The comments of a speaker at a recent rally that featured an appearance by former President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania is being widely cited as justification for President Joe Biden’s labeling of his opponents as “semi-fascists.” That talk, which served as one of several warm-up speeches prior to the main event with Trump, involved comments in which a defendant in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was spoken of as a victim even though the person in question has been credibly accused of also being a Nazi sympathizer. Those remarks are therefore being put forward by some on the left as evidence for the thesis that under Trump, the Republican Party has become a home for anti-Semites, if not Nazis.
In a campaign where Biden’s Democrats have begun to gain some ground recently in a midterm election that had heretofore seemed to promise disaster for them, the focus on Trump and his alleged soft-spot for extremists has proved to be a brilliant tactic. Instead of defending their dismal record on the economy, inflation, crime and other issues, Democrats are doing their best to change the subject to Trump and Jan. 6. This is also tied to an unseemly and highly politicized set of actions undertaken by the Department of Justice—like the raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence—that seems akin to the typical banana republic practice of a government seeking to jail their political opponents. Justified or not, Democrats gain when the discussion is about the party that is out of power rather than the one that has been in control of everything in Washington for the last 20 months.
Whether it will be enough to enable the Democrats to retain control of Congress remains to be seen. But just, if not more important, as the politics implications of this argument is the broader one about anti-Semitism. That boils down to a key question of which the answer seems to depend on what side of the political spectrum one happens to be on: Who is more important, an extremist facing jail for the Capitol riot or sitting members of Congress like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)?
The particular focus of this dialogue of the deaf about Jew-hatred is a woman called Cynthia Hughes, founder of a group called the Patriot Freedom Project, which seeks to aid the hundreds of people involved in the Capitol riot. It was Hughes who spoke prior to Trump at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3, during the course of which she mentioned her nephew, Timothy Hale-Cusanelli. Hale-Cusanelli was one of those who broke into the Capitol during that disgraceful fracas. He has been convicted of a number of charges related to the riot. The former member of the U.S. Army Reserves is awaiting sentencing but has been held without bail since shortly after the crime—something unusual for someone not charged with committing violence. However, it’s typical of those who were arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, who have been kept in prison indefinitely because judges consider them to be likely to commit violence.
That’s easily applied to Hale-Cusanelli since he has made racist and anti-Semitic comments, and his social-media contained pictures of him posing as Hitler. So his aunt’s attempts to portray him as a victim of injustice are hard to justify. The legitimization they received by her presence at the Trump rally is the sort of thing that Republicans shouldn’t tolerate.
Once reporters drilled down into her remarks, the fact that Trump has said he would consider pardons for Jan. 6 defendants if he is elected president again in 2024 provided fodder for his critics. It can be argued that many of those defendants have been treated far more harshly than if they had committed similar or even far worse crimes during the course of the Black Lives Matter riots only a few months prior to the Capitol riot. But any defense, even on civil libertarian grounds, of them is precisely the sort of thing that buttresses the Democrats’ attempt to brand all Trump voters as insurrectionists and fascists.
It also recalled an earlier controversy in Pennsylvania where GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano—another Trump loyalist—came under justified fire for his links to the social-media outlet Gab and its anti-Semitic founder, Andrew Torba.
Both these incidents illustrate the fact that anti-Semitism does exist on the right. But while the Hughes speech and Mastriano’s problems are fair game for comment, the idea that they represent the takeover of the Republican Party under Trump isn’t merely a stretch. It paints a fictional picture that serves more to distort political discourse than to elevate it, let alone to save democracy from Nazis.
Typical of this genre was a piece by New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, which used Hale-Cusanelli as the centerpiece of an argument that asserted that what we are now witnessing is “The GOP’s Surrender to Antisemites.” In it, Chait, an influential liberal voice, linked Trump’s “anti-globalist” stands to past figures on the right like Charles Lindbergh and Pat Buchanan, who were credibly tied to anti-Semitic positions. In practice, however, the Trump administration’s policies were neither extreme nor linked to anti-Semitism.
To the contrary, he was not only the most pro-Israel president ever but surpassed his predecessors in opposing anti-Semitism on college campuses, and had closer ties to Jews than any other previous president via his family and close associates. The claims that he never condemned right-wing extremism or had endorsed the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, which continue to be voiced on the left, were simply untrue.
The argument that Trump somehow encouraged anti-Semites on the far-right with his trolling of his critics and foes on Twitter, as well as in speeches, was pure partisanship. It’s also hypocritical since it’s the sort of charge that is never applied to liberals, like Biden, who are also prone to hyperbolic and dishonest attacks on their opponents.
Even worse is the fact that Chait resurrects the Democratic talking point that claims that all attacks on left-wing mega-donor George Soros are anti-Semitic. That’s a transparent falsehood that makes it hard to take him seriously.
There are other figures on the right, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who Chait accuses of anti-Semitism. Whatever you may think of her extremism and wild comments, if inappropriate Holocaust analogies mean that she’s a Jew-hater, the same can be said of countless Democrats who are guilty of the same offense but are never labeled anti-Semites.
What’s worse is that Chait writes as if anti-Semitism doesn’t exist on the left.
Left-wing anti-Semitism doesn’t negate the reality of Jew-hatred on the right. But it isn’t “whataboutism” to note that stories like those that mention of Hale-Cusanelli or even Mastriano’s since renounced ties to the operator of the Gab social network don’t actually link up to policy or represent something that has been embraced by Trump or the overwhelming majority of Republicans and leading conservative publications. The reality of contemporary politics is the GOP is a lockstep pro-Israel party where philo-Semitism is the norm.
The opposite is true of the Democratic Party, whose intersectional left-wing’s embrace of critical race theory has driven growing hostility to Israel and support for ideologues in the Black Lives Matter movement that embrace the idea that Jews are “white” oppressors. And rather than isolating their extremists, the party’s progressive wing and pop-culture and media cheering sections have embraced them.
Chait’s own magazine has been at the center of efforts to legitimize both Omar and Tlaib, and fellow “Squad” member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite their willingness to smear Israel and its Jewish supporters with tropes of classic anti-Semitism.
Seen from that perspective, a stronger argument can be made that it is the Democratic Party and its leftist allies that are soft on anti-Semitism, not the GOP.
The problem is that when mainstream media figures like Chait seek to weaponize anti-Semitism for purely partisan purposes, it makes it impossible to create any kind of consensus about the issue. Indeed, that is exactly what many on the left want since their goal is to redefine anti-Semitism in a way so as to label the demonization of Israel and the Jews as legitimate discourse rather than hate speech. One needn’t defend or excuse any of the questionable behavior that has happened on the right to understand how fundamentally dishonest these kinds of arguments are.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.