On Tuesday, New York Observer entertainment writer Dana Schwartz published a brave and lacerating open letter to her paper’s owner, Jared Kushner, urging him to take a stand against his father-in-law Donald Trump’s disturbing political flirtations with white supremacists. How could Kushner, who is Jewish and married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, stand by this sort of behavior?
Wednesday, Kushner published a response. It is an odious, evasive piece of writing that attempts to use his family’s own experience in the Holocaust as a rhetorical shield for Trump’s behavior. He would have been better off writing nothing at all rather than tapping out this shameful apologia.
A brief recap of what led us to this bizarre moment: Over the weekend, Trump (either personally or via his social media team) tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton atop a background of $100 bills, accompanied by a six-pointed star (aka, a Star of David) with the words “Most corrupt candidate ever!” splashed across it. One does not need a Ph.D. in Judaic studies to pick up on the implication that Clinton is a puppet controlled by Jewish money. Trump lamely attempted to claim that the prominent pointed object was actually meant to be a sheriff’s star, but a reporter at Mic found that the graphic had originated on an alt-right message board—i.e. a gathering place for “neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and white supremacists.” This was not an isolated incident. Trump has retweeted a white supremacist supporter and has been generally quiet about the anti-Semitic abuse his fans have hurled at reporters.
In her piece, Schwartz suggested that Kushner, by remaining at Trump’s side, was offering cover to his father-in-law:
I’m asking you, not as a “gotcha” journalist or as a liberal but as a human being: how do you allow this? Because, Mr. Kushner, you are allowing this. Your father-in-law’s repeated accidental winks to the white supremacist community is perhaps a savvy political strategy if the neo-Nazis are considered a sizable voting block—I confess, I haven’t done my research on that front. But when you stand silent and smiling in the background, his Jewish son-in-law, you’re giving his most hateful supporters tacit approval. Because maybe Donald Trump isn’t anti-Semitic. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think he is. But I know many of his supporters are, and they believe for whatever reason that Trump is the candidate for them.
Winding down her piece, Schwartz asked Kushner bluntly: “What are you going to do about this?” His answer: nothing. Nothing at all.
Kushner’s letter begins with a non sequitur: "My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.” This would be relevant if anybody had accused Trump of hating Jews. Schwartz, echoing many before her, wrote that while she does not believe the mogul is personally anti-Semitic, his campaign is tolerating and even encouraging neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the sake of political expediency. Nobody cares what is in Donald Trump’s heart of hearts at this point, because his campaign’s public actions have rendered that irrelevant.
Kushner continues by lashing out at his fellow members of the media while mischaracterizing the weekend’s controversy:
Despite the best efforts of his political opponents and a large swath of the media to hold Donald Trump accountable for the utterances of even the most fringe of his supporters—a standard to which no other candidate is ever held—the worst that his detractors can fairly say about him is that he has been careless in retweeting imagery that can be interpreted as offensive.
The first half of this statement is absurd. The second half is inaccurate. Many candidates are asked to rebuke the rash public actions of their most offensive fans. (A recent case in point: People were outraged at Bernie Sanders after he refused to apologize over the chaos his supporters created at the Democratic convention in Nevada.) It is rare that candidates are expected to disavow the views of white supremacists, however, because most aspirants for political office don’t attract a rabid following among vocal, would-be race warriors, much less retweet their ramblings.
Of course, Trump did not simply “retweet” the meme that caused this weekend’s uproar. His social media manager claims to have found it somewhere on Twitter, yet broadcast it without attribution—contributing to the sense that he was trying to hide its source.
Having dodged the main issue and fudged some facts, Kushner proceeds to complain that “accusations like ‘racist’ and ‘anti-Semite’ are being thrown around with a carelessness that risks rendering these words meaningless.” He continues:
If even the slightest infraction against what the speech police have deemed correct speech is instantly shouted down with taunts of “racist” then what is left to condemn the actual racists? What do we call the people who won’t hire minorities or beat others up for their religion?
Well, one might refer to them as neo-Nazis, which happens to be the exact group Trump is accused of pandering to. But let us not dwell. “I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors,” Kushner explains gravely, before relating the story of his family’s tragic experience at Hitler’s hands (and, in all sincerity, it is a very sad, moving story). “[It is] important to me that people understand where I’m coming from when I report that I know the difference between actual, dangerous intolerance versus these labels that get tossed around in an effort to score political points.” One might call this maneuver the “reverse Godwin”—I know from Hitler, and trust me, Donald Trump is no Hitler.
Suffice to say, invoking the memory of the Holocaust to defend someone who is accused of being insufficiently tough on white nationalists requires some chutzpah. And while Kushner may sincerely believe his family history gives him some greater insight into the politics of racial hatred, he should be able to convince his readers of that through the strength of his argument rather than by invoking his grandparents’ horrific suffering.
And the argument is not strong. Kushner recycles his points, which become no more convincing with repetition. “This notion that has emerged that holds my father in law responsible for the views of everyone who supports him is frankly absurd.” Well, no, not when he has yet to take a strong stand against their behavior, and still throws them an occasional wink. “A few months ago, my father in law completely and totally disavowed the support of one of America’s best-known racists.” Here Kushner is referring to David Duke, who Trump only disavowed after he caused an uproar by bizarrely choosing not to do so in a prior interview (Duke, notably, still supports Trump and seemed to enjoy the star-of-David tweet.) “If my father in law’s fast-moving team was careless in choosing an image to retweet, well part of the reason it’s so shocking is that it’s the actual candidate communicating with the American public rather than the armies of handlers who poll-test ordinary candidates’ every move.” Ah, I see, Trump’s greatest flaw is that he just tries too hard.
The letter finishes on an especially bizarre note. “America faces serious challenges. A broken economy, terrorism, gaping trade deficits and an overall lack of confidence. Intolerance should be added to that list. I’m confident that my father in law, with his outstanding record of real results, will be successful tackling these challenges. That’s why I support him.” Not only has Jared Kushner discovered that intolerance should be “added” to America’s list of chronic problems, he seems to think Donald Trump is the man to solve it. I have to believe that somewhere, deep inside whatever remains of his soul, Kushner realizes that suggestion is laughable, and given everything that has transpired so far, a little grotesque.
Update, July 7, 2016: As Politico notes, some of Kushner’s family members are, not surprisingly, unhappy with his decision to wield their family’s Holocaust history in defense of Trump. “I have a different take-away from my Grandparents' experience in the war,” Marc Kushner, a cousin, wrote in a Wednesday Facebook post. “It is our responsibility as the next generation to speak up against hate. Anti-semitism or otherwise.” Another cousin, Jacob Schulder, added a scathing comment that made reference to Kushner’s grandfather’s harrowing Holocaust story: "When an out of touch with reality nominee hires an out of touch with reality campaign manager, who is also a son-in-law, you get the BS Jared wrote. … The very first thing a responsible campaign manager should do, I'd think, and I mean the very first thing, would be to take away his father-in-law's Twitter account. Even Joseph Kushner would've had the street smarts to figure that one out while living on boiled potatoes in the forest.”