Trump is well aware of how white supremacists and others interpret his remarks. What makes it so sinister is that he keeps doing it anyway.
Six-hundred and forty-four days after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, the anti-Semitism his candidacy and presidency have unleashed has come home to roost.
Details will continue to emerge about Robert Bowers, the far-right white nationalist who on Saturday morning walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and three handguns, and opened fire, killing 11 and wounding six others. The oldest victim was 97 years old.
We already know Bowers made his intentions clear: he blamed the entire Jewish community for the work of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization founded in the late 1800s to assist Jewish emigres from Russia and now focuses on refugee resettlement in the U.S. and around the world. HIAS, he wrote, is “bring[ing] invaders in that kill our people.”
Bowers is not Donald Trump, neither in style nor substance. He never hid genocidal intent against the Jewish community. On social media, Bowers wrote that there is “no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” and referred to the “Jew problem” in his posts. As he unloaded rounds into the worshippers at Tree of Life, he was heard shouting “all Jews must die.”
Trump, unlike Bowers, does not traffic in the kind of overt anti-Semitism we have seen surface among the extreme right in the United States in recent years. His unbridled support for Israel’s policies, his Jewish daughter, in-laws, and the appointment of Jews to senior positions in his administration give him plausible deniability. Unlike Mexicans and Muslims, who have been openly targeted by the Trump administration (HIAS has been active in supporting both Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing violence in central and South America), American Jews have for the most part been spared as direct targets of Trump’s brand of xenophobia.
But the president need not resort to Nazi anti-Semitism to inspire the bloodlust of Bowers and his ilk. After all, Jews do not categorically bother Trump. It is a particular kind of Jew — cosmopolitan, progressive, anti-racist — that Trump has adopted as a scapegoat for America’s problems. His repeated attacks on George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who has historically funded liberal causes, is exemplary of the way right-wing leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian President Viktor Orban are now deploying anti-Semitism: by using coded language to paint left-wing Jews as the source of a global conspiracy working to undermine everything their nationalist worldview represents.
Trump does not need to mention Soros’ Jewish identity at all; the implication of mentioning Soros in the first place is totally clear. That’s the beauty of dog-whistling — the president doesn’t have to talk about “the Jewish agenda” to make clear to his followers who or what he is referring to.
And while Trump may actually only be talking about Soros — who holds significant political and economic power — his most radical followers make no distinction between Soros as a person and Soros as codeword for “Jews.” Robert Bowers may have despised HIAS and its support for refugees and immigrants, but his attack on a Jewish place of worship is proof that Trump’s brand of veiled anti-Semitism is no less dangerous than the kind one finds on the front page of the Daily Stormer.
That is what precisely makes it so sinister: the president knows exactly what he is doing. He is well aware of what kind of violence his remarks can inspire and fuel, yet he continues to make them anyway.
Correction: This article originally stated that the oldest victim of the Tree of Life massacre was a Holocaust survivor. That statement was based on erroneous media reports and has been subsequently removed from the article.