Washington Watch: Bad inspiration

“Why did you come here and invade my country?” a 61-year-old white man shouted at Mahoud Villalaz in Milwaukee this weekend before tossing battery acid in his face and eyes.

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego (photo credit: NELVIN C. CEPEDA/POOL VIA REUTERS)
John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego
‘Go back where you came from.”
“You’re invaders and don’t belong here.”
Sound familiar? I remember people shouting that at the Jewish refugees who came to my hometown of Cleveland after the war. They were called “the DPs,” displaced persons, and they dressed differently, spoke differently and looked different.
We are hearing it more lately – a lot more – with a wave of anti-immigration anger surging across this country.
“Why did you come here and invade my country?” a 61-year-old white man shouted at Mahoud Villalaz in Milwaukee this weekend before tossing battery acid in his face and eyes. Villalaz, a Latino, protested that this is his country, too, and he’s a citizen, but to no avail.
Richard Holzer, 27, wanted to tell the Jews of Pueblo, Colorado, that they “are not welcome” in his white, Christian country. “Better get the f*** out, otherwise, people will die.” That’s what he reportedly told the FBI when he was arrested by undercover agents before he could plant pipe bombs and dynamite at Temple Emanuel. The FBI had given him dummy explosives, but his intent was genuine.
FBI officials said he “repeatedly expressed his hatred of the Jewish people.” They called the incident, along with a charge that Holzer also tried to burn down a nearby mosque, domestic terrorism.
Both incidents happened on the weekend of the first anniversary of the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. Eleven congregants were killed and seven wounded at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on October 27, 2018.
In April, John Earnest, 19, killed a woman and wounded two men and a young girl when he opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle at a southern California synagogue.
Just before the shooting, he made a call to 911 saying, “I’m defending my nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.”
Robert Gregory Bowers was arrested and charged with 63 federal crimes in the Pittsburgh massacre. He was inspired by anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant hatred, particularly directed against Latinos. He particularly reviled HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which he said “likes to bring invaders to kill our people.”
Where would he get an idea like that? About “invaders” coming to their nice, white, Christian country to “kill our people”? Who uses such language?
Who looks at people of color and sees foreign invaders? Who would tell four members of the United States Congress to “go back” and “help fix the totally broken and crime-infested” countries “from which they came,” and then encourage crowds chanting “send her back”?
Who would say immigrants – non-white, naturally – from places like Haiti, El Salvador and Africa came here “from shithole countries” and say, “we should have more people from Norway”?
Cecilia Wang, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has said the Pittsburgh attack, along with other recent incidents, was inspired by elements of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. “The numerous statements he has made, calling himself a ‘nationalist,’ crowds at his rallies chanting threats against [Jewish billionaire philanthropist and liberal donor]George Soros – it’s all connected.”
XENOPHOBIA, RACISM and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have been the hallmark of Trump’s presidency since he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower four years ago to announce his candidacy. He has spoken repeatedly of an “onslaught of illegal aliens,” “many criminals,” “drug-dealers and rapists” and “sinister outside forces.”
Wang recalled that on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2017, the White House issued a statement that failed to mention the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Hours later, Trump signed an executive order suspending all refugee resettlement.
After the Tree of Life tragedy, Trump offered sympathy and promised to act on the problem of gun violence, specifically getting serious background checks. He got the headline he wanted and quickly changed his mind after Wayne LaPierre, top gun at the NRA, called and told him to drop it.
Another Trump theme has been that the primary cause of terrorism is “radical Islam.” He used that flawed reasoning to try to ban Muslims from entering the country.
But the inconvenient truth is that almost all the domestic terrorism incidents and hate crimes in the United States during the Trump years have been the work of violent “white supremacists,” FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress this summer.
The Hill newspaper pointed out that Trump has tended to “downplay the threat” from white nationalists, saying he didn’t believe it was on the rise, despite all the evidence. That includes Wray’s testimony that white supremacy poses a significant and “pervasive” threat to the United States.
Trump has trouble acknowledging that. He willfully denies white nationalism is a rising threat, insisting that incidents like the synagogue attacks are the work of “a small group of people.”
He will always be remembered for seeing many “very fine people” among the KKK and neo-Nazi demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist ran down and killed a counter-protester.
It is widely believed that his failure to condemn those and similar extremist groups stemmed from a desire to avoid offending a big chunk of his political base that sympathizes or identifies with their cause. Trump calls himself a nationalist. White supremacists don’t need an interpreter to know what he is telling them.
In August, a gunman killed 22 people and injured more than two dozen others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He left a “manifesto” filled with now-familiar “racist language and hatred aimed at immigrants and Latinos,” CNN reported. Just 13 hours later, another gunman, apparently driven by extreme misogynist views, sprayed bullets with an AR15-type assault rifle, killing nine people and wounding 17 others within 32 seconds at a bar in Dayton, Ohio.
The eight wounded victims being treated at University Medical Center in El Paso refused to meet Trump when he came to be photographed with them, according to multiple media reports. Doctors and staff there said he appeared to “lack empathy” and bragged about the size of a rally he’d held in that city earlier, according to news reports.
Empathy is difficult for Trump. But inciting hate for his own political gain comes easy.
It is on daily display in his Twitter account, in comments to the press on his way to board his helicopter, and in his rambling stream-of-conscience tirades at his rallies. The tweets and attacks have gotten more deranged and bitter as the impeachment inquiry widens, and cracks start appearing in the once-solid wall of support among Republicans.
But as Trump ratchets up his bid for a second term, all signs point to an intensification of his violence-inciting rhetoric. And that’s bad news for the Jews – and every other vulnerable minority.