When challenged, as he was this summer over an image of Clinton superimposed over a pile of money and a six-pointed star, later shown to have come from anti-Semitic web forums, Trump denied any anti-Semitism and took the post down. When criticizing his coverage in the New York Times, Trump explicitly and repeatedly identified the ethnicity of Carlos Slim, the “very rich Mexican” who is a part-owner of the paper, but he never mentioned that a Jewish family has controlled it for generations. If this is anti-Semitism, it is far more subtle than his sexism and racism. What’s going on?
Trump’s references to money, bankers and international conspiracies appear to be deliberate anti-Semitic dog whistles, and his alt-right supporters recognize (and celebrate) that. Trump is not inventing these conspiratorial ravings on the fly during rallies but reading them from prepared remarks. His chief adviser, Steve Bannon, headed Breitbart News — which has leveled racist and anti-Semitic accusations in the past — so maybe it is not surprising that they have surfaced in Trump’s campaign. But the fact that they are dog whistles instead of overt expressions of anti-Semitism may tell us other important things about Trump and about public attitudes.
First of all, dog whistles serve when overt expressions are not an option; they communicate to those who are familiar with the conspiracy theories but maintain plausible deniability. Why would anti-Semitism not be an overt option, while racism, sexism and xenophobia are?
One reason for this may be that Americans are less willing to accept blatant anti-Semitism than racism. Even the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is to identify and fight anti-Semitism, made this point: “Fortunately, most Americans will never personally experience the most [overt expressions of anti-Semitism] . . . the hate crimes, assaults, and serious damage to property. That is because the United States is a country in which hate-motivated behavior is not tolerated by the majority of citizens.” Trump’s alt-right advisers may have concluded that alienating this group by explicitly targeting them might cause more harm than good. Or perhaps Jew-bashing doesn’t promote Trump’s political agenda the way anti-Muslim pronouncements do.
And it may also be that Trump doesn’t understand his accusations as being anti-Semitic. Rather, he embraces conspiracy theories that dovetail with his accusations against Clinton, conspiracies rooted in an anti-Semitic history that delights his racist followers but that on their face appear to have their own legitimacy. Trump wants to emphasize Clinton’s “crookedness,” her coziness with international bankers, her embrace of open trade and more open borders, her willingness to sell out American interests, her control of the media. So he willingly seizes on attacks offered to him that make these claims, oblivious of their origins in historic anti-Semitism. He wants to argue that Clinton does not have working people’s interests or African Americans’ interests at heart, and so he embraces a conspiracy theory that accuses her of undermining poor communities for her own economic advantage without realizing that this stereotype of the greedy Jewish landlord or merchant was a staple of anti-Semitic rhetoric. That all these accusations are traditional anti-Semitic slurs either doesn’t occur to Trump or doesn’t matter to him. His style is to blame others for his failures and to portray ideas that conflict with his as existential evils. These conspiracies, conveniently received by the alt-right as anti-Jewish even without any explicit Jewish references, fit the bill.
My own guess is that Trump is not personally anti-Semitic (in the way that he clearly is, by contrast, sexist). His daughter converted to Judaism to marry a Jewish man of whom Trump seems genuinely fond and who has major influence in the campaign. The wife of Trump’s son Eric is Jewish; Donald Jr.’s wife is Jewish on her father’s side. Trump has Jewish friends and business colleagues. Rather, I believe that he knows so little about the history of anti-Semitism that he doesn’t even realize the links. Once he is challenged on it, he digs in and becomes defensive (I should never have taken down that six-pointed star!) but he doesn’t double down on his attack the way he has when accused of bigotry against other groups.
That the anti-Semitism is unintentional on his part doesn’t make it any less dangerous. By invoking these conspiracy theories without naming Jews, anti-Semitic ideas are introduced without fanfare into the mainstream political conversation while sending encouragement to those white nationalists who fully understand their implications. And so anti-Semitic sentiment and activity rises without anything explicit being said. It serves as a warning that dangerous beliefs can be transmitted even unwittingly if the opportunity presents itself.
Whether Trump is intentional about spreading anti-Semitism is, of course, largely beside the point. Like his more overt expressions of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, Trump’s anti-Semitic comments have made such conversation acceptable again. As a historian, I know that blatantly racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic public comments by public officials (particularly but not exclusively in the South) were commonplace until the 1960s. I never thought I would hear it today. As a Jew and an American, I am both afraid and ashamed. And I worry this recrudescence of bigotry will long outlast the election.
But I am also, oddly, optimistic. The widespread public revulsion at Trump’s comments — not just his anti-Semitism but his xenophobia, anti-Mexican rants, hatred of Islam, racism, sexism, his mocking of the disabled — is one data point. As is the stunning collapse of his political support by Americans of virtually all political, religious, gender and racial groups, and the fact that most Trump supporters spewing hate on social media do so anonymously. All that suggests that the majority of Americans — unlike 50 years ago — no longer find such views acceptable. I don’t want to minimize the very real fear and danger these sorts of threatening statements create. But if we take the longer view, this may well be simply one of the last gasps of white supremacy.