After President Donald J. Trump gave meandering answers to press questions over the last two days about attacks on Jews, several voices in the media, especially Jewish ones, have put forward the unfair – and patently false – charge that President Trump “refused to denounce” American anti-Semitism in his remarks.
“Why can’t President Trump simply denounce anti-Semitism?” asked Chuck Todd on MSNBC:
“Instead of telling us that you aren’t an anti-Semite, the question was about denouncing the rise of anti-Semitism. Please make it clear that not only are you not an anti-Semite, but that you reject people who are.”
Todd is factually inaccurate, since the questions were NOT about “denouncing” anything. That’s may be Todd’s agenda, but it’s not what happened.
Trump’s first question (on Wednesday) solicited his message not to anti-Semites, but to Jews “who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones,” and the second, which came yesterday, asked “how the government is planning to take care of” an “uptick in anti-Semitism.”
Trump’s answers, as is his wont, were filled with rambling non-sequiturs about the size of his Electoral College victory, his grandchildren, and the unfair, lying media. But Trump rambles when he answers most questions. Further, there are lots of reasonable ways a president could have answered those questions – expressing sympathy with the victims or describing the limits law enforcement faces in combating diffuse problems – that would not involve “denouncing” anything.
What would “refusing to denounce” look like? Very simple:
Reporter: Do you denounce the rise of anti-Semitism?
Barring that, the accusation is gibberish.
Trump clearly feels insulted by the calls for him to denounce anti-Semitism, and he’s right. It is insulting. Talmudists have a concept called hava amina, which refers to the question’s default position. The hava amina of the “model” unfair question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” is that you used to beat your wife. One reason “Black Lives Matter” was an offensive slogan is its hava amina that a significant number of whites think black lives don’t matter.
Well, the “refuse to denounce” charge uses the hava amina that Trump is sympathetic to anti-Semitism. And the evidence to support that is a very thin soup. Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s supposed anti-Semitism is a liberal invention. Trump is not responsible for the beliefs of David Duke, Richard Spencer, or other racists who support him, unless your evidence is, again, “refuse to denounce” – a phrase we should retire from the political lexicon. And Trump’s affection for the Jews in his life and his support for Israel are widely known.
You don’t denounce things virtually everyone hates – and if you do, eyebrows go up. Was President George W. Bush asked to denounce 9-11? Was President Barack Obama expected to denounce Hurricane Sandy? Should Trump come out against long lines at airports and high ATM fees, too?
This particular question is worse, because plays on unfair prejudices against Republicans. How would Jews feel if they were asked why they are refusing to denounce Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff? Or Hillary Clinton, who still “refuses to denounce” child molestation, despite a few high-profile supporters who were accused and convicted pedophiles. Even better, should the members of the press calling for Trump to make denunciations be expected to themselves denounce unfair media coverage of Trump?
I didn’t vote for this president. In fact I (for lack of a better word) denounce much of his personal style and many of his policy positions. But too often, liberal complaints about this president – that he’s not only anti-Semitic but also homophobic, having appointed racists and bigots – blindly draws on the old “hateful Republican” playbook and ignores the reality of this very different kind of Republican who is in fact a very different kind of politician.
We have to keep our eyes open for real threats from Trump, like his hostility toward the media and shaky relationship to the truth. Speaking of which, when you think about it, asking a politician to prove he’s NOT anything is really a “Trump question,” since nobody can prove a negative. The media scoffed when Trump challenged his detractors to “Prove to me that millions didn’t vote illegally.” Surely we can do better.
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.