Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Trump's denunciation of anti-Semitism in interview is welcome, but late for a man who stoked bigotry throughout campaign
She says he should rid White House of alt-right influences, reject considering a plan that would limit terror probes to Muslim-linked acts
Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and 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.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible. And it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” President Donald Trump announced Tuesday during a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “You don’t know where it’s coming from but I hope they catch the people.”
Many may feel relieved at this statement, which was occasioned by the latest evidence of a sharp uptick in anti-Semitism in our country. Just over the last few days, we’ve seen a slew of bomb threats to Jewish community centers around the country and the desecration of over 100 headstones at St. Louis’ Jewish cemetery.
President Trump showed some leadership with this communication, but we can ask: Why did it take him so long to decide to acknowledge reality? Just last week, he disheartened many by telling a reporter from a Jewish newspaper that merely asking about anti-Semitism was “not a fair question.”
And while it’s true that as of now the perpetrators of these crimes have not been found, Trump’s assertion that “you don’t know where it’s coming from” is disingenuous, since he has contributed to the rise of that anti-Semitism in multiple ways from the very start of his campaign for president.
Trump long used powerful racist images to build his political brand and constituency during the race for the presidential nomination, setting himself up as the lone protector of white Christian America. In July 2015, his campaign released an ad that featured men dressed as Nazi SS soldiers with a message proclaiming that “We need leadership!”
Four months later, he tried to discredit his opponent Jeb Bush by retweeting a racist montage of images that included a swastika, Bush in a sombrero and a cartoon of a monkey trying to cross the border from Mexico. Such retweets from white supremacist social media accounts also brought concepts like “JewAmerica” and “white genocide” to mainstream attention.
And have we conveniently forgotten Trump’s use of anti-Semitic images to try and paint Hillary Clinton as a corrupt and untrustworthy candidate? It wasn’t subtle - Clinton was depicted next to a star and against a background of $100 bills – but what should we have expected from its alt-right message-board source? By July 2016, having absorbed a year of such communications, his target audience knew what he stood for: the reassertion of white Christian power in America through any means necessary.
For the rest of us, there were lame excuses from the Trump campaign and surrogates. “The intern did it” for the SS men; Trump’s own overlooking of the presence of the swastika in the Bush-targeted retweet; the liberal media’s supposed misinterpretation and paranoia in the case of the Clinton image, which featured not a Star of David but a “sheriff’s badge.”
The truth is that racism has been a main element of continuity in Trump’s political career, with anti-Semitic images used as potent currency. So no one should be surprised that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, saw a sharp spike in hate-related incidents (against Jews, blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and women) in the month following the election. 37% of the recorded incidents were “Trump-related,” meaning they “directly referenced either President-Elect Donald Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault.”
All of this should make Americans very concerned about the Trump administration’s statement that it is considering narrowing its investigations of terrorism to Muslim-linked acts. What is the aim of this apparent intent to ignore white racist violence, potentially paving the way for its decriminalization?
We might put the question to Trump’s inner circle, to men such as Stephen Bannon, whose former job as executive chairman of the alt-right Breitbart News made him the darling of white nationalists everywhere; or to Stephen Miller, who has campaigned against “Islamofascism,” on the belief that the US and Western civilization are at war with Islamic jihadists.
It’s certainly high time to pose it to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both observant Jews.
What they perhaps don’t want to realize – but Bannon knows all too well – is that racism is a famously mobile form of hatred. Blacks and Jews, and Arabs and Jews, have often been collapsed together by white nationalists and their authoritarian leaders as different facets of the same “problem” to restrict or eliminate. And that once racist violence is unleashed, especially when encouraged by the state, it’s difficult to contain.
Optimists believe that people can change. If Trump is really serious about going against his history and combating racism in all forms, anti-Semitism included, he could start with two actions: discard the idea of exempting white terrorists from prosecution. And get rid of Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller and all the other extremists who Trump has allowed into America’s halls of power and influence, only to propagate racially-grounded fantasies of American greatness.
If history’s any judge, they will lead us to ruin. We deserve far better than that.