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The Method to Trump’s Twitter Madness

His frequent retweeting of white supremacists is more strategy than blunder.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The scandal that broke out over the weekend when Donald Trump tweeted an anti-Semitic image of a six-pointed star, a pile of cash, and Hillary Clinton, has to be seen as not an isolated incident but as part of disturbing pattern where the candidate freely borrows images from the racist far right and circulates them on Twitter. 

To tweet out such an image and then clumsily walk it back, as Trump did, might seem like a slip-up. But this whole farce is actually in keeping with the candidate’s remarkably successful strategy of playing footsie with the most extremist elements of American society.

The Star of David tweet wasn’t a pure retweet, since Trump borrowed a image from an earlier tweeter but deleted other identifying information. Still, taking the image from a dubious tweeter follows the main contours of Trump’s larger pattern of dubious re-tweeting. Even those closest to Trump acknowledge he has a problem with re-tweets. Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, told Sean Hannity in April, “Sometimes I feel that, you know, the retweets sometimes get him in trouble. So I say, stay away from retweets.” Melania was specifically thinking about her mate retweeting a nasty message comparing Melania’s physical appearance with that of Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi. But the retweets that get the presumptive Republican nominee in the hottest water are when he passes along messages from Nazis and white supremacists, which he’s done repeatedly

In November, Trump retweeted fake crime statistics that falsely claimed that 81 percent of white murder victims were killed by blacks. The stats came from a tweeter who expressed open admiration for Adolph Hitler. Trump has also re-tweeted racists like @whitegenocideTM. On at least five occasions Trump re-tweeted an account whose byline read “#whitegenocide is real”.

Indeed, Trump’s twitter feed is a hub of white nationalist activity that extends beyond accounts like @whitegenocideTM, so much so that according to research done during January 2016 by the Twitter analytical firm Little Bird, 62 percent of those re-tweeted by Trump during that month follow multiple white-supremacist accounts.

The Star of David image in question originally appeared on June 15 on a now-deleted racist account called @FishBoneHead1. A week later, it appeared on /pol/, a den of the alt-right. The nature of @FishBoneHead1 can be gauged by a tweet the account sent out in which a photo of Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus was altered to grotesquely enlarge her nose. 

On his Facebook page, Trump confirmed the origins of the Star of David image came from @FishBoneHead1, quoting a statement from his social media director Dan Scavino:

The social media graphic used this weekend was not created by the campaign nor was it sourced from an anti-Semitic site. It was lifted from an anti-Hillary Twitter user where countless images appear.

The sheriff’s badge – which is available under Microsoft’s “shapes” - fit with the theme of corrupt Hillary and that is why I selected it.

As the Social Media Director for the campaign, I would never offend anyone and therefore chose to remove the image.

The problem with this statement is that it is incoherent. Since there is no doubt that @FishBoneHead1 is an anti-Semitic tweeter (based on the Ruth Marcus tweet alone), the explanation that the star was a “sheriff’s badge” makes no sense.

Trump and  his surrogates echoed the implausible line that the star was meant to be a sheriff’s badge. As Trump tweeted, “Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff’s Star, or plain star!” According to Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, now a CNN analyst, criticism of Trump’s original tweet was  “political correctness run amok.”

The pattern here is a familiar one with Trump: a racially charged provocation followed by a refusal to apologize on the grounds that it would mean caving in to political correctness. We’ve seen this behavior so many times that it’s become almost banal. Yet it carries a sinister import: As Jonathan Greeenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League told The New York Times, there is research showing that racists interpret Trump’s “hesitant disavowals” as a “green light” for their own bigotry.

That’s certainly the way white supremicists themselves interpret Trump’s tweeting habits. As Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer wrote back in January, “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters. ...Where as the odd White genocide tweet could be a random occurrence, it isn’t statistically possible that two of them back to back could be a random occurrence. It could only be deliberate.” 

If Trump’s strategy is deliberate, then he’s hit upon a cagey way of bringing together two disparate groups. Outright neo-Nazis like Anglin are excited by Trump’s “wink-wink-wink” but this method also wins over right-wingers who are not so explicitly racist, because “wink-wink-wink” is subtle enough that Trump has some plausible deniablity. After all, the star could be a sheriff’s badge, or so partisan Republicans tell themselves. Anti-anti-racism has a strong appeal on the right, and Trump’s coy game of flirting with white nationalists gives him enough room to play the role of being a victim of political correctness.

The idea that the presumptive nominee for one of America’s two major parties might be deliberately winking at hardcore white supremacists is so troubling that many shy away from it. Yet the pattern of Trump’s behavior is so consistent that it seems the most plausible explanation. The only other possibility is that Trump doesn’t intend to excite white nationalists but is just doing so by accident: He’s the Mr. Magoo of bigotry, not malicious but near-sighted verging on blind. As Mr. Magoo, Trump is so accident prone that he repeatedly retweets racists without knowing what he’s done. But the possibility that Trump is a blundering idiot is hardly more comforting and is in fact equally disqualifying of his bid to be president.