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Story highlights

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: This is not the first time that Trump has tweeted racist imagery

Despite claims that he is pro-Israel, Trump still could be anti-Jewish, she says

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

No one should be surprised by Donald Trump’s latest tweet (Hillary Clinton as a “corrupt candidate,” next to a six-pointed star and $100 bills) or that it came from an alt-right internet message board. Trump has used racist images to forge an emotional connection with potential voters, presenting them with symbols that speak for him about who will be included and excluded when America is “great again.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
PHOTO: CNN
Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Trump may be known for changing his opinions and policy platforms, but when it comes to racism he’s been consistent. In fact, his reliance on racism to build his voter blocs, and his steadfast refusal to acknowledge the dangerous consequences of spreading ideologies of hate, stand out as among the only elements of continuity in his campaign.

Trump’s anti-Semitic tweet of Clinton simply continues all of these longstanding campaign practices. The theme of Clinton’s corruption is an old one. But why the star, as many on Twitter asked?

The star is integral to making the image work for Trump’s mainstream and fringe constituencies. Disenfranchised whites will read clearly the conspiracy theory implied: Clinton as a surrogate for Jews, who can work through her to exercise their power. Jews-money-dishonesty: we’ve seen it countless times. The only new thing is that the political “cover” is a woman.

As someone who writes about fascism and propaganda, I took note last summer when Trump burst on the political scene and started to use racist images to build his notoriety into a successful political brand. A public relations master, Trump has often attributed his success to being a “shallow” thinker – by which he means listening to his intuition, going with your first reaction to a person, object, or idea.

Trump knows that our reception of images falls into that “shallow” category: we look, and if the image is striking, or “charged” in some way, we have a visceral reaction. His political communications have placed Nazi German symbols, which are shorthand for hatred of Jews (among other groups), front and center before. Think back to last summer, when Trump tweeted a photo of Waffen-SS soldiers (in reality a stock image of actors with SS uniforms), overlaid by an American flag, with a portrait of himself saying, “We need real leadership. We need results. Let’s put the U.S. back into business!”

That tweet also introduced us to a crucial facet of Trump’s propaganda: using Nazi and other racist images to signal gratuitously to supporters the superiority of whiteness, encourage threats of violence against dark people, and stoke the cult of a strong leader. There was no substantive policy reason for those SS troops to be there – but they did enable Trump to reach conservatives who want to strengthen America, and those who think that means our country must be all-Christian and all-white.

01:17 - Source: CNN
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A swastika also improbably figured in the montage of images Trump tweeted in November 2015, in an attempt to discredit Jeb Bush by painting him as pro-Mexican. We had Bush with a sombrero, and monkeys crossing our border – but the swastika got the brunt of media attention, as Trump undoubtedly knew it would.