With today’s electronic and social media affording virtually anyone the chance to share thoughts and images around the world with staggering speed, it has never been more important to take care when publishing a picture in a newspaper, or, more privately, or before hitting the “send” button on a personal message or photo. More than a few of us have had the very unhappy experience of hitting that button too quickly and wishing desperately that we could take it back, especially if we sent a private message in error to an entire listserv. When a private comment or thought goes public, terrible things can happen.
All of which makes me wonder how it can be that the Trump presidential campaign, among its too-numerous-to-mention inflammatory and often gross offenses against good taste, continues to allow for the dissemination of an image that can only painfully rankle the sensitivities of any sentient Jew.
Lately, in advance of the critical primaries in Michigan and Florida, Trump has taken to encouraging those attending his rallies to verbally take a pledge to vote for him. OK… in and of itself it’s a bit strange, but not offensive. But before taking the pledge, he asks them, en masse, to raise their right hand and together recite the words “I pledge to vote for Donald Trump on Primary Day.”
I imagine that most of you reading this have seen pictures of what I’m speaking of by now, but just in case you haven’t, I can say without hesitation that it bears a striking resemblance to a Nazi party rally. The optics, as people would say these days, are terrible. If you’re looking from behind, where it’s harder to tell the angle of the raised arms, it looks worst of all, but truth to tell, there’s no angle from which it looks innocuous. There in front of them is Trump himself, bombastic as ever, and arrayed before him are his adoring minyons, arms upraised, taking the pledge. It is virtually impossible not to make the connection to Hitler’s Germany, and completely disingenuous to suggest that anyone who sees it as such is just a neurotic Jew or “loser,” (Trump’s most frequently relied on insult of choice for those who dare to disagree with him).
So here’s my question: why? This is, after all, the candidate who, just a week ago, received the endorsements of Ku Klux Klansman David Duke (and pretended not to know anything about him, who he was and what he represented), and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a notorious anti-Semite, and was roundly criticized for not rejecting the endorsements outright. It was only after hearing those loud voices of outrage that Trump rather grumpily distanced himself from both endorsements.
If David Duke and Louis Farrakhan have everyone justifiably assuming that Trump might fairly be judged by the company he keeps, why, then, go the extra mile and alienate the offended parties in an even more egregious way? If the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam are the Triple-A of racism and anti-Semitism, then surely the Nazis are the Major Leagues. Why provoke the Jewish community even further?
As I see it, there are two possible answers, neither of which leaves me feeling any too good.
The first is that Trump was genuinely not aware of the “optics” of the pledge/salute, and never intended for it to be any kind of mimicking of a Nazi rally. That would be nice if it were so, but for a man who is one of the great political showmen of his generation, I find that virtually impossible to believe. He knows exactly what he’s doing, when and why he’s doing it, all the time. There’s not an ounce of “accidental” in him, even when he’s rambling in some unrehearsed rant. And even if it were an unintended offense on his part, where were his aides and political operatives to say to him “you can’t do that, it looks too much like the Nazis, and that’s the last impression that we want to be creating right now?” If he didn’t know, which is unlikely, and his aides didn’t tell him, they’re all guilty of unacceptable obliviousness.
The other possibility, of course, which is worse, is that Trump did know all along how very bad the optics were, and he continued to use the pledge anyway because it plays to a particular piece of his base, and resonates with them. It’s not an accident that David Duke endorsed him, or Louis Farrakhan. They endorsed him because the message that he sends out is clear and unambiguous. “Making America Great Again’ could be David Duke’s campaign slogan, or Louis Farrakhan’s. Keep out the Mexicans, keep out the Muslims, reduce Jewish influence on all walks of American life, play to people’s fears and insecurities… it’s a platform any good xenophobe/fascist could run on.
The only thing worse than the message itself is that large numbers of Americans are buying into it.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.