President Trump, we should know by now, is the master of distraction, making it hard for the news cycle to keep up with his endless string of controversy-inspiring tweets and incendiary behaviors. As the media gets caught up in dissecting the language and meaning of one text, he is on to something else.
It is important, though, that we preserve a memory of the catalog of hate and horrors that have occurred under and, really, been inspired by Trump’s divisive and deadly leadership so the record is clear and, more importantly, so we can comprehend and challenge the social, particularly racial, dynamics he is engineering.
As I wrote about recently in PoliticusUsa, our conversation, particularly in the media, tends to get bogged down in argument over whether or not Trump is racist instead of describing, explaining, and understanding how racism is working—and how Trump promotes its working—in U.S. society to the detriment of the majority of Americans.
Preserving this memory is particularly important in the context of Trump’s urging of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib be barred from entering Israel as part of a congressional delegation on grounds that they are anti-Semitic.
Certainly, both have criticized Israel’s treatment of and policies toward the Palestinian people, as are many Israelis as well as Jewish people around the globe. A critique of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic, nor is a call for the humane treatment and even sovereignty of the Palestinian people.
And what do we make of Trump’s implicit endorsements of anti-Semitism and the general promotion of hate, often resulting in deadly violence, his peculiar brand of leadership has inspired?
Trump has been an ardent of supporter of Israel, and yet arguably a purveyor of anti-Semitism.
How do we understand what we might call this anti-Semitic brand of Zionism?
It is worth teasing out a bit the relationship between anti-Semitism and support for Zionism.
They are really not strange bedfellows at all.
Consider that the Ku Klux Klan supported the efforts of the Black activist Marcus Garvey from the 1910s and 1920s who started the Universal Negro Improvement Association and advocated for a Back to Africa movement.
Why would the KKK support a Black activist? Well, think about it, Garvey wanted Blacks to live away from whites. The call for Black sovereignty and separation, which Garvey viewed as freedom from white racism, dove-tailed nicely with the KKK’s own desire for segregation.
So, along the same lines, we can see that supporting a homeland for Jews is not inconsistent with anti-Semitism.
More to the point, however, it is crucial to understand the relationship between the theology of evangelical Christians, upon whose support Trump depends, and Zionism.
Evangelical Christians have long supported Zionism not because they have affection for Judaism and its adherents but because of their powerful belief in biblical prophecy that declares the Messiah’s second coming will and must be preceded by God’s gathering and resettling of the Jewish people in a homeland. For decades, support for Israel has been a key component of political platform of the evangelical right, as is evident in the words of prominent spokespeople such as Pat Robertson. The Christian narrative of the Messiah’s return cannot be fulfilled without the existence of Israel.
Understanding these dynamics is important in light of Trump’s positioning himself, in his support for Israel, as the crusader against anti-Semitism, and Tlaib and Omar as anti-Semites because of their critique of Israel and expressions of support for Palestinians.
Here is where it’s important we sustain a memory of Trump’s presidency thus far.
Let’s start here: Jews will not replace us.
We must always remember the episode in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia that witnessed white torch-carrying marchers vociferously chanting those words at a white supremacist Unite the Right rally.
It is also worth remembering President Donald Trump’s statement that among those marchers were some “very fine people,” as he refused to condemn their anti-Semitism and white supremacism overall.
Also worth remembering is Robert Bower’s October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a hate crime that took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers. Before this relentless and inhuman 20-minute attack on those worshipping in the synagogue, Bowers had authored a social media post ranting against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for bringing in “invaders in that kill our people.”
Amidst the constant eruptions of new tweets from Trump and new behaviors from him and his administration, setting off renewed and repetitive discussions in the media about whether or not Trump is racist, there is risk this long line of events will recede from our memory.
Indeed, the killer in the recent mass shooting in El Paso, motivated by anti-immigrant hate, very much echoed the language of Bowers in his use of the rhetoric of “invasion” to characterize immigrants entering the United States. Obviously, this rhetoric also very much echoes that Trump has employed since the inception of his 2016 campaign for president, which, it is now widely understood, has cultivated a fertile ground not just for overtly racist rhetoric and policy, but for overtly racist deadly violence. While the rhetoric of El Paso shooter has been understood as influenced by Trump’s, I have not seen the connection made to Bower’s.
As we chart this pattern and put the pieces of Trump’s tweets and behaviors together, it becomes clear that Trump’s support for Israel is part and parcel of, and absolutely consistent with, his larger nativist platform manifested in his anti-immigrant policies, his overt racism as seen in his attacks on inner cities, and his calls for those he labels “others,” such as Omar and Tlaib, to go back to where they came from.
Jews will not replace us, a chant Trump refused to condemn, is consistent with chants of Immigrants will not replace us, People of color will not replace us, and so on down the line.
Let’s not forget this brief history of Trump’s racism amidst his constant distractions.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.