For reasons he cannot fathom, President Donald Trump has been asked recently about anti-Semitism, not just the rising number of incidents both here and abroad but also — as he oddly interpreted a question at his latest news conference — his own attitudes. As for the latter, he is, by his own testimony and that of others, no anti-Semite. If he were, he'd have to hate one of his own daughters, her husband, and their children, who are all observant Jews. So when he declares, "I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life," his crude hyperbole aside, I believe him.
But either out of calculation or instinct, Trump operates as an anti-Semite of old in the way he describes the news media. Listen for the anti-Semitic tropes: Journalists are urban — or as the communists used to say, cosmopolitan. They live in a bubble, a kind of ghetto. They are rootless — another communist opprobrium — in the sense that few journalists work where they were born and are not responsible to their original community. They are politically and culturally liberal and secular, meaning they are free of conventional morality or religion. They can lie. They can sin. They can, as a result, be attacked with impunity.
Anti-Semitism is largely a spent force in America. We live in an era of Seinfeld and Streisand and Stewart. A Jew ran for vice president (Joe Lieberman), and one recently ran for president (Bernie Sanders), and both of last year's presidential nominees have a child who was married by a rabbi. This is not your grandfather's America. That one was virulently anti-Semitic. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, Charles Lindbergh cuddled with Hitler, Jews fleeing the Holocaust were told to go somewhere else, and my mother had to go from Pearl Rosenberg to Pat Tyson to find work as a bookkeeper. All that is gone.
What remains, though, is the continuing need for some force that could serve as a scapegoat. Trump, a man of considerable ability in such matters, has found it in the media. As it always was with anti-Semitism, portions of the culture were already receptive. Many people needed to find someone to blame for a society that was becoming less comforting, less conventional, that was depressing their standard of living, closing their factories, favoring foreign labor — doing all the things that Jews once supposedly did. Here is Trump at his news conference last week:
"Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system. The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it, to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control."
This is a neo-Hitlerian statement — only the word "Jews" is missing. Not missing is the alien, secular big city, the unnamed "special interests," the loaded word "profiting," and, of course, the utter mystery of it all. Why are these people doing such things? Why do they lie? Why do they want to hurt "the American people"? Why? It's because they are not-like-us. They are evil.
You may argue that this is nothing new. I remember Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's corrupt vice president, ranting against the liberal press. At one Agnew event I covered, his denunciation of the media brought Republican women out of their chairs, fists in the air, shouting their agreement and serenely unaware that Agnew's words were probably written by future New York Times columnist William Safire.
George Wallace, both a racist and self-pronounced champion of the working man, castigated the press for its unaccountable hostility to Jim Crow, naming "the Time magazine," "the Newsweek," and so on. Still, even an Agnew or a Wallace would have shied away from Trump's expansive conspiracy theory.
Trump has set himself an agenda. He must rid America of the evil that he describes and that is visible only to him and his followers. He must, in other words, rein in the news media, limit their scope and influence — a task that will become more and more urgent as he fails in his presidency. The fault for that, after all, cannot be his. He will go from florid-faced fool to brooding menace. It is an old pattern. Only the scapegoat is new.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.