Why Trump Can't Answer Questions About Anti-Semitism

Presidents are supposed to show empathy for their anxious constituents. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the only person Trump shows empathy for is himself.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The most bizarre and unsettling moment in President Trump’s bizarre and unsettling press conference this Thursday came near the end. Trump, who had been insulting the journalists questioning him for more than 90 minutes, declared that, “I want to find a friendly reporter.”

Then he spied Jake Turx of the magazine Ami, a bearded man attired in the white shirt and black velvet kippa (skullcap) typical of ultra-Orthodox Jews. “Are you a friendly reporter?” Trump asked. “Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.”

This is not normal. Presidents don’t usually announce that they want an easy question. It’s possible that Trump saw Turx’s distinctive appearance and guessed that he would be “friendly,” since the ultra-Orthodox supported Trump at substantially higher rates than other Jews.

In any case, the encounter initially unfolded as Trump desired. “Despite what some of my colleagues may have been reporting,” declared Turx, “I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either of yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We understand that you have Jewish grandchildren. You are their zeide [grandfather].”

Trump responded: “Thank you.”

But then Turx pivoted. “However,” he went on, “what we are concerned about and what we really haven’t heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There has been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people who are committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to…”

At this point Trump grew angry. “He said he was gonna ask a very simple, easy question,” Trump exclaimed, interrupting Turx. “And it’s not, it’s not, not—not a simple question, not a fair question.”

Trump continued: “Number one, I am the least anti- Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

Then he berated Turx some more: “See, he lied about — he was gonna get up and ask a very straight, simple question, so you know, welcome to the world of the media.”

Then Trump returned to his alleged anti-Semitism: “Let me just tell you something, that I hate the charge, I find it repulsive. I hate even the question because people that know me and you heard the prime minister, you heard Ben [sic] Netanyahu yesterday, did you hear him, Bibi? He said, I’ve known Donald Trump for a long time and then he said, forget it. So you should take that instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.”

Put aside the spectacle of a president berating a reporter for not asking a friendly enough question. More bizarre is the fact that Turx’s question was actually quite friendly. He began by denying that anyone in his community considers Trump an anti-Semite, and then asked what the government would do about a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. Trump, however, disregarded latter half and accused Turx of calling him an anti-Semite, even though Turx had said exactly the opposite. On its face, Trump’s response makes no sense.

The best way to understand it is as the product of narcissism so epic that it crowds out moral concern. Turx asked about Jewish fears of anti-Semitism. But the only thing that interested Trump was the possibility that people might consider him anti-Semitic. So he turned a question about Jewish victimization into a parable of his own victimization by a Jewish reporter.

The same narcissism was on display the day before when an Israeli journalist asked Trump about “a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents” and asked whether “your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones.” Here too, Trump was handed an easy opportunity to offer reassurance to anxious American Jews. And, here too, Trump spoke mostly about himself.

He began by noting that he had won “306 Electoral College votes.” He then promised vaguely that “We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on, because lot of bad things have been taking place over a long period of time.” And finally, in his only comments about Jews, he noted that he has “so many [Jewish] friends, a [Jewish] daughter who happens to be here right now, a [Jewish] son-in-law, and three beautiful [Jewish] grandchildren.” He didn’t say anything about rising anti-Semitism at all.

The problem isn’t that Trump is anti-Semitic. It’s that he’s more upset by the charge than by the actual anti-Semitism growing around the country, some of which his supporters are perpetrating. He’s like the Breitbart-types who think whites suffer more from being accused of racism than African-Americans do from actually experiencing it.

Presidents are supposed to show empathy for their anxious constituents. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the only person Trump shows empathy for is himself.