Historian Cheryl Greenberg is the latest to ask the darkest question hanging over the Trump candidacy: When Trump talks about the "global elites," the "international bankers," and "crooked" media figures plotting against American sovereignty, does he know the anti-Semitic origins of his own conspiracy claims?
All these are old canards straight out of the phony “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” conspiracy theories about wealthy, international Jewish bankers plotting to destroy the nation and take over the world, controlling politicians with their wealth or through the power of the media that they dominate (the “Jew York Times” is a commonplace in neo-Nazi parlance). These Jews exploit poor and vulnerable people for their own nefarious ends while pretending to be allies. The only missing assertion is the blood libel.
"The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others," writes Greenberg, makes it clear that Trump's alt-right followers understand the attacks as anti-Semitic. But does Trump himself know it?
Trump’s references to money, bankers and international conspiracies appear to be deliberate anti-Semitic dog whistles, and his alt-right supporters recognize (and celebrate) that. Trump is not inventing these conspiratorial ravings on the fly during rallies but reading them from prepared remarks.
It seems that nearly every discussion of extremist conservatives at one point or another boils down to the simple query: Malicious? Or just stupid? Whether it be long-disproven fudged statistics, claims of decapitated heads littering the southern deserts, or Trump's uncanny ability to channel the precise conspiracy claims of Henry Ford before him, all too often we are reduced to the impossible task of parsing out whether this or that anger-spewing public figure is manipulating the public knowingly or is themselves one of the gullible. In this case, however, the task isn’t quite so impossible.
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While Greenberg rightly suggests that in the end it doesn't matter too much—after all, the effects are the same—I do think Donald J. Trump is a special case, and one of the few cases of the evil or stupid parlor game that has a clear answer: Donald Trump probably doesn't know he's been spouting anti-Semitic talking points. Donald Trump probably really is just stupid.
We know a great deal about Trump's personality from the campaign trail and from associates who have come forward to opine about him against his will. We know he is a habitual liar. We know he is supremely narcissistic, to the point where he seems to have no interest in or ability to grasp events or information except in relationship to himself. Asked about God, he praises God for the lovely golf course Trump bought; tasked with writing a condolence letter on the death of a child, he focuses on the time he attempted to bed the mother; asked about any of the policy questions he would be asked to weigh in on as president, his default reply is to proclaim that he is smart and the current policymakers are dumb, therefore he will simply do better.
We know he speaks in short, obsessively repetitive phrases, and we have watched as he invented new ones that appear to be based on the musings of whoever he last spoke to. And we know who he speaks to. He speaks to Steve Bannon, proprietor of an "alt-right" conspiracy website. He speaks to Roger Stone, notorious conspiracy nut. He frequently channels the musings of conspiracy kingpin Alex Jones, who just this week was on a rant against the "Jewish mafia." Through his immediate contacts he seems to have uncanny knowledge of whatever Russian government-linked propagandists are claiming, and is forever getting in trouble for retweeting figures and pictures from white nationalists with no apparent recognition that they are problematic; so long as the tweeters are admiring of Donald Trump, their precise personalities or agendas don't matter.
Donald Trump may be malevolent, to be sure. But he's also provably and astonishingly gullible. This is a man who, had he been born into less gilded circles, would be the conspiracy theorists' most reliable patsy. Because he is completely unable to parse information that does not revolve around himself, the details of each particular theory are a blur to him—even with teleprompter help, he can repeat little more than the catchphrases ("globalists") as he rattles off not why those secret plotters are against America, but how they are attempting to personally wound him.
The simple explanation here is the best: Donald Trump read a speech about the "globalists" from a teleprompter because his campaign team, led by Steve Bannon, crafted that speech for him. He has incorporated a few of the buzzwords in more recent speeches, but became truly enamored of the notion of the conspiracy by "bankers" and "elites" and scheming "media" against him because he can only imagine losing this contest, like the Emmys or the right to build a new resort, as a result of a personal plot against him.
He is as dumb as a goddamn post, and will say or write or tweet anything you put in front of him, so long as it makes Donald J. Trump look good.
Is Donald Trump an anti-Semite? Truly, there's hardly any evidence to suggest he knows what the term means. But he has surrounded himself with people who are eager to play in those tropes, and would assuredly as president continue to do so. He is, to use the catchphrase of the final presidential debate, just a puppet.