President Donald Trump denounced threats against Jewish community centers as "horrible," his first forceful statement against anti-Semitism, in Washington on Feb. 21. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
The headlines blared out “Trump Speaks Out Against Anti-Semitism” as President Trump condemned anti-Semitism after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday.
“This tour,” he said, “was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
Undoubtedly, some Jewish and civil rights organizations will praise Trump for his long-awaited statement. The fact that “it was like pulling teeth” [as the Washington Post noted] to “finally” elicit a condemnation that should be about the easiest thing a politician has to do, makes it nearly meaningless.
The issue is not whether Trump is an anti-Semite or is capable of mouthing a boilerplate rejection of hate — that is simply too low a bar. It should be the minimum expected of a leader in 21st century America. Who but vulgar extremists and bigots would publicly take him to task for denouncing anti-Semitism?
The real issue with Trump is that his world view and his conduct are the swamp from which bigotry and hate emerge.
The president has scurrilously attacked the media. He relies on baseless Internet conspiracy theorists (e.g. Breitbart News and Alex Jones) for his most bizarre assertions. He shamelessly cites apocryphal dangers (“rising crime rates” domestically, “rapist” immigrants here and abroad, Muslim demonstrators on 9/11).
Trump continually stereotypes individuals (the African American reporter who “must” know the Congressional Black Caucus members; the Orthodox Jewish reporter who was assumed to be asking a hostile question last week). He betrays a deep lack of intellectual rigor (“well that’s what they told me” in responding to his erroneous claim of a “historic” electoral college victory). He trumpets themes that invoke historic bigotries (“America First”) and omits a mention of Jews from his Holocaust Remembrance Day declaration. In all this, he gives aid and comfort to haters and wackos.
None of this can be ameliorated by his seemingly sudden epiphany that anti-Semitism is “painful” and “sad.” His chief strategist and senior counselor, Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart head, made a career out of similar distortions and lies. If Bannon’s self-proclaimed goal remains “to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he would be more than willing to have Trump briefly bow in the direction of civility and then go on his merry way to undermine the mores that have become the hallmark of American presidents over recent decades — tolerance, care in use of language and respectful and accurate discourse.
We have truly reached a nadir of lowered expectations if Trump’s trite condemnation of anti-Semitism is allowed to sanitize his tawdry record of employing the tools and methodology of haters — that is what would be “horrible” and “painful.”
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a human relations organization in Los Angeles.