On Tuesday afternoon, Trump reportedly told state attorneys general that the recent wave of anti-Semitic threats and attacks may be somehow faked and intended to besmirch him and his movement.
Threats are not genuine, he suggested. They are “the reverse,” he said — carried out by his political opponents “to make people, or to make others, look bad.”
The comments might seem bewildering.
But in far-right, conspiracy-fixated circles, many believe the these anti-Semitic threats are in fact “false flags,” nefariously carried out by Jews in order to tear down Trump.
Analysts call this Jewish “false flag” allegation one of the oldest — and most effective — anti-Semitic “dog whistles” out there: silent to most, but loud and clear to others.
“Most Americans don’t acknowledge the meaning on a conscious level,” said Chip Berlet, author of the 2000 book “Right-Wing Populism In America: Too Close For Comfort.” “But a handful will hear Trump’s words as an encouragement to act out against the people who they believe are behind the ‘false flag subversions.’”
What exactly is a false flag?
It is a naval term originally — describing when a ship would fly a flag other than its own to deceive an enemy. In more contemporary parlance, the term has taken off in conspiracist circles of all political persuasions.
Jews regularly find themselves accused of secretly carrying out attacks or orchestrating disasters — 9/11, Sandy Hook, Charlie Hebdo, the Holocaust — to further their own goals.
Such views were once relegated to the fringe. But with Trump’s rise — and his coziness with such figures as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — these beliefs are in the mainstream.
Why do anti-Semites hear?
Outspoken anti-Semites see Jewish control everywhere, and see in Trump a type of savior figure — someone who will finally shrug off perceived Jewish influence in America.
“President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda?” former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke wrote on Twitter, referring to the wave of anti-Semitic phone threats against Jewish institutions.
“It is obvious to us that these ‘attacks’ are almost certainly being done by the Jews themselves to gain sympathy,” Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer wrote in a February 28 post. “They want to use them to attack Trump, to claim that he has inspired violence against them.”
Anglin and Duke both celebrated Trump’s “false flag” comment.
“This is so fantastic,” Anglin wrote. “He just called-out the Jews for hoaxing attacks against themselves.”
What is Trump’s responsibility?
Trump has offered mixed messages to the country on the topic of anti-Semitic attacks. Just hours after he suggested that the attacks might be from his opponents, he roundly condemned anti-Semitism and racism in his first presidential address to Congress.
Some welcomed the remarks — others still had reservations.
“I don’t know the heart of the man and I’m not willing to call him an anti-Semite,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of Interfaith Alliance. “But he is a political pragmatist.”
Trump’s rhetoric, Moline said, was “fertilizing the bad seeds of our country.”
“The result is that people who are indeed afflicted with bigotry, whether it is anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, feel a permission to stand up and say the same thing,” Moline said.
In deflecting charges of anti-Semitism, Trump’s defenders point to his support of Israel and his Jewish family. But this approach is wrong-headed, some say.
“The key question is not what is motivating Trump,” said David Schraub, a research fellow at the California Constitution Center of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. “The key question is if he cares enough about Jews to take responsibility for the results of elevating type of this discourse.”
How will the arrest of the disgraced journalist affect the story?
It’s still unclear whether the arrest of Juan Thompson in some of the threats to Jewish community centers will affect the extremist narrative.
Thompson, who is black and a onetime journalist fired for concocting stories, allegedly made at least some of the threats in a bizarre effort to frame an ex-girlfriend.
Some on the far right might see the arrest as vindicating their claims that it is not clear who is responsible for the wave of threats and vandalism — and that it might not be part of a broader climate of racism and hatred in the country since Trump’s election.
They certainly might use Thompson’s checkered history as a way to deflect blame from the far right and possibly counter calls for action to fight bigotry and specifically anti-Semitism.