Editor’s Note: For another perspective, see “Why Orthodox Jews Like Me Are Voting for Trump.”
On the first night of the Republican National Convention, President Trump appeared in a video with a group of front-line workers. One of them explained that he was a truck driver, who hauled steel that some of his customers made into hospital beds.
“That’s fantastic. Congratulations,” said the president. “I love the truckers. They’re on my side. All of them frankly. I think pretty much all of them. How… about you?”
You see what he did there? A typical politician might have thought to himself, “I like truckers, they support me,” before saying out loud, “I like truckers, because they are independent, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who are literally the engines of our great economy.” But Trump famously always says the quiet part out loud. Trump likes truckers because they like him.
At least he’s being honest, right? But the habit becomes dangerous when the stakes are higher. Last week, Trump was asked what he thought about QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory that has migrated from the fringes of the Internet into some mainstream Republican political campaigns. Among other things, QAnon followers believe Trump was elected to battle a Satan-worshipping cult of politicians and celebrities who have infiltrated the deep state in order to engage in child sex abuse. More than a few of its adherents espouse anti-Semitism, of the Jews-control-the-world-and-media variety.
Here’s the first thing Trump said when asked about QAnon: “Well, I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate, but I don’t know much about the movement.” A few moments later, after describing its followers, dubiously, as people who “don’t like seeing what’s going on in places like Portland and places like Chicago and New York,” he returned to his main theme: “So I don’t know, really, anything about it other than they do, supposedly, like me.”
This was a moment to draw a line between reality and fantasy, between acceptable, fact-based public discourse and delusional, paranoid-style theories that can only poison the conversation. Trump, however, is not one to reject a supporter, however fringe. It’s what got him into trouble during Charlottesville, when he couldn’t quite bring himself to unequivocally reject the extremists who organized and took part in the white supremacist rally. It’s why it took him a few tries to fully disavow David Duke, the Klansman and anti-Semite who pledged his support to Trump back in 2016. And it is the impulse behind his decision to all but embrace a 17-year-old vigilante who has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of two people during violent demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisc.
Trump and his minions do the bare minimum to distance themselves from the fringe, but the folks who live there hear it differently. Sure enough, as Philip Bump reported in The Washington Post, “some QAnon groups quickly saw Trump’s comments as validation, an entirely predictable outcome.”
The Jewish stake in this should be obvious: The American Jewish success story depends in part on a society that rejects conspiracy theories, because rare is the conspiracy theory that doesn’t eventually find a nefarious role for the Jews. It’s why our communal leaders demand that left-wing politicians denounce Louis Farrakhan or the boycott Israel movement. We pounce on figures who suggest Jewish money is buying political influence. Trump shouldn’t get a pass on validating similarly deplorable followers, even if he did move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
There is, of course, a right way to do this – to reject nut jobs and hatemongers while reminding your sane supporters and sober detractors what you stand for and what you reject. Joe Biden, a career politician, understood that last week when Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and alt-right spokesman, announced that he would back Biden over Trump in November. “What you stand for is absolutely repugnant,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Sunday on Twitter, responding to a tweet by Spencer. “Your support is 10,000% percent unwelcome here.”
Biden’s camp is hardly perfect in this regard. Last month, when the Palestinian-American activist and boycott Israel advocate Linda Sarsour appeared at an event surrounding the Democratic convention, the campaign was quick to disavow her. Bates issued a statement saying, “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform,” adding, “She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
So far, so good. A few days later, however, Biden’s people had to make nice with Arab and Muslim activists offended by his disavowal. Senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders said the meeting was intended to “affirm Vice President Biden’s unshakeable commitment to working with, and to make clear that we regretted any hurt that was caused to, these communities.” She added, however, “We continue to reject the views that Linda Sarsour has expressed.”
Call that hypocrisy, diplomacy, or flip-flopping – but you can’t call it abnormal. It’s what politicians do: They pander to groups that can deliver votes, even when they disagree with some of their ideas or constituents. It’s a politician’s job to court votes, but there are bottom lines: Typical politicians guard the gates of public discourse by rejecting racism, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories and violence, even when it comes from “their” side.
But for Trump, there is no bottom line. There is only flattery. If you like him, he likes you. It doesn’t matter if even the FBI has issued warnings about QAnon and other conspiracy theorists looking to climb on the Trump Train. It doesn’t matter if his followers are toting rifles at civil rights protests. Whether they wear a trucker’s cap or a tinfoil hat, flatterers are welcome aboard.