Every job has its pros and cons. The good part about reporting on anti-Semitism is that you get to say “I told you so” a lot. The bad part about reporting on anti-Semitism is that you get to say “I told you so” a lot.
In September 2016, I wrote an essay entitled “Why a Vote for Trump Is a Vote for Mainstreaming Anti-Semitism.” The argument was less that Donald Trump personally despised Jews—that is a more complicated discussion—but rather that his campaign was “dependent on a rabid support base that does.” Because Trump had repelled many traditional Republican political professionals, he was unusually reliant on an enthusiastic fringe of online extremists to get his message out, which meant that the more power he amassed, the more influence they would attain. It was clear, I concluded six years ago, that electing Trump would not elevate just him, but his entire unfortunate entourage, into public life.
Last Tuesday, the same Donald Trump dined with two avowed anti-Semites, the rapper Kanye “Ye” West and neo-Nazi influencer Nick Fuentes, at his Mar-a-Lago resort. The former president has since issued many statements about the meeting, both through official channels and his social-media app, Truth Social. None condemned the anti-Jewish ideology of his companions.
The incident has alarmed even some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, and drawn wide-ranging condemnation from figures as varied as Senator Marco Rubio, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He mainstreams, he legitimizes Jew hatred and Jew haters,” one longtime Trump ally told the New York Times. “And this scares me.” Like many Jews, I’m glad to hear rebukes from Republican officials and activists. But I’m also shocked that they are shocked. Trump’s unrepentant rendezvous with racists was many things, but it was not surprising. After all, as I noted back in 2016, he and his allies have been boosting bigots from the fever swamp ever since Trump entered politics.
Just look back at his campaign for the presidency, which was riddled with these awkward imbroglios. In July 2016, Trump tweeted a meme declaring that Hillary Clinton was “the most corrupt candidate ever”—with those words emblazoned over a six-pointed Jewish star superimposed on a pile of money. The meme had previously been popularized on a neo-Nazi website. Shortly before the election, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Kevin MacDonald, America’s premier white-supremacist academic, who has argued that Jews are genetically driven to destroy Western countries, pumping the marginal malcontent into the political mainstream. Trump’s future national security adviser General Michael Flynn similarly retweeted an anti-Semitic message, foreshadowing his own descent into conspiracism over the coming years.
For a traditional politician, these incidents would have provided easy opportunities to disavow the fanatical fringe and distance themselves from its denizens. But Trump is constitutionally incapable of condemning those who praise him, which in practice means that he repeatedly launders his ugliest sycophants into the nation’s political discourse. This is why he couldn’t restrain himself from declaring that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville. And it’s why he has been unwilling to explicitly reject the worldview of his white-supremacist dinner guest, Nick Fuentes, who marched in that racist rally.
In other words, like so much related to anti-Semitism today—from Ye’s conspiracy theories to far-right attacks on American Jews—Trump’s elevation of anti-Jewish actors is not actually new; people are just starting to notice it. Yesterday’s Trump “mistakes” are tomorrow’s Trump guest list. There is a straight line from the 2016 campaign to the 2022 dinner.
It would be comforting to think that some of Trump’s enablers have finally learned this lesson. But despite the condemnations, that’s far from clear.