Like everyone, I’m trying to make sense of President Trump’s rambling answer to an Israeli journalist’s succinct, to-the-point question about anti-Semitism at the press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the end of Trump’s remarks involve the usual — citing Ivanka and fam as evidence that the Trump administration couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic — it’s the first part I find baffling. What was Trump doing when he responded to a question about racism and anti-Semitism with an extended digression about his own popularity? Was this just bumbling narcissism?
I think the answer lies in a sentence coming right after the recitation of electoral-college boasts: “There’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.” If I may attempt to translate from the Trumplish, what I think he’s saying is that he, his campaign, got millions of Americans revved up. And where there’s populist enthusiasm, where there’s tremendous populist enthusiasm, there’s going to be some anti-Semitism. That’s just how it is.
(The more sinister interpretation: He’s saying that yes, America voted for anti-Semitism, and that’s just how it is.)
Looked at that way, and in the context of the sentences that follow, his answer isn’t actually gibberish. What he’s doing is positioning himself not as the cause of an anti-Semitic revival. He’s saying he’s the hero who’s come to end all the hatreds. That’s why he goes on to talk about “crime” — that is, to offer his standard dogwhistle response to the term racism (that is, because the journalist had also referred to “racist tones”). The message is muddled but there: Bigotry is, as Trump presents it, the victim’s fault, and also he’ll make everything OK.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at email@example.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.