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Highlights from Trump's Long, Strange Journey to Denouncing Nazis

The president's staunchly anti-Nazi speech this week was a departure from his usual take on antisemitism: getting defensive, and saying he knows a lot of Jews.

by Mike Pearl
Apr 27 2017, 5:27pm

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a prayer shawl as he is presented with a gift during a church service at Great Faith Ministries in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump gave a speech in honour of Holocaust victims in Washington, DC. The speech wasn't especially innovative—it mostly just echoed similar speeches by past presidents—but it did acknowledge the recent new wave of anti-Semitism, refer to Nazis as "evil," and include an unambiguous condemnation of Holocaust denial.

Personally, I found some of Trump's bland but passably humane speech to be oddly soothing—it certainly offered no comfort to the surprising number of people who irrationally hate me. Meanwhile, some of Trump's Nazi fans found it utterly triggering.

To say Trump's position on Jews and the Holocaust is "problematic" this late in the game is to say essentially nothing. It's more helpful to think of it as mysterious or eccentric. Traditionally, denouncing Nazis is the path of least resistance in any argument, and saying supportive things about the Jewish community is an easy win. But while most people living in Western civilization—including manufacturers of outdoor wear—are more than happy to drone on about how you should never forget the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, until very recently the current US president tended to go down every path except the easy one.

To try to figure out what's in Trump's "heart" when it comes to Jews and the Holocaust, here's a brief history of his evolution on the topic.

His friendship with Roy Cohn

When he was an up-and-coming business guy in the 70s and 80s, Trump was often photographed with a close friend and mentor named Roy Cohn, a Mafia-linked lawyer who worked closely with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Cohn's career has its share of detractors, but the only criticism of Cohn of any consequence here is that some of those who knew him, such as author Peter Manso, remember him as a Jewish anti-Semite.

A lot of ugly—but unverifiable—stuff from the early 90s

According to a Vanity Fair profile of Trump from 1990, one of Trump's ex-wives said he used to keep a copy of My New Order, a collection of speeches by Hitler, next to his bed. Trump denies this, or at least denies that if he had any Hitler books around, he would read them. A year later, the book Trumped! by John R. O'Donnell and James Rutherford, a former Trump associate, claimed that Trump once said, "The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. No one else."

Having a Jew for a son-in-law

Today, you might know Jared Kushner as a White House adviser or the inventor of a bureaucracy-slashing organization in the executive branch of the US government called the Office of American Innovation. Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, married Trump's daughter Ivanka in 2009—after she herself converted. This allows Trump to answer claims that he doesn't like Jews by saying things like, "My daughter is Jewish. I have grandchildren that are Jewish, OK? And I love them."

That time he roasted Jon Stewart by pointing out he changed his name

Who can say what Trump was getting at in 2013 when he called Jon Stewart "Jonathan Leibowitz—I mean Jon Stewart"? The following month, Trump tweeted that Stewart "should be proud of his heritage." He just wants people to be proud of their heritage!

Incidentally, Trump and his father used to lie and say they were of Swedish heritage, not German. Donald Trump later explained that his family "didn't want to put any pressure" on the Jews they knew by admitting they were German.

Earning the thumbs (slightly) up from America's premier white nationalist

As you'll no doubt recall, early in his presidential campaign, Trump made waves by having positions on immigration and Islam that were way to the right of the standard Republican Party line and also human decency.

Richard Spencer, who says he is not a Nazi but is often described as such, told the New Yorker in August 2015 that even though Trump is not a white nationalist, he did like Trump's "unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country." Spencer continued, saying,"I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it."

Regurgitating a bunch of Jewish stereotypes to a room full of Jews

In December 2015, Trump, like all the Republican candidates, made the case for himself to the Republican Jewish Coalition. But being Donald Trump, he got insecure and sounded weirdly bitter the whole time about how they were probably mad that they couldn't buy him with their Jew money. He said, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money." He also said, "I'm a negotiator, like you folks." And he also said, "Is there anyone in this room who doesn't renegotiate deals? Probably 99 percent of you. Probably more than any room I've ever spoken in."

RT-ing Nazis on Twitter

As the campaign wore on in 2016, Trump started interacting with Twitter followers who turned out to be Nazi sympathizers, often an account called "WhiteGenocideTM"—"White Genocide" being the name of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It was a bad look.

Earning the Thumbs Up from David Duke

On a February 2016 episode of the David Duke Radio Program, the former Klansman and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist told fans that not voting for Trump is "really treason to your heritage." Trump reacted weirdly to Duke's endorsement, claiming that he didn't know anything about David Duke or white supremacists—a pretty farfetched claim. Later, Trump did disavow Duke's endorsement, and his efforts to get out the vote on Trump's behalf. Nonetheless, David Duke did previously say Trump's candidacy proved that "Jewish supremacy" in the Republican Party was on its way out.

The Star of David Tweet thing

Last July 2, Trump tweeted a graphic about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, being the "most corrupt candidate ever!" But the "most corrupt candidate ever!" part was text suspended inside of a Star of David—the international symbol for "Jew." Trump's campaign deleted the tweet and replaced the star with a circle. But Trump wouldn't let it die. Almost a week later, he tweeted an image of a children's book with a Star of David on it, asking, "Where is the outrage for this Disney book?" On July 7, Trump's son Eric went on FOX News to further defend his father from accusations of anti-Semitism. "I mean, half of our organization is Jewish. I hear these claims, and it is so ridiculous, and it is really the worst part of politics."

Appearing in a Jewish prayer shawl

Last September, a Christian pastor in Detroit put a ceremonial prayer shawl for Jews on Trump. It made a lot of Jews feel weird.

Getting a nod from the SPLC in their write-up on Pepes and (((Echoes)))

Also in September, the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate-watch blog wrote about a rise in internet-based anti-Semitism, including the use of what are called (((echoes))) as a way to call out Jews. But the write-up also included Trump: "Alt-right social-media activists—a collection of white supremacists, white nationalists and nativists opposed to immigration—have been using the (((echoes))) symbol for months, frequently in supporting the presidential candidacy and views of Donald Trump," the SPLC wrote.

Bringing Steve Bannon into the White House

When Trump won the election, he tapped campaign adviser Steve Bannon to head his transition team and made him White House chief strategist. When Steve Bannon still worked for the right-wing blog Breitbart, he once told a reporter, "We're the platform for the alt-right." He hasn't, however, been reported to say anything overtly anti-Semitic, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

A somewhat soft condemnation of the alt-right

At an event shortly after Trump's election, Richard Spencer gave a Nazi-friendly speech, complete with words made famous by Nazis, in front of his alt-right (some of them Nazi) supporters, who gave Nazi salutes. This more or less made Trump out the be the new führer. From the standpoint of a Jew, watching online video of the speech, and hoping that Nazism isn't suddenly going to be considered A-OK in America, it would have been nice to hear a speech from the president where he said something like, "Hey Nazis: Fuck you, and fuck your support."

Instead, the response from Trump's transition team was pretty tepid: "President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected because he will be a leader for every American," spokesman Bryan Lanza wrote, adding, "To think otherwise is a complete misrepresentation of the movement that united Americans from all backgrounds."

Not mentioning Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day

A week after taking the oath of office, Trump offered a few words about the United Nations' Holocaust Remembrance Day. For whatever reason—an effort to not play favorites?—he skipped on mentioning Jews. This made some Jews, like the Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, upset.

An angry, egomaniacal response to a softball question about anti-Semitism

A few weeks after the whole not mentioning Jews thing, there was a growing problem in America with people doing things to express their distaste for Jews, such as desecrating Jewish graves. By the count of the admittedly anti-Trump website Think Progress, Trump skipped two easy opportunities to denounce anti-Semitism inside of one week. Seemingly with that in mind, an Orthodox Jewish reporter named Jake Turx attended Trump's first press conference as president and asked, essentially, What's a nice government like yours going to do about all this nasty anti-Semitism?

Trump's response did not explain what he was going to do about anti-Semitism. Instead, he cut Turx off, told him to sit down, and accused him of asking an unfair question. Then he bragged about the size of his electoral victory and said the prime minister of Israel was his guy.

Totally mentioning anti-Semitism in his speech to Congress

On February 28, Trump addressed a joint session of Congress. Credit where credit is due: He mentioned the wave of anti-Semitism that was going on at the time and segued into saying America "stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms." Baby steps.

Bombing Syria

When Trump launched 59 missiles at an airbase in Syria, it alienated many of his most ardent fans, who hoped that Trump and his "America First" platform were finally going to be different from past governments'. Some seem to believe previous presidents were controlled by puppet masters who profit from wars. Often, the conspiracy theorists who hold this point of view suggest these puppet masters are Jewish. Richard Spencer, for one, strongly opposes Trump's new interventions against the Assad regime and has spent much of the last month criticizing the very president he once loudly supported.

Sean Spicer kinda forgetting the Holocaust for a sec

A whole lot of ink has been spilled about Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, and his April 11 memory lapse (?) with regard to Hitler using chemical weapons to kill Jews. Of course Hitler's forces weaponized chemicals in order to kill Jews and others during the Holocaust, but Hitler also chose not to use an available supply of chemical weapons on the battlefield, which, in all fairness, is the topic Spicer was talking about at the time.

With Steve Bannon in his administration alongside Sean "That's Not What I Meant by Chemical Weapons" Spicer, it is obvious that whatever might going on in the Trump White House, there probably aren't any Holocaust-awareness posters on the walls.

Trump's Holocaust memorial speech

As I said above, Trump's Holocaust memorial speech on Tuesday was like any such speech given by any recent president. It included this phrase: "Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil. And we'll never be silent—we just won't—we will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again," which is pretty strong stuff.

Richard Spencer was even less impressed than me. Which is to say it looks like Trump can spend a tiny bit less time denouncing the alt-right these days.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.