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Trump’s Statements on Jews Align—Dangerously—With His Conspiracy Dabbling

If he doesn't believe in the crazy things he says, then he's using them for cheap political purposes. What's worse?
August 28, 2019
Trump’s Statements on Jews Align—Dangerously—With His Conspiracy Dabbling
Donald Trump. (Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

In the Washington Post, the astute observer of anti-Semitism and bane of Twitter neo-Nazis Yair Rosenberg makes a good case that the president, the self-proclaimed “best President for Israel in the history of the world… the King of Israel,” is better understood as a morally confused anti-Semite. “Trump believes all the anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews,” Rosenberg argues, “But he sees those traits as admirable.”

In short, Rosenberg’s argument is that Trump thinks Jews are more loyal to each other than to their own countries — conniving, cheap, money-grubbing Scrooges. But to Trump, these are traits worth emulating. “He prioritizes his needs ahead of the national interest, and so he sees the idea that Jews might do the same with themselves or with Israel as entirely natural,” Rosenberg explains. But if his stereotype-fueled philo-Semitism ever becomes a liability, it could easily flip to become stereotype-fueled anti-Semitism.

Rosenberg should have gone further. If Trump does believe in anti-Semitic tropes as Rosenberg argues he does, Trump’s relations with Jewish people are much less important than his relationship with facts, truth, and conspiracy theories.

As Batya Ungar-Sargon put it on an episode of the Bulwark podcast, “Anti-Semitism is a form of racism because it’s hatred for Jews based on the fact that we’re different. However, it’s crucially different from racism because typical racism is a kind of punching down, whereas anti-Semitism is really a conspiracy theory. It’s this idea that Jews have secret power…” If Trump believes that Jews have some sort of midi-chlorian bond that binds them more tightly and more inseparably together than other peoples, he’s liable to believe any number of tall tales and conspiracy theories.

And he’s not the only one.

Yevgnia Albats is a political scientist and investigative journalist in Russia. She’s chief editor of the independent, democratic political magazine The New Times, a constant thorn in the side of the kleptocratic security apparatus that defines Putin’s Russia. She’s also Jewish, and suffered under state-sponsored Soviet anti-Semitism. And in a 2018 interview, she described a similar pattern to the one Rosenberg sees in Trump.

KGB people believe in the World Jewish Conspiracy… They do believe that the world is run by Jews, that there is some world government, that there is some conspiratorial money or body. There were several cases when these guys were approaching me and saying, “We understand you have a great connections to the World Jewish Congress,” and I was thinking, “Wait a second, you guys don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Putin, like Trump, is a quasi-nationalist figure who embraces notably philo-Semitic policies for what appear to be purely personal reasons. He’s elevated several Jews to positions of prominence and power, including his friends, the oligarchs Boris and Arkady Rotenberg. He’s gone out of his way to make gestures of friendship toward Russia’s Jewish community, and refused to reinstate official anti-Semitic policies that his conservative, Orthodox base would applaud.

As Albats told me in 2017, “They may say, ‘These suckers took away our wealth, the wealth of fellow Russians. But they’re very pragmatic… They don’t want to fight on the wrong side of the conspiracy.” In her telling, where the KGB and the rest of the Soviet state sought to prevent Jews from earning the best degrees, rising too high in the ranks of any organization, or achieving positions of political prominence, the Putin-era authorities fret that crossing any notable Jews could ruin their ability to launder money overseas.

Russia holds the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, sits on the U.N. Security Council, has intelligence services that are respected and feared for their prowess, and boasts one of the largest and most capable conventional militaries in the world. Yet its elites buy into conspiracy theories. Russia’s leaders believe that democracy is a sham, that world events are really the well-orchestrated fronts of hidden schemes, and that the machinery of global politics is controlled by others—often Jews—in hidden places.

That’s a scary combination. On the suspicion that former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland (who has Jewish ancestry) started the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Russia seized Crimea, invaded Donetsk and Luhansk, and enabled the shoot-down of a civilian airliner, killing 298. Those actions resulted in a raft of international economic sanctions that still constrict Russia’s economy. A country less predisposed to conspiracy theories might have made better choices.

The United States is not Russia. The stakes are much higher.

If Rosenberg is right, and the president of the United States is prone to believing in conspiracy theories (as opposed to espousing them merely for cynical political reasons), what reason does he have to try to make policy? Why try to reshape global trade—for better, worse, or indifferent— if the real influence on global trade is beyond the U.S. government’s reach? Why try to enact domestic political changes if the insuperable moneyed interests will always be quash his efforts? Why try to change immigration levels if globalists want to import as many immigrants— an infestation!—as possible?

If Trump doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories, then his accusation that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, his speculation that Vince Foster was murdered, his dabbling in anti-vaxxerism, and his insinuation that Antonin Scalia may have been murdered were all just cheap publicity tricks. Is that better or worse?

For the Kremlin, interfering in the 2020 elections might be even easier than meddling in 2016 was. The president has already lodged baseless complaints about illegal voters in the election he won. A couple well-placed memes about massive voter fraud could convince Trump some 2020 races were stolen—if he loses, maybe his too.

If other countries’ spies and diplomats report home that Trump is liable to fall for conspiracy theories, and if they’re right, Trump could be tricked into just about anything.

That’s not just a problem for Jews.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.