Updated with a response from the Trump campaign.
Trump delivered a speech Thursday in West Palm Beach, Florida, that sounded some familiar themes – familiar to his campaign, but also to folks versed in anti-Semitism and in classic conspiracy theories of global control that is its lifeblood.
The Republican presidential candidate never mentioned Jews in his prepared text, which he read from teleprompters with some extemporization. But in declaring that his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, is somehow an instrument of a vast conspiracy involving scads of money and “international banks,” he entered what many saw as a territory, real and ideological, where hostility to Jews perpetuates and thrives even in their absence.
“Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors,” Trump said.
That quote evidently was key: Trump’s campaign team, @TeamTrump, tweeted it out.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, noticed.
“@TeamTrump should avoid rhetoric and tropes that historically have been used against Jews and still spur #antisemitism,” Greenblatt said. “Let’s keep hate out of campaign.”
Trump did not seem amenable to that kind of advice. If not hate, precisely, he was ready to indulge a willingness to blame a mysterious cabal.
“This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged,” he said.
“Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
Others heard echoes between Trump’s rhetoric and classic anti-Semitic tropes. Like Greenblatt, a number of writers on Twitter said the intent and the effect is essentially toxic whether or not Jews are explicitly mentioned.
“Trump is priming his supporters to believe the election was stolen from them by a cabal of Jews, blacks, bankers and media,” said Todd Zwillich, a public radio correspondent.
“Is it just me or is much of this Trump speech Jew-baiting?” said Julia Ioffe, who suffered a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse after writing a critical article about Trump’s wife Melania – attacks Trump refused to repudiate.
Ari Ratner, a fellow at the liberal New America think tank, posted a side by side comparison of Trump’s speech and Adolf Hitler’s 1941 declaration of war.
The speech also bore comparison with another notorious anti-Semitic tract: “The Protocols of the Elder of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery that has fueled anti-Jewish violence for over a century:
Trump: “Our great civilization here in America and across the civilized world has come across a moment of reckoning. We’ve seen it in the United Kingdom, where they voted to liberate themselves from global government and global trade deals and global immigration deals that have destroyed their sovereignty and have destroyed many of those nations. The central base of world political power is right here in America, our corrupt political establishment that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people.”
Protocols (from the introduction, written in the voice of a “scholar” who purports to be revealing a secret Jewish document): “The nations of the West are being brought under international control at political, military and economic levels. They are rapidly in process of becoming controlled also on the social level. All alike are being told that their only hope lies in the surrender of national sovereignty.”
Trump: “The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism, they are a political special interest, no different than any other … with an agenda, and the agenda is not for you, it’s for themselves …
“The establishment and their media enablers wield control over this nation through means that are very well known.”
Protocols (in the voice of its fabricated Jewish “conspirators”): “Through the Press, we have gained the power to influence while remaining ourselves in the shade: thanks to the Press we have got the gold in our hands, notwithstanding that we have had to gather it out of the oceans of blood and tears.”
For its part, the Trump camp denied that the speech echoed nefarious themes and noted particularly the remarks by the ADL’s chief.
“Jonathan Greenblatt’s accusation that Donald Trump is evoking themes that have historically been used against Jews is irresponsible,” Jason Greenblatt (no relation), Trump’s chief legal officer and a campaign aide on Jewish affairs, said in a statement to JTA. “Jonathan Greenblatt is trying to connect the hatred and bigotry of some despicable individuals with the movement to Make America Great Again that Mr. Trump is leading. Note that, in his recent comments, Jonathan Greenblatt did not dispute Mr. Trump’s description that Secretary Clinton is at the heart of a global power structure that has stripped the United States of its wealth to line the pockets of corporate and political interests.”
Trump’s counsel added: “Jonathan Greenblatt is merely trying to divert the attention of the voters away from these facts by fabricating connections to anti-Semitism. Jonathan Greenblatt seems to be willing to ignore Mr. Trump’s lifelong commitment and support of Israel and the Jewish community, as well as his forceful rebuke of anti-Semitism, but Mr. Trump will not allow anyone to hide the truth from the American people, no matter what illegitimate means they employ to try to do so.”
Trump and the ADL have been down this road before, and the Jewish defense agency seems to still be waiting for the candidate’s forceful rebuke of anti-Semitism. Trump’s speech, delivered in a must-win state, added flesh to the accusation in his notorious July 2 tweet depicting Clinton, against a pile of cash and a six-pointed star, as the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”
The tweet was deleted the same day and campaign staff replaced it with an identical one, with the phrase now backed up by a red circle. But Trump was furious at his staff for deleting the tweet, and at accusations that the tweet was anti-Semitic, although the image originated on an anti-Semitic website.
The ADL’s Greenblatt said at the time, “We’ve been troubled by the anti-Semites and racists during this political season, and we’ve seen a number of so-called Trump supporters peddling some of the worst stereotypes all through this year. And it’s been concerning that [Donald Trump] hasn’t spoken our forcefully against these people. It is outrageous to think that the candidate is sourcing material from some of the worst elements in our society.”
The dreamscape conjured up by Trump’s speech, a conspiracy theory anchored by a proliferation of anti-Semitic tropes, but missing Jews, is not an unfamiliar one. “None Dare Call it Conspiracy,” a popular far-right tract published in 1971, explicitly repudiates Jew hatred, and then, like Trump did in his speech, advances the same conspiratorial imaginings prolific in “The Protocols.” It was in its day tremendously influential on the antecedents to the alt-right.
Conspiracy theories are composed of two elements: the plot and its executors. The imagined plot is a device aimed at isolating and marginalizing – if not physically harming – its falsely accused executors.
Whether or not Trump intended to intimate that his “handful of global special interests” are Jewish, his speech Thursday seeded the present tumult with the threats of a violent past.