‘The President is not directly responsible for acts of domestic terrorism, but he should be more careful with his language’. That’s the way the Economist headlined its report on the horrific Pittsburgh killings just over two weeks ago. Its statement is probably a little soft on President Trump, but reasonable nonetheless. Or is it?
Any cursory observer of US politics and the Trump phenomenon will know that the temperature of bigotry has spiked since the business tycoon took office in 2017. In less than two years Presidential discourse has plummeted to divisive lows, informed by menacing tweets, ugly comments and fascist-like rhetoric.
While it is true that a lone-gun lunatic can explode at any time and does not need a Trump to turn into a killing machine, it is naïve to assume that language is without consequences. It does not help when the President of the United States refers to neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville as ‘very fine people,’ or fabricates the presence of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) operatives among Latin-American refugees making their way to the southern border of the United States.
That’s the least of it. Trump has persistently berated a free media and defined journalists who disagree with him as traitors - effectively un-American. We have heard it all before.
The Pittsburgh killer Robert Bowers may well have snapped without Trump’s populist goading; but it is apparent that he was not immune to the toxic and populist discourse emanating from the White House.
Like the parcel bomber Cesar Sayoc who was arrested for posting pipe bombs to critics of President Donald Trump, Bowers inhabited a cyber-like echo chamber of anti-Jewish hate and conspiracy, taking oxygen and solace from the White House tone. The tiny psychopathic sub-culture that he belonged to was nurtured by a broth of prejudice that appealed to the crudest of human instincts.
Simply put, Trump’s language and dangerous buffoonery provides cover for nasties and allows them to come out of the woodwork. They have never had it so good. As New York Times journalist Bari Weiss told talk-show host Bill Maher, Trump has ‘inculcated an atmosphere of conspiracy minded thinking’. The flood gates have been opened.
What began with Rush Limbaugh decades ago and morphed into Fox news, has now come to maturity in dark corners of the internet. It is scary. Decency has disappeared. In a world of easy connectivity and precise social media, we need to rethink the boundaries of freedom. John Stuart Mill’s case for free speech in his classic On Liberty seems irrelevant as a guide to our times.
Robert Bowers had an account on the internet site GAB which has since been taken down. It was riddled with hate. ‘There is no #MAGA [Make America Great Again] as long as there is a kike infestation’, he wrote only a few days before he discharged his AR-15- style rifle and three Glock 357 handguns in the Pittsburgh synagogue.
The target was not random. On a You Tube video which Bowers posted, mass migration and calls for diversity were condemned and blamed on Jews. A week before the massacre, the Pittsburgh synagogue had held ‘a refugee shabbat’. Holocaust denial too crept into Bowers arsenal of hatred. One of his postings called for the gassing of Jews.
Bowers was a walking time bomb whose fuse might well have been ignited by Trump’s poisonous rhetoric. Under Trump, the Republicans have employed language that builds upon well-worn tropes, known all too well by observers of Jew-hatred.
Who could miss the way in which Republicans targeted Janet Yellin, Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros in the build up to the mid-term elections?
Trump himself tweeted a message from an antisemitic message board showing a Magen David atop a pile of cash. Don’t kid yourself, the man is a bigot. ‘Blood suckers’ and a ‘global power structure’, including ‘international banks,’ are secretly plotting against ordinary Americans, he alleged in one outrageous communication.
The surge of illiberal populism today is not unique to Trump. It has flourished globally in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. For casualties of the crash, distinctions between left and right mattered less than the cleavage between elites and ‘the people’. Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have all done their best to exploit this populist mood.
Donald Trump is an exemplar. Basing his politics on identity and exclusion, he has defined the so-called ‘real America’ which he repeatedly tells his followers will be ‘great again’ under his leadership. Trump understands his base and its hatred of Washington and its experts. Like all populists he claims that he alone represents the people and defines his political opponents as enemies.
Of course, Trump is not an antisemite; but he has effectively endorsed bigotry. Antisemitic incidents have risen disturbingly since he occupied the White House. Cause and effect are difficult to prove. The President of the world’s leading power, however, should be dousing the flames of hatred and division rather than throwing petrol on them. Trump is determined to fight ‘others’ who are ‘trying to destroy our proud American heritage’.
Unfortunately, the classic ‘other’ has for centuries been the Jew. At least that is what some of Trump’s followers understand.
Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at UCT. This article first appeared in the SA Jewish Report (16 – 23 November 2018).