Jewish Americans have generally been able to count on full support from elected officials of their rights as a minority, at least over the past few decades. Given the community’s history of experiencing genocide and given the near-unanimous denunciation of the Holocaust from American leadership, it is a new and frightening development that the person who currently occupies the White House took so long to publicly express what should have been a straightforward statement of revulsion at the rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S.
In a scripted speech, President Trump said at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday that “anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible, and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
The statement came within days of at least two embarrassing responses by Trump during press conferences to reporters’ questions about a national uptick in anti-Semitism in which he appeared defensive and avoided answering the questions directly, choosing instead to focus on his electoral college win, which he has wasted no opportunity to brag about on many other occasions. He even pointed to his daughter Ivanka Trump and Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, as though the fact of Ivanka converting to Judaism and marrying into a Jewish family were proof of his anti-racist credentials. It is simply another version of the insulting trope “some of my best friends are Jewish.”
Trump also said, in his characteristically childish and hyperbolic fashion, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” It would be laughable if real people’s lives weren’t at stake. The fact that dozens of Jewish community centers have received bomb threats by phone and a Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized may have finally prompted Trump to speak out, likely at the urging of his advisers. Perhaps he realized that simply boasting about not being anti-Semitic was not the same as unequivocally denouncing violence and racism. Officials at the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect were not just unimpressed by his statement, they bashed the president in shockingly strong terms, saying that his remarks amounted to “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record. ... Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”
It actually doesn’t matter too much whether Trump is personally anti-Semitic or not. What matters is how his statements and official positions are perceived by his supporters, some of whom are members of white supremacist and nationalist hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) recently released annual census of hate groups in the U.S. found an increase in these organizations around the country for the second year in a row in 2016. It is important to note that Trump has not empowered a previously silent faction as much as he has ridden the wave of existing racial resentment that was building before his ascent to the White House. SPLC’s report explains the surge in hate groups as “stemming from the long-unfolding effects of globalization and the movements of capital and labor that it spawned.” In reflecting the language of white supremacists (such as calling Mexicans “rapists,” and assuming Muslims entering the country will mean “death and destruction”), Trump has given a green light to extremists. In other words, Trump and his racist supporters claim legitimacy by feeding off of one another.
It is no surprise that the community that Trump routinely vilifies most openly—Muslims—are experiencing the highest levels of violence and abuse. SPLC found that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups jumped from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016, a threefold increase. While Trump’s delay in denouncing anti-Semitism may have surprised some, his silence on anti-Muslim hate is hardly surprising given that in his world Muslims are the terrorists, not the terrorized. (In Sweden, where Trump implied there was an underreported terrorist attack by Muslims last Friday, there was in fact an attack by a white-power group aimed at a refugee center and a separate wave of unrest in Stockholm on Monday.) When asked about SPLC’s findings on anti-Muslim hate groups, White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivered an answer that made little sense and effectively sidestepped the question.
There is no mystery about the administration’s negligence with regard to anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate. The links between Trump’s Cabinet and extremists are numerous. His chief strategist, Steve “Too-Many-Asians” Bannon, headed one of the extreme right’s favorite media sources, Breitbart News, before working for Trump. One of Trump’s senior advisers, Stephen “Trump-will-not-be-questioned” Miller, worked with the openly neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer at Duke University. Writing in Salon, Chauncey DeVega explained how “Trump’s administration is built around a brain trust of white nationalists.”
The president himself has retweeted the posts of neo-Nazis. While Trump seems to resort to fabricating terrorist attacks by Islamic groups and individuals in order to fit his narrative, since his candidacy he has remained silent on acts of violence and terrorism committed by white nationalists. Indeed, in Trump’s world, crimes committed by right-wing racist extremists are not worth the federal dollars being spent on studying and combating them. His administration apparently plans to refocus funding solely on Islamic terrorism, and the neo-Nazis are jubilant about it.
For the sector of American society that voted for Trump because of anger about people of color obtaining equal rights, our new era offers a reversal of fortune. In this world, real news is fake, the president’s lies are truth, Muslims, Jews, immigrants and refugees are criminals, and whites are simply victims.
The good news is that hate groups and far-right extremists are still a minority, even if a strong advocate has ascended to the nation’s highest office. In the wake of the Jewish cemetery’s vandalism in Missouri, Muslim groups raised tens of thousands of dollars in just hours to help rebuild and repair the damage. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace have made fighting Islamophobia a priority. Deep solidarity between the targets of Trump’s racist mobs can be our most powerful defense against the ongoing and impending violence we face. It is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for justice in Trump’s America.