The nation was rocked by yet another tragedy on Oct. 27 when a terrorist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with four guns and murdered 11 innocent worshippers, an incident which the Anti-Defamation League described as “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.” There’s a lot to talk about in the wake of this horrific act of terrorism, from the need for laws that would have prevented the perpetrator from obtaining the weapons he used, to the heartwarming way that the Muslim American community rallied to provide aid to the victims. Perhaps most of all, America needs to talk about the fact that this massacre is part of a larger trend with disturbing implications: the rise of the radical and violent elements of American conservatism that are known as the “alt-right.”
But this trend is not merely anecdotal; in 2017, the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose by an unprecedented 57 percent alongside a rise in hate crimes against Muslims, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds of terrorist attacks in the U.S. last year were carried out by “right-wing extremists” and there have been more large scale rallies of white supremacists in the last two and a half years than in the previous decade. The perpetrators of the aforementioned acts of terror were responsible for their own horrific actions, but it is also clear that these are not isolated incidents. Both the attempted bombings and the massacre in Pittsburgh were inspired by “alt-right” conspiracy theories, just like other, similar incidents.
The circumstances that have lead to the rise of the far right in America are complicated and there have been warning signs as far back as 2009, but it is undeniable that the far right’s recent rise to prominence has been closely tied to the campaign and presidency of Donald J. Trump. This is hardly surprising; Trump has shown a willingness to spread and endorse conspiracy theories in a way that no president of any party has done before. It began with the racist birther conspiracy he pushed during the years of the Barack Obama presidency, and, just the other day, Trump spouted the theory that the distant caravan of asylum-seeking Central American refugees he’s been fear mongering were funded by billionaire George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and frequent subject of anti-Semitic dog whistles. The later of these two theories is the very same one which inspired the Tree of Life Synagogue attack. It also isn’t just Trump. These same conspiracies have been spread by outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart, as well as congressmen such as Matt Gaetz of Florida and Steve King of Iowa, with minimal pushback from their party.
Defenders of the president have argued that he can’t be an anti-Semite because his daughter converted to Judaism. I find this unconvincing for several reasons, not least of which being that having a daughter clearly hasn’t stopped him from being a misogynist, but honestly at a point it doesn’t matter if he’s personally anti-Semitic or not. To borrow a phrase from Andrew Gillum, I’m not saying he’s an anti-Semite, I’m saying the anti-Semites think he’s an anti-Semite. Trump has consistently been willing to side with any fringe element so long as he thinks it’ll benefit him, with no regard for the very serious consequences of giving presidential approval to hate groups. The most egregious example of this occured after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. where neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched under swastikas and Confederate battle flags, chanting phrases such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” a rally which ended with the tragic murder of a counter protester and the injuries of several others.
The president’s first response to this terrible event was not to condemn the perpetrators, but to defend them. Days later, and after intense pressure from some of his advisors, he spoke out against them, but allegedly told those around him that his second statement was the biggest mistake of his presidency as he had done nothing wrong. In a press conference the very next day he made his infamous claim that the participants of the rally were “some very fine people.” Through it all, the people he nominally condemned knew it was insincere. Taken with his numerous endorsements of political violence, from promising to pay the legal fees if his supporters attacked protesters and praising a physical attack on a journalist, to implying that they should assassinate Hillary Clinton if she won, it’s clear that Trump’s rhetoric has played a role in inciting these terrible attacks we’ve seen in the past few years. It is true that no politician can control exactly what their followers do, and that followers of other politicians have committed acts of violence, but other politicians don’t resort to this kind of rhetoric, and this kind of rhetoric has consequences. This is not normal, it’s not right and it’s not acceptable.
I sincerely hope that by the time this article is published on Nov. 7, America will have elected a Congress that will hold the president accountable for this and much more, but even if all of that happens, we will still have to address all the hatred that has been unleashed upon our society. To put an end to hatred we must put an end to apathy, fear and inaction; everyone must be willing to condemn anyone who furthers the cause of hate, regardless of party, power, or popularity. Those who hate are vastly outnumbered by those who do not, and of we all stand so united, then we can drive back hate, because this isn’t what we stand for, and if we remain vigilant, it never will be.