When something happens once, it’s a curiosity. Twice, it’s a coincidence.
Three times or more, it’s a pattern.
And Donald Trump has established a pattern of offending – or at the very least ignoring – Jews. The most recent example was just last week, when he declined to pay his respects at a Holocaust memorial in Warsaw that other American presidents routinely visited.
What’s going on? The answer, in my view, isn’t quite as dark as many of his detractors would paint it. But it’s disturbing nonetheless, and his blunders when it comes to Jews speak volumes about his limitations as a person and liabilities as a president.
But first, the record: He’d been in office just a week when International Holocaust Remembrance Day rolled round and his administration issued a statement that bizarrely omitted any specific mention of Jews. Administration officials made no apology, saying that millions of people who weren’t Jewish died in the Holocaust and that by not singling out any one group of victims, the White House had taken a more “inclusive” approach.
Then there was an initial, strange silence from Trump and his aides about a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats around the country in January and February.
In May, in Israel, Trump insisted on a much shorter stop at Yad Vashem, an important Holocaust memorial and museum, than either Barack Obama or George W. Bush had made, and he stuck to that plan even as many Israelis and American Jews cried foul. The tone-deaf breeziness of his approach was accentuated by the message he left in the visitors’ book: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends – so amazing & will never forget!” As Yair Rosenberg of the Jewish magazine Tablet tweeted, it was “basically just what teenagers write in each other’s high school yearbooks.”
Ivanka Trump went to the Warsaw memorial in her father’s stead, though Trump softened that blow somewhat by mentioning, in his big Warsaw speech, that “the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens.”
Ivanka converted to Judaism to marry Jared Kushner, and the couple’s key roles in the White House mean that Trump has observant Jews at the very core of his presidency – and of his life.
But that didn’t stop him from making remarks to Jewish Republican donors in December 2015 that seemed to play into an anti-Semitic stereotype. “I’m a negotiator – like you folks,” he said, later adding: “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.”
During his presidential campaign, he embraced the favor of groups and people who trafficked in white supremacy. He retweeted material from proudly anti-Semitic Twitter feeds, and prompted a furor by promoting an image that placed Hillary Clinton’s face atop a pile of cash and beside a six-pointed star on which “most corrupt candidate ever” was written.
The website PolitiFact concluded that it was “unlikely that the Trump campaign intended to put out a Star of David image. In fact, the campaign moved to replace the star with a circle when the image gained attention.” Even so, PolitiFact noted, Trump had an unusual habit of “using social media to broadcast material that comes from sources with a history of spreading racism, anti-Semitism or white supremacy.”
I’m not convinced that Trump is much of an anti-Semite, any more than I’m convinced that he’s much of a homophobe. (Racism and sexism are another matter.) But I think he’s so thirsty for, and intoxicated by, whatever love comes his way that he’s loath to rebuff the sources of it.
A prominent Jewish Republican put it well. “I think Trump is such a pathological narcissist that the act of telling people who love you that you reject them – he can’t get around that,” he told me, interpreting Trump’s reasoning this way: “What can be wrong with them? They’re for me!”
Trump is disinclined to denounce any constituency or tactics that elevate him to the throne, where he’s sure that he belongs. The outcome validates even the ugliest and most divisive ascent.
“I don’t think he’s goading these people or associating with them because he shares their views,” the Republican added. “I do think that he’s so insensitive about the presidency – about the responsibilities of the leader of the free world – that he doesn’t realize it’s not enough to say, once or twice, ‘I don’t agree with them.’ He doesn’t realize that you have to be very clear.” And he doesn’t realize – or care – that he’s validating and encouraging them.
He doesn’t understand the message of zipping through Yad Vashem when predecessors lingered, because he’s less concerned with the weight of his office than with the whims and convenience of Donald Trump. It’s all about him, always – and if he’s sure in his own heart that he’s good with Jews, then he shouldn’t have to prove it.
Go back to his minitantrum during a White House news conference in February, when a reporter for a Jewish magazine tried to ask him whether he was paying proper heed to the anti-Semitic bomb threats. Trump interpreted the question as an indictment not of his behavior but of his being – “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life!” he trumpeted – and turned the discussion toward the big, bad media. Forget about any persecution of Jews. Let’s talk about the persecution of Trump.
You can be only so considerate to others when you never stop considering yourself. And the flamboyantly nonconformist culture of Trump’s presidency has downsides. This administration shrugs off and throws away some rituals and niceties that do matter to people, estranging them in the process.
Gay Pride Month came and went without even a banal word of recognition from the White House. So while Trump likes to crow, in a hallucinatory fashion, that gays love him, we made do in June with a tweet from his outsourced conscience, by which of course I mean Ivanka.
Some of this is Steve Bannon and his ilk. Their idea of nationalism is chilly to the recognition of subgroups, including Jewish Americans.
Some of it boils down to an absent professionalism. Trump isn’t matching the respectful choreography of other presidents because there’s no one in his inner circle familiar with the dance. Kushner, Bannon, Stephen Miller and Reince Priebus are all new to this kind and level of work. They lack institutional memory, along with any awareness of how easily those blind spots become insensitivity.
I can’t know definitively how Trump feels about Jews or gays or a whole lot else. But I can see clearly his sloppiness and self-absorption, and they’re cause enough for alarm.