The Deadly Consequences of Dog-Whistle Politics
Eleven killed in the worst-ever attack on the U.S. Jewish community.
Robert Bowers was apparently no great admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump. Two days before he allegedly killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in what is believed to be the worst-ever attack on a Jewish community in U.S. history, the virulently anti-Semitic Bowers wrote that Trump’s sort of nationalism didn’t go far enough for him.
“There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” Bowers wrote. Then the 46-year-old firearms enthusiast collected his AR-15-style assault rifle and handguns and, in his final post on Gab.com—a site often used by the alt-right—declared, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
MAGA, of course, stands for “Make America Great Again,” the Trump slogan that carried the former real estate magnate and self-declared nationalist to the White House on a torrent of innuendo about the sorts of minority people—Mexican “rapists,” migrants from “shithole” countries, a previous president he kept suggesting was not really American but African—who didn’t fit his vision of the future. Which, of course, was really just a twisted vision of a racist past, a vision shaped by vicious dog whistles that spoke so clearly to white supremacists and neo-Nazis that some of them, such as David Duke, hailed Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election as a long-awaited legitimization of their views.
Could it have been an accident that in recent weeks, as Trump sought to gain advantage for the Republican Party before the midterms by condemning migrant caravans from Central America, Bowers in his various internet posts also focused on the migrants? He repeatedly called them “invaders,” and he honed in on a Jewish group, HIAS, that was known to help refugees.
Was it also an accident that only one day earlier, a rabid Trump supporter in another part of the country, Florida, was arrested for mailing pipe bombs to Hillary Clinton, CNN, former CIA chief John Brennan, and Rep. Maxine Waters, all of whom the president had made regular staples of searing condemnation at his rallies?
While there is scant evidence that Trump—who condemned Saturday’s attack as “horrible”—is anti-Semitic himself, it strains credulity to think that the sort of political rhetoric heard at his rallies can be separated from the acts of deranged people who are focused on issues that align with the president’s and who are clearly inspired by his agenda, in however twisted a way.
And to broaden the lens somewhat, it can also be no accident that right-wing nationalists across the world, many of whom also express admiration for Trump, have also felt more comfortable in recent years targeting Jews and other minorities.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has turned his former benefactor, the philanthropist George Soros, into a permanent foil, using familiar anti-Semitic tropes that stop just short of outright condemnation of Jews but work very effectively in a dog-whistle way. In a March speech, Orban spoke of Hungary’s enemies using words that could have been almost lifted from Joseph Goebbels.
“They do not fight directly but by stealth; they are not honorable but unprincipled; they are not national but international; they do not believe in work but speculate with money; they have no homeland but feel that the whole world is theirs,” he said.
The essence of modern anti-Semitism, as it has been practiced for more than a century, is to portray the Jewish people as perennial outsiders who seek to undermine nationalist strength and unity. It is hardly a surprise that Robert Bowers, for example, criticized Trump as still too much of a “globalist” who surrounds himself with too many Jews.
These sentiments have been creeping into the rhetoric and actions of other neo-nationalist parties, sometimes expressed by a denial of the terrible costs of anti-Semitism in the past. In Poland, right-wingers forced through a law that banned people from saying—on penalty of prosecution—that the country was complicit in the Holocaust. And while the German government deserves credit for hounding death-squad members in their 90s to their graves and pursuing new prosecutions against them, not long ago the co-leader of the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany, Alexander Gauland, dismissed the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”
Saturday’s attack comes amid a wave of anti-Semitic threats and attacks on social media by the far-right in the run-up to the heated U.S. midterm elections. A new study by the Anti-Defamation League, a nonpartisan civil rights organization that tracks anti-Semitism, found a “marked rise in the number of online attacks” aimed at the Jewish community ahead of the elections.
Of 7.5 million tweets analyzed in the study, nearly 40 percent used hashtags synonymous with support for Trump, #MAGA, and #KAG (“Keep America Great”).
The devastating occurrence in Pittsburgh cannot be blamed on political rhetoric alone, of course.
“Unfortunately, this violence occurs at a time when ADL has reported a historic increase in both anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Semitic online harassment,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement in response to the attack.
But the trend lines of rising tolerance for anti-Semitism and other forms of abuse of minority groups are unmistakable. And even as white supremacists and neo-Nazis take heart from their rhetoric, Trump and other leaders continue to deny that their choice of words or actions has anything to do with it.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. @michaelphirsh