How Donald Trump’s Campaign Collapsed Into An Anti-Semitic Vacuum

Donald Trump CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
Donald Trump CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

On Wednesday night, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stood before a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio and did something few, if any, major American presidential candidates have done: unabashedly defend something widely thought to be anti-Semitic.

After briefly addressing recent remarks in which he praised felled dictator Saddam Hussein, Trump attempted to quell the controversy surrounding a recent tweet published by his campaign criticizing his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. He flatly rejected the accusation that the image in the tweet, which superimposed a six-pointed over a pile of money before it was deleted and hastily altered, was anti-Semitic.

“That’s just a star,” Mr. Trump proclaimed to the crowd over and over again, dismissing those who say the image resembled the Jewish Star of David and played on stereotypes that cast Jews as money-obsessed.

In an apparent effort to drive his point home, Trump also published a tweet later that evening featuring a photo of a Disney children’s book emblazoned with a six-pointed star similar to the one used in his anti-Clinton tweet.

“Where is the outrage for this Disney book?” Trump tweeted. “Is this the ‘Star of David’ also? Dishonest media! #Frozen”

Within minutes, various media outlets pointed out that Trump did not appear to care that the star on the book was not superimposed over a pile of money as it was in his Clinton tweet, nor did he acknowledge that the image he used originated from an alt-right Twitter personality who cribbed it from a heavily anti-Semitic 8Chan internet forum. Critics accused Trump of completely misunderstanding the criticism surrounding his use of a six-pointed star, saying his defense was, at best, tone-deaf to Jewish concerns.

Trump, of course, has insisted that he is not anti-Semitic, and it is true that he has largely shied away from personally voicing anti-Semitism. He often defends himself by noting that his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law are both Orthodox Jews (Ivanka converted in 2008).

But the tweet scandal is not the first time Trump has deflected accusations of anti-Jewish hatred, and many argue his consistent refusal to condemn his own anti-Semitic supporters or even distance himself from their actions has created a de facto link between his campaign their hateful beliefs.

To properly understand why so many Americans are unable to give him a pass this time — and why Trump is so defensive — here is the unsettling history of how the Trump campaign came to be associated with anti-Jewish hatred.

Trump allowed a culture of hate to thrive under his watch

Trump’s first brush with accusations of anti-Semitism came last December during a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Trump repeatedly referred to the wealth of the attendees throughout his address, rattling off eyebrow-raising quips such as “I’m a negotiator, like you folks,” and “Stupidly, you want to give money. …You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” Political commentators such as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs accused Trump of playing into anti-Semitic stereotypes, saying his remarks cast Jews as “money-grubbing merchants.”

Still, some Jewish groups gave him the benefit of the doubt. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a press release defending the business mogul, arguing that Trump’s tone, while problematic, was seemingly unintentional, and shouldn’t merit widespread condemnation.

But then things got much, much worse.

In late February, Donald Trump was endorsed by former KKK “grand wizard” David Duke, a well-known hate leader and anti-Semite. Duke called on his fellow white supremacists to join him in supporting Trump, saying, “voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage.”

Several organizations, including the ADL, demanded that Trump to reject Duke’s support. But when CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked the candidate to disavow the endorsement during an interview on State of the Union, Trump demurred, saying, “I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?”

CNN’s Jake Tapper Presses Donald Trump To Condemn The Ku Klux KlanEdit descriptionmediamatters.orgThe response was curious because, as TIME and other outlets pointed out, Trump’s sudden amnesia regarding Duke was a new development: when the business mogul halted his exploratory run for the presidency in 2000, he specifically cited Duke as someone he didn’t want to be associated with.

“The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani,” Trump said at the time. “This is not company I wish to keep.”

Trump eventually rejected Duke’s endorsement, but only after substantial public pressure, and he continued to ignore anti-Semitism instead of condemn it — a tactic that only created more problems for his campaign. In March, for instance, a Trump supporter was filmed leaving one of his rallies while raising a Nazi salute and shouting “Go to fucking Auschwitz!” at bystanders.

Things escalated a month later when Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe penned a lightly critical expose on Trump’s wife Melania in GQ. Shortly after the piece was published, Ioffe’s email inbox and Twitter feed were suddenly overrun with hateful tweets from anti-Semitic Trump supporters. Horrified, Ioffe began retweeting some of the worst messages, such as images of her face photoshopped into a picture of a woman at a Nazi concentration camp and a mocking depiction of a Jewish man being shot in the head. The journalist eventually filed a police report against some of her online abusers, claiming that some of their communiques included “threat[s] to kidnap or injure a person.”

But when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump to comment on the attack, he again stated that he didn’t know enough to comment, saying, “You’ll have to talk to them about it.” Worse, when DuJour magazine asked Melania Trump to comment, she disavowed the anti-Jewish message but blamed Ioffe for “provoking” her “fans.”

“I don’t control my fans,” she said, “but I don’t agree with what they’re doing. I understand what you mean, but there are people out there who maybe went too far. She provoked them.”

Meanwhile, digital harassment of Jewish journalists from people claiming to support Trump has only increased. When New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman posted an opinion piece critical of Trump entitled “This is how fascism comes to America,” Twitter user “CyberTrump” promptly “outed” him as Jewish using a secret neo-Nazi code, sparking a wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the journalist’s account. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg both reported similar experiences, as have Jewish reporters at several other outlets — including ThinkProgress. Weisman eventually quit Twitter in protest.

Trump’s silence is emboldening anti-Semites

The combined impact of these incidents has rattled many in the Jewish community. Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, has launched a petition asking the Republican Jewish Coalition to reject Trump. In addition, the ADL has completely reversed from its original tepid defense of Trump, and now repeatedly calls on Trump to speak out against the vitriol spewed by some of his supporters, arguing that doing so could help stifle their fervor.

“The first time something like this happens, like [when Trump repeated] a quote from Mussolini, it’s called a mistake,” ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt told CNN over the weekend. “The second time it happens, like you re-tweet from a white supremacist Twitter account, that’s sloppy. But we’re now at the sixth or seventh time the Trump campaign has invoked bigotry or racism. It’s a pattern that’s perplexing, troubling and wrong.”

Greenblatt elaborated on the potentially horrific impact of this pattern during another CNN appearance on Tuesday.

All of this began with the rise of the Trump candidacy.

“There’s a reason why the KKK says the recruiting is up,” Greenblatt said. “There’s a reason why reporters on the right and left have been slandered and viciously attacked with anti-semitic images online and off line. There’s a reason why this is happening … Don’t take it from me — listen to what the KKK is saying.”

Indeed, experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, claim that this new surge in vocal anti-Semitism can be directly linked to Trump’s rise.

“All of this began with the rise of the Trump candidacy,” Heidi Beirich, Director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told ThinkProgress in June.

One need only look at recent actions among hate groups to see how Trump’s latest tweet scandal is playing among anti-Semites. Shortly after the anti-Clinton tweet went viral, David Duke once again expressed his support for Trump, this time by tweeting out the controversial image alongside anti-Semitic propaganda. He then reiterated on his radio show that the star was not, as Trump’s campaign argued, a sheriff’s star.

“The tweet again shows Clinton, it shows a Star of David,” Duke said. “Of course later the campaign made the excuse, ‘Well, no, that’s like a sheriff’s badge.’ Well, no way, folks. Clinton, money, the most campaign corrupt person.”

Time will tell if more anti-Semitic instances are to come. But in the meantime, Jewish Americans — who are subject to a higher percentage of hate crimes than any other religious group — are demanding Trump speak out passionately against anti-Semitism once and for all.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed CNN’s Jake Tapper as hosting Face the Nation. He actually hosts CNN’s State of the Union, whereas Face the Nation is another Sunday show that airs on CBS.