Sen. Kamala Harris missed an easy layup when Vice President Mike Pence offered what he thought was his best defense of his boss’s record on white supremacy during Wednesday night’s debate. Pence said President Donald Trump couldn’t support antisemites because “he has Jewish grandchildren.”
Harris let it go, but what she could have said was simply: “Then he should know better.”
Pence’s suggestion that Trump’s grandchildren immunize him is wonderfully naïve: the notion that bringing a person from a different race, religion or class into a family washes away prejudice. If life worked that way, Sen. Strom Thurmond, who fathered a Black child, would have stopped being the Senate’s leading segregationist, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” would never have been made.
In response to Pence’s one-liner, historians pointed out that more than a few Jews themselves — some probably with Jewish grandchildren — served the Nazi cause.
That said: You would be hard-pressed to find a Jewish leader who believes President Trump personally hates Jews. But many of these same leaders are concerned about Trump’s very very public track record of pandering to people who do.
This is a crucial point that Pence — and Harris — missed. Even if you love your Jewish grandchildren, stoking prejudice against Mexicans, Muslims, Africans, the LGBTQ community, disabled people — people of any minority group — emboldens antisemites. That’s why it’s not called the Anti-Jewish Defamation League— the ADL’s founders correctly understood that hate is a virus. It never settles, it spreads.
Here’s how Donald Trump helped spread it across America since announcing his presidential bid in 2015.
Steven Bannon, the architect of Trump’s campaign, acknowledged that he used the platforms of the alt-right to galvanize support for his outsider candidate. Trump’s campaign used antisemitic tropes, like Jewish stars affixed to bags of money, to attack Hillary Clinton, and Trump was slow to reject the support of Klansman David Duke.
“You need not be an antisemite to give antisemitism criminally free reign,”Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles wrote about Trump’s refusal to denounce Duke, “and this Trump has done. Decency demands that he first rebuke his followers on Twitter explicitly and with the force he gathers for other castigations, apologize to the people whom they demonize in his name, and not hesitate nor equivocate about clearly offensive images and endorsements.”
Shortly after Trump was elected, Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, called Trump’s election “an enabling force” for people who engage in hate speech.
Smith’s analysis turned out to be prophecy.
Antisemitism surged by a third between 2016 and 2017, and by 57% the next year. The ADL reported 34 incidents in 2016 linked to the election itself, including graffiti posted in May 2016, in Denver that read, “Kill the Jews, Vote Trump.”
In August 2017, he said there were “fine people on both sides” after a counterprotester was killed at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis had chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
All this time, Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller — who is Jewish — had been feeding over 900 emails of anti-immigrant content culled from far-right, antisemitic sites like VDARE and elsewhere to Katie McHugh, an editor of breitbart.com, for reprinting. The content warned of Blacks, Mexicans or Indian “turd-eaters” replacing white America.
“What Stephen Miller sent to me in those emails has become policy at the Trump administration,” McHugh told the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It was that atmosphere of anti-immigrant hate and cockeyed George Soros conspiracy theories that inspired an unstable white man to walk into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, and shoot 11 worshippers dead — the single worst antisemitic attack in American history.
Trump showed appropriate outrage at that attack and comforted the survivors. But his Bat-signals to antisemites continued. Most recently, during the first presidential debate, when the moderator asked Trump to denounce white-supremacist groups who might commit violence during the election, Trump hedged — just like he did three years ago when questioned about David Duke. Then he told the racist group Proud Boys, “Stand back and stand by.” (He later said he misspoke.)
Having Jewish grandchildren doesn’t excuse this record. It makes it more inexcusable.
The Jewish grandchildren defense of Trump is weak