Robert Bowers entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 people during a Shabbat prayer service on Saturday, reportedly shouting, “All Jews must die.” When police officers ran into the synagogue to try to stop him—he shot four officers before finally surrendering—he allegedly told them, in substance, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” His social-media posts show a disdain for refugees and especially for Jews who help refugees.
Bowers’s attack set off a debate about political rhetoric and the extent to which certain tropes and phrases might encourage or inflame bigotry. Much of that attention focused on the words employed by President Donald Trump, who has made opposition to immigration a centerpiece of his politics.
Bowers himself has registered his discontent with the president. “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist,” read one of Bowers’s posts on Gab, a social-media site popular with the alt-right. He also wrote, “Trump is surrounded by kikes, things will stay the course.”
But even if Bowers and other anti-Semites are angry that the president refuses to embrace their hatred of Jews, many of them have also said they find encouragement for their views in the president’s rhetoric. Whatever Trump intends when he speaks, white supremacists often hear his language in highly particular ways, seizing on words, phrases, and even silences as evidence that their views are no longer confined to the political margins.
Globalist vs. Nationalist
One consistent theme of Trump’s rhetoric is the disparagement of “globalists.” In his final campaign ad before the 2016 election, Trump criticized “those who control the levers of power in Washington, and … the global special interests.” Images of dollar bills and Wall Street appeared. The only people shown in the ad were Jewish: Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank; Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs; and George Soros, an investor and prominent Democratic donor (more on him later). At a rally last week, Trump fully embraced the rhetoric: “A globalist is a person … not caring about our country so much,” Trump said. “I’m a nationalist.”
Trump’s suggestion that globalists wield outsize power in finance and government, and that they are opponents of America’s true patriots, as Ben Zimmer has written, adds to a long history of similar claims. And although Trump himself has not connected the term to Jews, he is employing language used by others who have. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, for example, suggested that Jewish “cosmopolitans” were too connected to “bourgeois Western influences” and not connected enough to Soviet culture. Search on Twitter, and you’ll quickly find globalist used as a synonym, or a derogatory adjective, for Jew.
“I’ve been called out in hundreds of newspapers in the last month as being anti-Semitic, because I talk about a global, corporate, combine,” the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones complained in 2016. That, he insisted, was unfair. In the same segment, he claimed that the Emanuel brothers head the “Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.”
The investor, activist, and donor has become a popular target for conservatives, who portray him as a shadowy financier funding Democrats’ efforts against the president. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, was recently accused, without evidence, of paying protesters to attend rallies against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, organizing the caravan of several thousand Central American migrants making its way slowly through Mexico, and occupying the State Department.
Last week, U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted a video suggesting Soros was paying members of the migrant caravan—and soon thereafter, the claim found a supporter in Trump. Gaetz later told The New York Times that he was simply asking questions, and acknowledged that he had the facts wrong.
Soros is also a favorite target of the former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. A 2016 post and radio broadcast on Duke’s website criticized “Zio George Soros”—Zio is a slur used against Zionists and, more broadly, Jews—for donating to Trump’s Republican primary opponents. He called Soros’s actions “controlled opposition” and claimed that Jews such as Soros fund both Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans. White nationalists such as Duke use Soros to illustrate their conspiratorial beliefs that Jews are secretly controlling the American political system.
Remembering the Holocaust, but not the Jews
In 2017, just a week after Trump took office, he marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a solemn proclamation. “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the statement began. But unlike most previous presidents marking the day, Trump didn’t mention Jews, the primary targets of Hitler’s genocide.
In response to criticism, the White House doubled down, noting that Jews weren’t the only people killed in the Holocaust. In 2018, though, it released a statement much more in line with past commemorations from other presidents: “The Holocaust, known in Hebrew as ‘Shoah,’ was the culmination of the Nazi regime’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question,’ an attempt to eradicate the Jewish population in Europe.”
Other countries, too, have downplayed the centrality of Jews in the Holocaust in order to focus on the plight of other victims, often for nationalistic purposes—among them the Soviet Union, which minimized Jewish murder to play up Russian suffering and heroism, and Hungary, which promptly and conveniently seemed to forget, when it fell under Soviet occupation after World War II, that it had allied with Hitler during the Holocaust.
The 2017 White House statement found some fans on the far right. Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, also doesn’t buy into what he called the “alleged” Holocaust narrative. Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and alt-right ideologue, praised the president’s statement for its “de-Judification” of the Holocaust. He also argued that the president is on his side: “Trump is a white nationalist, so to speak; he is ‘alt-right,’ whether he likes it or not,” Spencer said in an interview at the time.
Trump’s campaign for president lacked any substantive policy proposals, but the creed “America First” illuminated the way he saw international relations and America’s place in the world. “We will not be ripped off anymore,” he told The New York Times. America would no longer be at the whim of other countries. (David Sanger, the Times reporter who interviewed Trump, was actually the first to use the phrase, in a question; Trump then riffed on it, and eventually added it to his campaign lexicon.)
But “America First” as a political slogan traces back to the early 20th century. It was most prominently used by the aviator Charles Lindbergh and other isolationists in the debates before the Second World War. Lindbergh gave an infamous 1941 speech arguing against America’s involvement in World War II. He blamed “the Jewish race,” among others, for “pushing this country toward war.” Jews, he suggested, were not sufficiently American and did not have the country’s best interests at heart.
David Duke, the former Klan leader, was happy to hear Trump adopt the phrase. “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years,” Duke said in a 2016 video. “My slogan remains ‘America First.’”
“Very fine people on both sides”
After violence broke out at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year, leaving one counterprotester dead, the president declared that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” Trump came to the defense of those protesting the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Trump continued. “And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
The president claimed that the “alt-left”—though there is no such movement of that name—bore equal responsibility to the alt-right. But the rally was organized by white supremacists, many of whom arrived armed and armored, bragging about their plans to cause violence. They marched in the streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” The rally’s organizer, Jason Kessler, said, “The No. 1 thing … I want [is] to destigmatize pro-white advocacy.”
Duke made clear that he wasn’t happy with Trump’s initial response, which placed most of the blame on the neo-Nazis who had organized the rally. “I would recommend you take a look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency,” Duke tweeted at Trump. When Trump changed course at his subsequent press conference, Duke applauded him. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage,” he tweeted. Richard Spencer agreed: “Trump cares about the truth,” Spencer wrote on Twitter.