Most of the time, conservatives and Republicans want the bar for what constitutes bigotry to be set extremely high. When President Donald Trump tweeted last weekend that four nonwhite Democrats in Congress should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he offered a textbook example of racism. Trump’s own Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses the phrase Go back to where you came from as one of its examples of discrimination based on national origin. Yet Trump insisted that “those Tweets were NOT Racist”—even as he doubled down on them by launching an attack on Representative Ilhan Omar that prompted rally-goers in North Carolina on Wednesday night to chant “Send her back!”
At the same time that Trump was denying charges of bigotry, however, he was also leveling them. At the North Carolina rally, he accused Omar of “vicious anti-Semitic” remarks—a reference to her tweet that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s influence in Washington is “all about the Benjamins” and her allegation that pro-Israel groups “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Those comments—which evoked hoary stereotypes of Jews as money-driven and disloyal—elicited criticism even from Democrats, and Omar apologized for the first. But however damning one considers her statements, it’s utterly illogical to claim that they constitute bigotry while Trump’s far more direct attack does not. Yet this is exactly what Trump and other prominent Republicans are doing.
When Democrats are accused of prejudice against Jews, Republicans can find it easy to discern ugly coded language. But when Trump and others in his party are accused of hostility to black people, Muslims, and Latinos, prominent conservatives set the standard for what constitutes bigotry so high that it’s almost impossible to meet.
Consider the double standard that Republican politicians and conservative pundits have employed when responding to Trump’s tweets. “The president’s not a racist,” declared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who then went on to condemn Omar for her “anti-Semitic tropes.” On Face the Nation, the Federalist editor Ben Domenech twice ducked the moderator’s questions about whether Trump’s tweets were racist but volunteered that Omar had engaged in “anti-Semitic speech.” At The Resurgent, Erick Erickson explained that while Trump’s tweet was “bad,” he would not succumb to “all the people demanding everyone stand up and scream that it is racist.” Then, having established his extreme reluctance to level accusations of bigotry, he declared that “multiple Democrats in the past year have made a host of anti-Semitic remarks.” Why did these unspecified remarks by unnamed Democrats merit a firm condemnation, while Trump’s remarks did not? Erickson didn’t say.
Yet for intellectual inconsistency, even Domenech, Erickson, and McConnell couldn’t match Lindsey Graham. Trump’s tweets weren’t racist, Graham argued, because he hadn’t told all Somali Americans to go home, only Omar. “If you’re a Somali refugee who likes Trump,” Graham explained, “he’s not gonna say, ‘Go back to Somalia.’” But instead of looking for creative ways to exonerate Omar as well, Graham described not only her but also “AOC and this crowd” as “anti-Semitic.” What exactly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or for that matter Ayanna Pressley or Rashida Tlaib, had done to merit an accusation of bigotry was left unstated. Graham didn’t bother to specify.
Obviously, this double standard stems in part from partisanship. If conservatives were motivated solely by concerns about anti-Semitism, they’d be outraged by Trump’s blatant insinuations that Jews are loyal to Israel and care only about money. In 2015, after all, Trump told a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money.” Speaking to the group this April, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister.”
But in addition to political calculation, the dramatic divergence between the way conservatives treat charges of racism and charges of anti-Semitism is also a product of selective empathy. Although most Jews vote Democratic, Jews are well represented in conservative and Republican circles. There is no African-American, Latino, or Muslim Republican group with anywhere near the prominence of the Republican Jewish Coalition. This proximity sensitizes conservatives to the anxieties of at least one wing of the American Jewish community in ways that don’t extend to most people of color.
The radically different standard that American conservatives use to evaluate charges of bigotry against Trump and Omar has nothing to do with principle. It’s identity politics by another name. The harder Republicans work to find evidence of Democratic bigotry, the easier they make it for Trump to get away with his own.