It was a minor thing, really. And then it became major. Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton was interviewed by the FBI over that email business and Donald Trump sensed an opening. A few days earlier Bill Clinton had surprised the new attorney general – a black woman of all things – by dropping by for a chat. He said it was social. She said she really shouldn’t have even agreed to a bit of social chat – the FBI reports to her – and even if Bill hadn’t begged her to go easy on Hillary, admitted that it might look like that was what that meeting had been about, even if it wasn’t. She went on to say, in interview after interview, that she wouldn’t overrule whatever the FBI decided to do about Hillary. She said she’d never do that anyway, but she wanted people to know that, again. That was her damage control.
Bill smiled and shrugged. He likes to talk to people. Hell, he just likes to talk. What’s the big deal? Hillary then began again – yes, people don’t seem to trust her – she knows that – that will be pretty much all she works on from here on out. Her whole campaign now has to shift focus, from any specific issues to the issue of general trust, and perhaps has to send Bill on a long vacation to Corfu or some such place. Now, if the FBI doesn’t charge her with anything, everyone on the right will say that’s because Bill got to them – the fix was in.
The damage Bill Clinton did to his wife’s presidential campaign is now irreparable. His impulsiveness may have cost her the presidency, or if not, tainted her presidency should she win – and Donald Trump, equally impulsive, decided to rub it in, using the 140-character or less tool of the impulsive. The Washington Post’s David Weigel tells the tale:
It was so close to the message that Republicans say they want from Donald Trump: a tweet describing Hillary Clinton as “crooked” and the “most corrupt candidate ever,” on the morning that the likely Democratic presidential nominee met with the FBI.
But the image that Trump chose to illustrate his point, which portrayed a red Star of David shape slapped onto a bed of $100 bills, had origins in the online white-supremacist movement. For at least the fifth time, Trump’s Twitter account had shared a meme from the racist “alt-right” and offered no explanation why.
Oops. Like Bill Clinton, Trump had the advantage and threw it away. Talk about Hillary and the FBI disappeared, replaced by this:
“We’ve been alarmed that Mr. Trump hasn’t spoken out vociferously against these anti-Semites and racists and misogynists who continue to support him,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “It’s been outrageous to see him retweeting and now sourcing material from the website and other online resources from this crowd.”
That is where the image was found, and that is a problem:
The offending image first appeared in a June 15 tweet by @FishBoneHead1, an account with fewer than 1,000 followers and a penchant for memes that mock Muslims, black Democrats and “cucks” – an alt-right term derived from the word “cuckold,” for people they deem insufficiently conservative. According to Anthony Smith, a reporter for the news site Mic, it was shared June 22 on a racist section of the 8Chan Web forum.
Trump’s official Twitter account shared the image, with no hint of its origin, at 9:37 a.m. Saturday. It came under fire immediately, with Trump critics such as the conservative pundit Erick Erickson accusing him of “playing to the white supremacists.” By 11:19 a.m., the tweet had been deleted, and the image was uploaded again with the star switched out for a circle.
That was more than enough time for critics and supporters to ask what exactly Trump was doing. On white-supremacist forums, Trump was cheered for apparently declaring his solidarity through not-so-subtle code.
“The evangelicals will listen to his pro-Israel statements, while we will listen to his signals,” Andrew Anglin wrote in the Daily Stormer, a racist site named after Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher’s notorious tabloid. “By pushing this into the media, the Jews bring to the public the fact that yes, the majority of Hilary’s [sic] donors are filthy Jew terrorists.”
Forget the FBI now:
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager who is now a paid political analyst, blamed the controversy on “political correctness run amok” and members of the #NeverTrump movement who wanted to hurt the candidate.
“This is a simple star,” Lewandowski said. “It’s the same star that sheriff’s departments across the country use, all over the place, to represent law enforcement.”
That might do as an explanation, except for previous Trump impulsiveness:
In November 2015, he tweeted a chart of bogus crime data from the fictional “Crime Statistics Bureau,” which wildly overstated how many white people were killed by black people. Charles Johnson, proprietor of the blog Little Green Footballs, traced the image to a Twitter user whose biographic information suggested that “we should have listened to the Austrian chap with the little moustache,” a reference to Adolf Hitler.
In January, Trump retweeted from @WhiteGenocideTM a meme of a destitute-looking former GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and in February he passed on a comment about his rallies from the same source. @WhiteGenocideTM’s account lists its location as “Jewmerica.”
In April, Trump retweeted a compliment from an innocuous-looking follower named Jason Bergkamp; a reporter from Fusion quickly discovered that Bergkamp had also praised Hitler.
“Trump support in the white-supremacist world is unprecedented,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The typical white-supremacist opinion of politicians is ‘a pox on both their houses.’ No one deserves their trust. But in Trump, they’ve found a champion.”
It seems that Trump can, like Bill Clinton, do irreparable damage:
On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly paid tribute to Israel and proudly noted that his daughter Ivanka is a convert to Judaism. But the ADL’s Greenblatt, disturbed by the pattern of anti-Semitic support for Trump, wants to hear more.
“I’d like to see Donald Trump reject these people with clarity and precision, the same way he rejected the other Republican candidates and the way that he has rejected folks on the Democratic side,” Greenblatt said Sunday. “On the day after the passing of Elie Wiesel, arguably one of the most important moral figures of the 20th century, there is a chance for him to speak with similar clarity about what is in bounds and out of bounds. And the time is now.”
Trump immediately sent out a tweet that Elie Wiesel had been a fine fellow, but it was a little late for that. It was time for serious damage control:
The Clinton campaign, in a statement Monday, said Trump “should be condemning hate, not offering more campaign behavior and rhetoric that engages extremists.”
“Donald Trump’s use of a blatantly anti-Semitic image from racist websites to promote his campaign would be disturbing enough, but the fact that it’s a part of a pattern should give voters major cause for concern,” Sarah Bard, the campaign’s director of Jewish outreach, said in the statement.
The Trump campaign fired back with a statement, referring to Clinton’s use of a private email account while she was secretary of state and former president Bill Clinton’s talk with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch at the Phoenix airport last week. … The statement said Clinton’s campaign was “trying to link the Star of David with a basic star, often used by sheriffs who deal with criminals and criminal behavior.”
“Clinton, through her surrogates, is just trying to divert attention from the dishonest behavior of herself and her husband,” the statement said.
And there was more:
Later, Trump’s official Facebook page put up a post with the above statement as well as one from the campaign’s social media director, Dan Scavino, that said the image was not “sourced from an anti-Semitic site.” Scavino’s statement said it was lifted from an “anti-Hillary Twitter user where countless images appear.”
“The sheriff’s badge – which is available under Microsoft’s ‘shapes’ – fit with the theme of corrupt Hillary and that is why I selected it,” Scavino said in the statement. “As the Social Media Director for the campaign, I would never offend anyone and therefore chose to remove the image.”
As with Bill Clinton, who’s going to believe him now? And all that was left was this:
Trump adviser Ed Brookover said Monday on CNN that “there was never any intention of anti-Semitism.”
He said the campaign had corrected the image and planned to “move on.”
“Not every six-sided star is a Star of David,” he said.
Perhaps so, and perhaps this is a minor matter after all, even if such things seem to happen again and again – but impulsiveness is not a minor matter. On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, who would dearly like to be Trump’s vice presidential nominee, over the weekend at the Aspen Ideas Festival, gave a stirring defense of Trump’s impulsiveness:
Calling the presumptive Republican nominee a great populist leader, Gingrich said Trump is one part Andrew Jackson as a disruptor, one part Theodore Roosevelt with manic energy, and one part P.T. Barnum as a salesman, which resonates well with the working class, but not the elite.
“That blend of those three explains the sort of ‘Trumpian’ phenomenon,” he said. “That frankly is fairly offensive if you’re part of an establishment that goes to think tanks and comes to Aspen, and has conversations appropriate for corporate boardrooms. Guys who talk at fourth-grade levels and speak in the language of a good working-class bar drive you crazy. And if they succeed they really drive you crazy, because they disrupt everything you thought you invested your life in.”
Gingrich said that all presidential candidates shift their opinions on various issues and Trump is no different, but what sets him apart is the fact that Trump’s not a career politician, which will benefit him amid countless scandals at home and around the world.
He said Trump’s ability to “kick over the table” made him unique amid a wide Republican field of nominees.
“Ted Cruz came along and survived longer because he is a brilliant Princeton-trained debater with a Harvard law degree, who knows how to make a great case on the theory on how one would kick over the table as a general idea to describe in a philosophical manner in which to base his foundation as a nominee,” Gingrich quipped. “As Cruz would get two-thirds of the way through describing this, Trump would walk in the room and kick over the table.”
Is that a good thing? Gingrich was coyly ambiguous:
Gingrich admitted that with Trump at the helm, the Republican convention will be a circus.
“They turned down my idea, which was to have Trump come in on Thursday night riding an elephant,” he said.
Was he kidding? He hoped his audience in Aspen thought so. He hoped Donald Trump back at Trump Tower in Manhattan didn’t think so. He wants the gig, but of the Star of David Jews-as-moneygrubbing-Shylocks gaffe, James Fallows offers this:
A basic principle of political life – and life in general – is that more things happen via incompetence or screw-up than happen according to devious plan. So the forgiving initial reaction to this Tweet could have been: can you believe how sloppy these Trump people are? Didn’t they stop to think about the way a six-sided star, on a field of cash, could so easily be read as a Star of David, and thus play into a classic anti-Semitic stereotype? Not to mention: why the hell is a presumptive major-party nominee spending his time on this kind of idiocy? …
So you can take your pick: negligence, or malice. Either a presumptive major-party nominee is spending his time, as he “pivots” toward the general election that happens just four months from now, sending out personally insulting tweets without having anyone check their provenance and implications, or someone in the campaign is doing this on purpose, dog-whistle style. I think the former is more likely, but either one is bad.
Add a third point to that. Hillary Clinton’s problems with the FBI were forgotten. What was Trump thinking? James Fallows actually prefers a third explanation from Hot Air:
Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s built a devoted following within the online hangouts of white supremacists. He’s surely aware of it and he hasn’t gone out of his way to discourage it. His denunciations of their support have been largely perfunctory. It may be that one of his racist fans tweeted that image at his account fully intending the symbolism in the shape of the star, and then Trump’s Twitter guy saw it and reproduced it without picking up on the symbolism himself…
It reminds me of this kerfuffle from back in November, when Trump stupidly retweeted something from a fan claiming that 81 percent of homicides involving white victims are perpetrated by blacks. In reality, 82 percent of homicides with white victims are perpetrated by whites. It was propaganda designed to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are predators. But whoever was running Trump’s Twitter account that day was too stupid not to see that the numbers were obviously bogus and too lazy not to take three minutes to check them by googling. He got suckered by racist propaganda. I’ll bet the same thing happened here. And it’ll happen again.
The options are negligence, or malice, or that the guy’s a sucker, easily used by others. Choose your poison, and poison is what Paul Waldman discusses here:
We get worked up about a lot of silly stuff in presidential campaigns, micro-controversies driven by faux outrage that are inevitably forgotten in a couple of days once the next micro-controversy comes along. On first glance, that’s what the kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s latest Twitter hijinks – once again, passing on something from white supremacists – looks like. After all, should we really care what’s in Trump’s Twitter feed, when we’re talking about our country’s future? The answer is that we should care, but it’s not about the tweet. The tweet isn’t the problem; the tweet is the result of the problem.
That’s the poison:
It’s just a tweet, and in and of itself it doesn’t make Trump a racist or an anti-Semite. To be honest, it doesn’t even make the top 20 most bigoted things Trump has said or done in this campaign. But it should leave Republicans with even more questions about how to square the ideals they claim to hold with the man their party has chosen to lead the United States of America.
We have to understand that this is about both rhetoric and substance. There’s a stylistic element, the way Trump gives people permission to let their ugliest feelings and beliefs out for display under the guise of not being “politically correct.” But there are also meaningful consequences for the course we would take in the future. Trump tells voters to hate and fear people who don’t look like them, but he also tells them to take action. Just the other day he told a crowd that “We are going to be so tough, we are going to be so smart and so vigilant, and we’re going to get it so that people turn in people when they know there’s something going on,” complaining that too many people are worried about being accused of racial profiling to turn in their neighbors. So if you spot a Muslim, go ahead and dial 911. When a woman at one of his events suggested that we “Get rid of all these heebeejabis they wear at TSA, I’ve seen them myself,” Trump responded, “We are looking at that. We’re looking at a lot of things.” I’ll bet.
Waldman is worried we’ve become too used to this:
When he says that a Latino judge from Indiana can’t do his job because “he’s a Mexican,” we shake our heads. When he tells an apocryphal story about a general executing Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood as a lesson in how America ought to act, our shock doesn’t last more than a day. When he laments the fact that the Islamic State can behead people while we’re restrained by our laws and morality, saying “They probably think we’re weak” and “You have to fight fire with fire,” we barely take notice. When he weds his support of bigoted policies like bans on Muslims to a fetishization of violence and brutality, promising to use torture and telling his supporters how he’d love to beat up the protesters who come to his rallies (“I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya”), we predict that any day now he’ll “pivot” and start acting “presidential.”
And we forget that not long ago the man now leading the GOP made himself into America’s most prominent birther, going on every TV show he could to claim that President Obama might be the beneficiary of a decades-long conspiracy to conceal the fact that he was actually born in Kenya. If you’re wondering whether that’s just stupid and crazy, or if it’s inherently racist, let me clear it up for you: Yes, it’s racist.
If so, the Republicans have a problem:
In my analysis of American politics I try as often as possible to put myself in the shoes of people I disagree with, to take their arguments seriously and understand where they’re coming from even when I’m convinced they’re wrong. And I’ve argued that there are perfectly rational reasons a committed Republican would grit their teeth and support Trump even if they found him to be an ignoramus and a buffoon. But there comes a point at which one would have to say: Even if a Trump presidency would deliver much more of what I would want out of government policy, from the Supreme Court to domestic policy to foreign policy, I simply cannot be a part of this. Donald Trump’s appeal to Americans is so rancid, so toxic, so foul that my conscience will not allow me to stand behind him, even with the occasional protest that I don’t agree with the latest vile thing he said, or the insistence that my fellow Republicans and I will do our best to restrain his ugliest impulses.
There’s only one problem with that:
Donald Trump isn’t hoping that he can keep his bigotry a secret; he’s running on it and promising to enshrine it in federal government policy. He may not be responsible for all the things his fans say, and you might even excuse him for passing on some of their hate by mistake. What he is responsible for is all the reasons those people became his fans in the first place. It isn’t because of economic anxiety, or because he’s an outsider, or because he tells it like it is. It’s because Donald Trump appeals directly to the worst in us, and the worst of us.
And every Republican who stands with him, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them or how much they wish he would change, will have that stench on them for a long time to come.
The Star of David Jews-as-moneygrubbing-Shylocks tweet was a minor matter, really, but that general stench isn’t. Bill Clinton may have ended up an impulsive goofball, doing considerable damage to his wife’s campaign for president, but Trump’s thoughtless impulsiveness can do far more damage, to us all. Sometimes the minor stuff isn’t that minor.