President Donald Trump seems to be a man who thinks (and tweets) from his gut. He appears emotional, self-absorbed and impulsive. His language is careless and inaccurate. He shoots his mouth off repeating something he’s seen or heard on Fox News or talk radio which as often as not turns out to be false.
All these things are alarming and indefensible. Nevertheless, the unprecedented distortion, fabrication, selective reporting, double standards, wrenching out of context and character assassination by association in the mainstream media’s general approach to Trump has created a false and self-replicating narrative.
As a rule, I don’t use my columns to criticise remarks made by a colleague on the same paper. I consider it rather bad manners. However, since Jonathan Freedland singled me out for wrong-headedness in his column last week, I fear I must reply.
Jonathan is clearly astonished that I should think Trump is one of the most pro-Jewish US presidents ever to be elected, since Jonathan seems to think Trump is one of the most anti-Jewish presidents ever to be elected.
He cites as evidence the omission from the White House statement marking Holocaust Memorial Day of any mention of Jews or antisemitism. He claims as a fact that Trump officials stripped all such reference from an initial State Department draft. He juxtaposes these officials’ claim that they wanted to be “inclusive” towards all who suffered under the Nazis with his observation that the omission delighted “America’s far right and white supremacists”.
He fails to mention that a White House official said Trump’s team had not seen the State draft before publishing its own and had advised it not to release the second statement late in the day.
I said at the time that omitting Jews from the Holocaust statement was very wrong. But I also noted the widespread liberal approach, which similarly downplays Jewish victimisation in the Holocaust in order to be “inclusive”.
Indeed Hillary Clinton, when Secretary of State, issued a statement on Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 which made no mention whatever of Jews or antisemitism –— although it did mention the “Roma, gays, persons with disabilities and others deemed inferior or undesirable by the Nazis” whose lives were “brutally taken”.
Did Jonathan note at the time that Clinton’s omission similarly delighted “America’s far right and white supremacists”?
Next, Jonathan cites the way Trump accused a Jewish reporter, Jake Turx, of lying and told him to shut up when Turx sought his views on the antisemitic incidents surging across the US.
Trump’s behaviour was indeed shocking. But if you look at it in context, with Trump maddened by near-daily charges of antisemitism, it’s quite clear that he simply heard that word and went off like a rocket — not even hearing that poor Turx said he wasn’t blaming Trump for the outbreak.
Trump’s outburst was a character flaw. He simply hadn’t listened. To see this as evidence of antisemitism, however, makes no sense of what actually occurred.
The clincher, though, according to Jonathan, is that when asked about the wave of bomb threats to Jewish centres Trump speculated that, rather than taking these incidents at face value, people should consider that “sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad.”
According to Jonathan, Trump could mean only one thing by this word “reverse” — that Jews themselves had invented these threats in the “classic antisemitic trope” that they were falsely claiming to be victims of attack to win themselves undeserved sympathy.
But this is demonstrably absurd. If Trump had literally meant the “reverse” of antisemitic attacks, he would have been claiming Jews were attacking non-Jewish targets. Which clearly wasn’t happening.
Trump speaks loosely and inaccurately. From the context, it was absolutely clear he was suggesting these were “false flag” attacks — black-ops by unspecified enemies to damage him. Rightly or wrongly, Trump firmly believes his enemies perpetrated such attacks at his rallies to smear him with the taint of violence. That, not an anti-Jewish canard, was obviously what was in his mind.
He is currently confusing many by cuddling up to the Palestinians after love-bombing Israel. Whether this signals an impending Middle East policy car-crash or deal-making genius remains to be seen.
Trump’s sympathy for the Jewish people, however, is revealed in what he has written, said and done over the years. The antisemitism charges are just fake news.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist