Opinion | The Warped Electoral Logic Behind Trump’s Antisemitism

For most Americans, including Republicans, the resurgence of hatred against Jewish people is the return of an ancient evil. But Donald Trump, who has refused to disavow his dinner with two of the country’s most virulent antisemites, apparently sees it very differently.

He sees it as a constituency.

Trump is seldom careful about who he offends — tossing out jibes, insults, and threats with reckless abandon. He is more than willing to lash out at cultural elites and the people he calls “disloyal Jews” who support Democrats. But Trump has been consistent in his reluctance to offend what he regards as a crucial part of the base that he has nurtured over the years. He is unapologetic about associating with overt neo-Nazis, and unwilling to issue full-throated denunciations of antisemitism. Trump is willing to draw this barrage of opprobrium for one simple reason: He believes that he has tapped into something in the American electorate, especially among evangelical Christians, who have ingrained — but complicated — attitudes toward Israel and Jews.

And these are his people.

Trump’s defenders bristle at such charges, noting that Trump’s own daughter, son-in-law and some of his grandchildren are Jewish and that he is a staunch friend of Israel. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem, they say. What about the “Abraham Accords,” they say. But Trumpism (and Trump himself) has given oxygen to renascent antisemitism that has been introduced and normalized — by social media, celebrities and politicians — to a new audience that is impossible to quantify but may number in the millions. A2020 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that a majority of Americans “agree with at least one common stereotype about Jews.” While overt antisemitism has declined over the last half-century, the report found that 11 percent of Americans — or more than 28 million Americans — believe in six or more of the 11 anti-Jewish stereotypes tested.

This resurgent antisemitism — a blend of old-fashioned anti-Jewish sentiment, extreme versions of Christian/evangelical nationalism and a deep investment in conspiracism — is not, of course, new. But it is arguably more widespread, more virulent and closer to the political mainstream than at any time in recent history. The last few years have been a master class in the extent to which millions of Americans are willing to believe myths, lies and dark theories about cosmopolitan cabals who threaten the fabric of American life. Attacks on George Soros and “globalists” are now standard attack lines on the American right. Inevitably, though, a worldview obsessed with malign global elites will settle on the Jews as a target of choice.

The result has been an ominous upsurge in violence and hate.

In 2021, antisemitic incidents surged by 34 percent, to the highest number since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking anti-Jewish violence. Meanwhile, social media platforms have opened the gates to an alarming explosion of attacks on Jews and Judaism. In the two weeks after Elon Musk took control of Twitter, antisemitic posts spiked by more than 61 percent.

“Elon Musk sent up the Bat Signal to every kind of racist, misogynist and homophobe that Twitter was open for business,” Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate told The New York Times. "They have reacted accordingly.”

Amidst all of this, Trump had dinner with a prominent neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier, and a billionaire celebrity rapper who sees “good things in Hitler.”

While Republicans eventually denounced the bigotry — even when they couldn’t bring themselves to name Trump himself — the former president refused to disavow it. This too, has been a consistent pattern, dating back long before his embrace of the “very fine people” who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville.

As usual, it is not clear whether Trump, a man of few ideas and little or no introspection, actually holds antisemitic views. But that is beside the point: He thinks these are his people and he’s not going to abandon them. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, “Trump has always been desperate to send signals to his base of support that he agrees with and loves them.”

There is a long and tangled history behind this current moment. And it bears reviewing because this history is so relatively recent that it barely qualifies as being past.

The leading far-right Catholic demagogue of the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, was a notorious and virulent antisemite, who “denounced Jews in language that might have been lifted from Der Stürmer.” Besides his popular radio show, Coughlin ran a weekly magazine called “Social Justice,” which had a circulation of a million. The publication occasionally published excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous fake document that claimed to reveal an international Jewish conspiracy and was known for its “pure unadulterated Jew baiting.”

Although Coughlin was de-platformed and disgraced, the conservative coalition would continue to marinate in a toxic stew of conspiracy theories. By the mid-1950s, William F. Buckley Jr. was so convinced that exorcizing the demon of antisemitism was so critical that he declared National Review magazine “declined association with anti-Semites.” And he moved aggressively to purge the ranks.

Years later, he would ban writer Joseph Sobran from his magazine, and defied and horrified many of his allies on the right by denouncing Pat Buchanan’s antisemitism.

But Buckley’s success was only partial and only temporary.

In 1991, one of the leading figures of the evangelical movement, Pat Robertson, published “The New World Order,” an anthology of paranoid fever dreams. In the book, one reviewer noted, Robertson claimed to be revealing “a global conspiracy, stretching back centuries and financed by Jewish bankers, all aimed at the formation of a one-world dictatorship.” Like Coughlin before him, Robertson also cited the bogus and debunked Protocols to make his case.

Despite the overtones of antisemitism, Robertson’s book became an immense bestseller among Christian conservatives, suggesting the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment among the evangelical base, even if the evidence was often mixed.

A 1987 study of conservative Christians found that few “consciously use their deeply-held Christian faith and conviction as justification for anti-Semitic views of Jews.” But, diving deeper, there were troubling signs. The survey found that 49 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds agreed with at least one antisemitic characterization, compared to 34 percent of those 55 and over.

More recent surveys of the general public have shown the endurance of stereotypes despite the decline in overall antisemitic sentiment. A 2020 by the Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews found that:

  • More than one-fourth of Americans believe that Jews killed Christ.

  • One in 10 Americans share the white nationalist view that Jews are weakening American culture by supporting expanded immigration.

  • Nearly one in five Americans think “Jews still talk too much” about the Holocaust.

  • Twenty-four percent of Americans agree with the statement “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America.”

Despite this, evangelical support for Israel — regarded as necessary for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy about the second coming — remains strong. And Trump has exploited the contradictions, by staying close to Israel while trafficking in hoary antisemitic tropes.

In 2016, eight-in-10 white, born-again/evangelical Christians voted for Trump, providing him his margin of victory. Nothing that happened after that would drive a wedge between them. In 2020, 81 percent of white evangelical Protestant voters went for Trump, according to the AP VoteCast survey. Trump’s message had connected.

Both as a candidate and as president, Trump repeatedly undermined both the stigma of antisemitism and Buckley’s guardrails.

Shortly before the 2016 election, Trump laid out his theory of a vast globalist conspiracy involving Hillary Clinton meeting secretly with “international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.”

Time magazine called this his “Grand Unified Campaign Conspiracy Theory” that drew upon “conspiracy theories that have been nurtured for years by far-right outlets” like Alex Jones’ InfoWars.

The ADL also expressed alarm when Trump retweeted an image of a “corrupt” Clinton and a Star of David. “We’ve been troubled by the anti-Semites and racists during this political season,” the ADL said in a statement, “and we’ve seen a number of so-called Trump supporters peddling some of the worst stereotypes all through this year.”

The Jewish group was especially concerned that Trump “hasn’t spoken out forcefully against these people. It is outrageous to think that the candidate is sourcing material from some of the worst elements in our society.”

But the pattern had been set.

He was slow to denounce former KKK leader David Duke, and refused to push back against a wave of antisemitic hate directed at Jewish journalists and critics.

During the 2016 campaign, Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, posted an article headlined: “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian K--e Julia Ioffe in GQ,” featuring a picture of Ioffe wearing a Nazi-era yellow star with the word “Jude” and a call to action from Anglin: “Please go ahead and send her a tweet and let her know what you think of her dirty k--e trickery. Make sure to identify her as a Jew working against White interests, or send her the picture with the Jude star from the top of this article.”

When Trump was asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the antisemitic attacks and death threats, the future president refused to condemn them, saying “I don’t have a message to the fans. A woman wrote an article that was inaccurate.”

Trump’s refusal to denounce the outpouring of hate was greeted with delight by Anglin, who immediately posted: “Glorious Leader Donald Trump Refuses to Denounce Stormer Troll Army.” (Last week, Musk restored Anglin’s account on Twitter.)

After decades of fending off cranks, crackpots, and antisemites, the alt-right had brought them back into the political bloodstream with the acquiescence of the GOP nominee.

And then came Charlottesville.

And Marjorie Taylor Greene and “Jewish space lasers.”

And QAnon.

Meanwhile, Fox News began mainstreaming the “Great Replacement Theory,” and whitewashing the antisemitism of Ye, formerly known as Kanye West by editing out his anti-Jewish comments.

In October, when Trump complained about ungrateful Jews, there was little or no pushback from Republicans.

After Ye tweeted that he was “going death con3 on JEWISH people,” the former president invited him to dinner. He came with a notorious neo-Nazi.

And, once again, Trump offered no apology. He doesn’t think he has to, because his base doesn’t mind. These are his people. And he needs them.