Before we begin, take a quick look at this image:
This hastily scribbled banner was left in the media section of a recent Donald Trump campaign rally in Florida. By some accounts hostility towards reporters at these often chaotic events has reached near hysterical levels. The hot-tempered atmosphere of boos and jeers has been stoked by Mr. Trump throughout his campaign. The candidate has repeatedly picked fights with individual reporters, notoriously mocking a disabled journalist and hurling a protracted string of insults and jibes at a female news anchor who raised his history of derogatory remarks about women. He loudly asserts the media are going beyond mere partisan reporting and are instead actively engaged in a conspiracy to rob him of the election and elect Hillary “lock her up!” Clinton.
There seems little reason to doubt the majority of Mr. Trump’s supporters ascribe to this view in one form or another.
It should be noted that an unusually suspicious and often fevered hatred of the media has become a marked feature of other populist insurrections of recent years: Scottish Nationalists marched under banners calling for the sacking of BBC journalists, and the most devoted of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on the left view every press outlet to the right of The Canary as part of a ‘propaganda machine’ engaged in manufacturing damaging revelations about the unpopularity and incompetence of Corbyn’s shambolic Labour party. (Such is the fury of the Corbynistas, in fact, that their conspiracy has enlarged, as conspiracies are designed to do when confronted with uncomfortable realities, to include such previously cherished institutions as the BBC, The Guardian and The New Statesman, which are now seen as no different, in essence, to rightwing newspapers like The Times or The “Torygraph”. In the bubble-world of the Corbynistas there is no bad news, only “Tory smears” and “Blairite lies”. The hatred seen among Trump’s base appears similarly indiscriminate, and just as hungry for new scapegoats.)
Thus are the most committed among such movements locked into a pattern whereby every political failure is written off as the fault of people whose job it is to make such failures public.
As we reach the bitter end of the bitterest of American elections, then, a candidate with a demonstrable history of conspiracy mongering is ratcheting up such paranoia in the face of a barrage of accusations about his attitude and past behaviour towards women and some pretty dire polling. Sensing defeat, he’s setting fires all over the house: dropping dark hints that the election might not be just lost but stolen; urging his passionate fan base to be on the lookout for the non-existent phenomenon of voter fraud; painting the press as “sick” and “dishonest”.
This stuff feeds into the febrile atmosphere in which fury at the media thrives: a deep loathing for journalists in general, along with the online hounding of particular reporters, is now a stubborn and aggressive structural component of contemporary political discourse – the background hum of our bitterly divided polities.
But let us take a second look at the image above; a longer look. What else do we see besides an anonymous supporter of Mr. Trump angry enough with the media’s reporting of their hero to compare them to Nazis? There’s an additional hatred embedded here, and the clue lies in this swastika’s vertical axis, which is unmistakably the letter ‘Z’.
What I find perturbing about that is the fact that both the reporter holding the banner and the host back in the studio failed to pick up on this clear visual reference to the antisemitic slur ‘Zionazi’. Nor were they alone. Huffington Post managed to report on the antipathy towards the press corp, and the sense of antisemitism creeping into Mr. Trump’s campaign from the outer fringes, without once noticing the twinning of these elements in the obscene symbolism of this image: “It’s unclear if whoever left the swastika was a neo-Nazi or was calling the media Nazis. Either way, the message was clear: We hate you.”
Hate it may be but it is not indistinct: this is hatred of a particular sort. A Zionazi is not in fact a Nazi but a Jew, who, in a grotesque intellectual and moral inversion, is said to be in service of a global Jewish conspiracy as totalitarian in theory, as genocidal in practise, and as ideologically wicked as National Socialism. It is probably safe to say this particular supporter of Mr. Trump doesn’t just despise the media: he most likely sees the media as Jewish owned and Jewish controlled, pumping out lies to a gullible public in thrall to Jewish gold. I very much doubt that is the only thing he believes about Jews.
Which brings me round to this quote:
Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.
This is candidate Trump at the same Florida rally. In the light of the banner that makes for interesting phrasing, I think you’ll agree. Mr. Trump doesn’t of course say Jew. He doesn’t need to. He knows exactly how to clothe his ugliest thoughts in language slippery enough to be at least defended or simply denied, all the while knowing that the intended audience understands the signalling. (The rambling speech in Pennsylvania where Mr. Trump warned of potential voter fraud “in other communities” was another clumsy example of this same race-baiting rhetorical strategy.)
For large numbers of Mr. Trump’s followers, possibly the majority of Mr. Trump’s followers, phrases like meeting “in secret with international banks” and “global financial powers” probably have no sinister implication outside of the general sense of Clinton being a politician mired in sleaze and corruption.
For a subsection of Trump’s audience though – for the white nationalists and the Pepe-flaunting trolls of the Alt-Right – that kind of talk is instantly understood as meaning perfidious Jewish control of global finance. The language operates in that subculture as code in the same way the words ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ operate in euphemising so much leftwing antisemitism.
The kind of Trump supporter that make ‘Zionazi’ banners and enjoys bombarding Jewish journalists with Auschwitz taunts on Twitter knows exactly what Trump is getting at here. He was inviting them in from the fringe.
It’s the “in secret” part that unmasks him: the idea that extended networks of Jewish money men meet behind closed-doors to decide the fate of nations is a classic antisemitic trope going back to at least the Protocols, with earlier versions of the same slander – that Jews and money have a suspect relationship – providing permission for the persecution and murder of Jews for millennia.
As the late Christopher Hitchens used to point out, it is this conspiratorial aspect that makes antisemitism qualitatively distinct to “other forms of racism” (to borrow the phrase Jeremy Corbyn feels compelled to attach to his lukewarm condemnations of Jew-hatred within his own ranks) and it is this tendency to conspiracy that makes antisemitism correspondingly dangerous. There are only 16 million Jews in the world. A thin sliver of the earth’s population. Yet to the paranoid fantasists of Jew-hatred their hand can be detected everywhere, controlling everything. About no other minority is this said.
I’m not arguing Donald Trump is about to unleash a pogrom. The comparisons to Adolf Hitler, for example, are way, way off, both inflating Mr. Trump and inadvertently minimising Hitler at the same time. Mr. Trump isn’t committed to any rigid, murderous ideology. This is populism, folks, not fascism. I’m not even sure the candidate can be properly thought of as an antisemite; he has no personal history of antipathy towards Jewish people, and I doubt therefore he actually believes in shadowy cabals of Jewish bankers.
What I think he is doing, then, is toying with dark rhetoric with a dark history for the ears of dark people for purely cynical reasons, which, when you think about it, is bad enough.
If I was American, I’m not sure how I’d feel about this stinking election. You guys deserve better than this.
Begone demagogue begone!