Over the past week, we have seen two responses from the Trump administration to the spike in anti-Semitism that has accompanied Donald Trump’s rise to power.
One was presidential: moving and admirable.
The other was by the president.
The two responses tell us much about President Trump and about the man who would allow millions of Americans to sleep more soundly at night if he were in charge: Vice President Pence.
Trump’s first month in office has come with dozens of bomb threats to Jewish organizations, a further unleashing of anti-Semitism in social media and, in St. Louis over the weekend, the toppling of some 200 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery.
No surprise here: Trump fanned anti-Semitism through his campaign’s well-documented use of anti-Jewish imagery and stereotypes, topped by his hiring of an ally of the white-nationalist alt-right movement as his chief strategist and the White House’s decision to edit out any reference to Jews in its statement recalling the Holocaust.
Pence did exactly what a president should do. On his visit to Europe over the weekend, he stopped at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, hearing of “the nightmarish existence” there from an Israeli survivor. Pence had visited Dachau before, but, he later told NATO ministers in Brussels, “I wanted my daughter to see it.”
Then, in St. Louis on Wednesday giving a speech about the economy, he paused to condemn the “vile act of vandalism” at the cemetery and praised Missourians for rallying around the Jewish community.
Finally, Pence made an unannounced stop at the cemetery, symbolically joining in the cleanup and grabbing a bullhorn to proclaim: “There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or acts of violence or anti-Semitism.”
And Pence’s boss, the president? Twice last week at news conferences, he was invited to condemn the surge in anti-Semitism – and twice he failed to do so. The first time he boasted about his electoral victory and the second time he said it was an “insulting” question. Finally, on Tuesday, Trump managed to denounce the ugliness. “Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin.
Trump later added, without mentioning the St. Louis incident specifically, that threats against Jewish targets “are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done.” When asked about complaints that Trump hadn’t gone far enough, White House press secretary Sean Spicer retorted: “No matter how many times he talks about this, it’s never good enough.”
No, here’s what’s not good enough: that Trump’s belated and perfunctory response to the threats and violence against Jews used the same hollow formula he has used to condemn a long list of ills, from currency manipulation to the decline in coal employment.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he said Tuesday.
“We are going to stop the drugs from pouring in,” he declared Saturday.
“We’re going to stop crime,” he said Friday. All of it. Even speeding.
On Feb. 9, Trump decreed an immediate and total end to violence against police: “That’s going to stop as of today.”
A database search finds that in recent months Trump has announced that all of the following are “going to stop”: Foreign interventions. Ridiculous trade deals. Terrorism. Nation building. Outsourcing. Illegal immigration. Drugs (all of them). Refugees. Currency manipulation. Corruption. Gangs. Tax havens. Tax loopholes. The media. The decline of coal. Foreign aid. Trade deficits. Regime change. Job loss. Heroin deaths. Repatriating terrorists. Bullying. Lobbying. Unspecified “things.” And poop.
“We’re going to stop that crap from coming into our country,” he has ordered.
Q1Furthermore: “We are going to stop all of the problems that you have because you have them and we’re going to stop them, okay?”
Anti-Semitism isn’t going to “stop” on Trump’s say-so, any more than crime or drugs will cease because Trump decrees it. Unlike crime and drugs, the surge in anti-Semitism is at least partly Trump’s doing. If he were concerned, he could do something about it, by dismissing Steve Bannon. At the very least, he could act a bit more, well, vice presidential.
In St. Louis on Wednesday, Pence spoke of his Dachau tour with the 93-year-old Israeli who as a boy endured the “hellish life” in that camp. “By the grace of God, he survived, and now he tells his story so that the world will never forget,” Pence said.
Never forget. Pence’s genuine response is what heals – not more banalities from a man who won’t “stop” anything.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.