On Tuesday, President Trump told reporters, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” adding later that he meant disloyalty to Israel — a bizarre accusation to lob at a bunch of Americans. This was in character: Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in April, Trump referred to Israeli head of state Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” Prior to his election, he deployed another series of anti-Semitic tropes before the same body: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he said in 2015. “I’m a negotiator, like you folks.” Jewish support for Trump would’ve been underwater even absent such remarks. Jewish voters tend to back Democrats by large majorities, as 79 percent did in the November midterms. But while normal circumstances might find Trump fending off anti-Semitism charges nonstop as a result, quite the opposite has been true. He’s tried to cast Democrats as the actual anti-Semites. And widespread Islamophobia has given him a receptive audience.
A gift fell into the Republican Party’s lap last November: Ilhan Omar was elected to Congress. A 36-year-old Muslim, immigrant, and Somali refugee, the Minneapolis-area representative was a tailor-made bogeyman for a party whose reliance on anti-Muslim hostility had reached a new apex with Trump’s election. As a bonus, Omar was critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Her consequent remarks about America’s complicity — facilitated in part by lobbyists — included statements that flirted enough with anti-Semitic tropes to prompt allegations that she bore animus against Jews. Omar claimed ignorance about the weight of her words and apologized, but the groundwork for a smear campaign had already been laid. Emboldened further by her criticisms of how 9/11 has been weaponized to cast all Muslims as suspect, Republicans from Steve Scalise to Dan Crenshaw to Trump himself characterized Omar and her colleague Rashida Tlaib — the only other Muslim woman in Congress — as radical Islamists who hate Israel and, by extension, all Jewish people.
It was never a very convincing argument. But Republicans repeated their allegations often and loudly enough — and Omar remained undaunted enough in her criticisms of Israeli policy and American Islamophobia — that it became a centerpiece of their case for 2020 votes and efforts to siphon off Jewish support from Democrats. At times, even their opponents indulged them; Speaker Nancy Pelosi rebuked Omar in all but name and submitted a resolution meant initially to distance the party from her. Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters have escalated their attacks. The president tweeted a video interspersing footage of the Twin Towers collapsing in flames with remarks that Omar made about how the attack was used wrongly to indict all Muslims; his implication was that Omar was trivializing the tragedy. Death threats against her flooded in. One man was arrested for threatening to “put a bullet in her fucking skull.” Trump tweeted that she should “go back” to where she “originally came from.” Three days later, the crowd at one of his rallies in North Carolina chanted “Send her back!” as he looked on, smirking.
These salvos have helped obfuscate less-disputable anti-Semitism on Trump’s part. Logically speaking, the implication that a vast majority of American Jews are disloyal should rankle Republicans who used Omar’s claim that Israel’s lobbyists have normalized “allegiance to a foreign country” to accuse her of invoking the anti-Semitic “dual loyalty” trope. But so far, their lack of interest is equaled only by that which preceded it: Republicans purportedly outraged by Omar’s comments have had few substantive issues with Trump declaring that “very fine people” marched among the white-supremacist protesters who shouted “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville. Nor were they much troubled when he spread the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that George Soros, a billionaire progressive donor and a Jew, was bankrolling a Central American migrant caravan populated by diseased criminals and terrorists. The same claim was seized upon by a Pennsylvania man, Robert Bowers, to justify massacring 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year. A centerpiece of much white-nationalist theorycraft holds that Jews are conspiring to replace white majorities with nonwhite immigrants — a concern upon which Trump and his allies have gleefully capitalized.
The GOP’s hand-wringing over anti-Semitism has long been cynical and insincere. At its most strategic, it’s meant to shore up the Trump administration’s alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s in Israel and those who support it — white Christian Evangelicals most crucially, plus a smaller number of conservative Jews and other Americans unconcerned by Israel’s human-rights record. At its basest, though, it’s an expression of the right’s long-standing antipathy toward Islam and its practitioners. Trump’s Muslim ban trailed only his border wall in 2016 as the defining symbol of how his administration would handle the issues most pressing for his supporters: terrorism and immigration, respectively. Viewed in this light, the attacks on Omar are less confounding. Islamophobia eases the transition from interpreting her remarks as linguistic sloppiness in defense of Palestinians to hatred for Jews. Islamophobia is why the right can convince itself she’s a national-security threat and more likely sympathetic to the 9/11 hijackers than her own countrymen, on whose behalf she advocates daily as a member of Congress. But if Omar is an anti-Semite, and Trump is akin to the “King of Israel” — as suggested in a tweet he promoted on Wednesday — then something more sinister than mere concern for Jewish people’s well-being is going on. And given the Republican Party’s long-term investment in demonizing Muslims and galvanizing white Evangelicals to back its agenda while casting its Democratic opponents as the “real” bigots, it’s not hard to see what that is.