Image via CNN
I didn’t vote for Ross Perot in 1992. However, I have always remembered one line from the Independent candidate during the third presidential debate that garnered little attention. “If you hate people,” Perot declared in his Texas twang, “I don’t want your vote.” Perot didn’t proclaim himself “the least racist person there is,” or, “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” Instead, he denounced racism cogently, indefatigably, and basically, unprompted while disavowing any of his own would-be racist backers. It’s moments like that which galvanize voices of the aspiring.
Contrast that with President Trump. At his first press conference since becoming president last week, Trump took a series of questions that centered mainly around the controversy over Michael Flynn, then joked that he was seeking “a friendly reporter” as he called upon Jake Turx of the weekly <em>Ami Magazine</em>. And what actually happened when a politician was seeking a friendly reporter proved to be the antithesis of what usually happens: he actually got one. In fact, the question Turx asked was such a gimme most could easily have questioned whether Turx was an administration plant (he wasn’t).
Turx began by asserting that neither he nor any member of his administration had ever been accused of being anti-Semitic (apparently he had never heard of Steve Bannon). But he told the president that members of the Jewish community have been dispirited by the rise of threats to the Jewish community centers around the nation (48 to that point) and asked Trump what his administration was doing to combat them. It was a perfect opportunity for Trump to address naysayers upset that his own gestures (not mentioning the Jewish people in his Holocaust Remembrance proclamation, etc.) were seen as ambiguous toward the Jewish people. Instead, Trump took it as a slight, cut the reporter off and bemoaned the fact that, contrary to what had been promised, it wasn’t a simple question, He subsequently spoke of his warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without condemning the recent attacks or presenting a strategy for combating the threats.
That seems to be the mechanism for Trump defenders to dismiss allegations of anti-Semitism; citing the fact that the United States and Israel’s alliance is closer than ever before. It brings to light the assertion by some that a person who appears anti-Israel must at the same time be anti-Semitic. I was never willing to accept this on its face (and I say that as someone who is of Jewish faith), as there are a number of people, including members of Congress and even past Presidents whose rhetoric and votes on were not pro-Israel, but who had very friendly relations with the Jewish community and in some cases were married to one. After all, there are Americans who have issues with the Chinese or Indian governments who have nothing but the warmest regards for the people.But the opposite applies as well. Just because someone is “pro-Israel” doesn’t mean that they are lovers of the Jewish people. So the fact that Mr. Trump found it necessary to jump through hoops simply to offer reassurance is a little bit discomforting.
In fairness, key members of Mr. Trump’s administration, and eventually the president himself, and family have been quite vocal in expressing their disdain for anti-Semitism. Mike Pence to his credit has been outspoken in trying to display an affinity with the Jewish people. During his recent visit to Munich, Germany, Pence toured a former concentration camp and in the wake of the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, made an unannounced visit. His daughter Ivanka has also been outspoken. But the president sets the tone. Recently, he finally called the attacks “horrible and painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” But it shouldn’t have taken so long. More importantly, saying it shouldn’t had been a close call.
That said, why does the president feel the need to, as New York Congressman Jerry Nadler said, “play(ed) footsie with racist and anti-Semitic groups for a long time?” Many have rightfully noted that Trump does not hesitate to launch protracted twitter tirades against stuff that, for the leader of the free world, hardly merit a response at all. This includes John Lewis, Meryl Streep, a Gold Star family, etc. All this while seemingly angrily eschewing the term “anti-Semitism.” Even the “60 Minutes” interview conducted three days after winning when Lesley Stahl informed him of the racial attacks in his name, he looked into the camera and said “stop it,” a perfectly appropriate gesture but one many considered tepid (noteworthy was his roll-out of Bannon as his chief adviser two days later).
The speculation has been that Trump may have been fearful of annoying a number of his supporters who, to put it nicely, are not particularly sympathetic to Jewish interests. In other words, people who are the true baskets of deplorables. If that’s the case, that is truly upsetting. Trump may well have not wanted to offend those people (and I use the term loosely), because he was counting on them to deliver for him for the election. This too is disheartening. But Trump now has his victory and must bring together a closely – in some cases bitterly divided nation. Plus, he’ll hardly need the bigot vote again. The reason is that if he seeks a second term, he’ll need to keep a heck of a lot of more inclusive voters who will be watching his handling of the economy, foreign affairs, oh and his ability to bring people together. So far at least, he is not off to an auspicious start with the latter.