Donald Trump Sinks to a New Low by Dog-Whistling an Old Racist Tune

Donald Trump Sinks to a New Low by Dog-Whistling an Old Racist Tune

Donald Trump Sinks to a New Low by Dog-Whistling an Old Racist Tune

Insinuating that special prosecutor Jack Smith changed his name might seem like an odd tactic for someone whose family name was Drumpf—unless you know the history.


Donald Trump’s most recent Mar-a-Lago rant, the one following his first indictment on April 4, was mostly the same old stuff, delivered off a teleprompter with his usual listless monotone—as if by now his shtick bores even him. But one seemingly off-handed comment passed largely unnoticed, and the few who picked up on it largely laughed it off.

“This lunatic special prosecutor named Jack Smith—I wonder what it was prior to a change?” Trump said that night. (The emphasis is mine.) He then paused for a moment, as if to let the cognoscenti savor his little aside, and a smattering of knowing, sinister laughter rippled across the room. At least a few people seemed to catch his drift.

But the mainstream media didn’t. What was he suggesting, Jonathan Lemire asked on Morning Joe the next day? Was it that Jack Smith was using an alias? he asked with wonder. In fact, Trump’s been throwing out the same question about Smith for months. “Why he keeps bringing this up is something of a mystery,” Steve Benen, a producer on The Rachel Maddow Show, wrote in late February

A little bit of history—America’s and Trump’s—makes things considerably less mysterious. Any Jew of a certain age recognizes Trump’s trope as a classic anti-Semitic slur, one dating back to Henry Ford and probably before.

Don’t you know? Yet another way we Jews pull fast ones on “real” Americans is by hiding behind anglicized names (plain or pretentious) the better to insinuate ourselves into American life. With any other immigrant group, name changes are viewed largely as matter of convenience; if a Hungarian or Italian changes his name, it’s no big deal. But let a Jew do it, and it’s evidence of a plot.

The odd thing is, it’s been decades since Jews changed their names in large numbers, whether to rid themselves of the unwieldy or unpronounceable, or to elude pervasive anti-Semitism—or both. Today, most of us cope OK with the names we have, as do most of the non-Jews we deal with. Among ourselves, in fact, we even joke about it. “That was Irwin Kniberg,” Mel Brooks said after Alan King introduced him at a testimonial a Jewish group threw for Sid Caesar some years back. “I am Melvin Kaminsky. The only real one here is Sid Caesar. That’s his name!”

Donald Drumpf, er, Trump, however, remains a perfectly preserved time capsule of prejudices—even ancient and anachronistic ones. Everything he learned at Fred Trump’s bigoted feet he’s retained, even dated dog whistles that state-of-the-art opportunists like Ron DeSantis—who toss around George Soros’s name with ease and impunity—have long-since abandoned.

Whether or not Smith is (a) Jewish and (b) changed his name—dutifully but reluctantly, I asked his spokesperson both questions, and got the predictable and entirely understandable “no comment” in reply—is completely immaterial; what matters is that Trump evidently thinks he is and he has. Maybe it’s Smith’s dark beard, which, when combined with his intense look—you can see it in one of the rare extant photographs of him, the one that keeps popping up on MSNBC—does make him look a bit like Theodor Herzl. Or it’s that “Smith” of his: What better name, so wonderfully generic and nondescript, could a Hebrew adopt to slip unsuspected into the American mainstream?

Henry Ford, an inveterate anti-Semite from whom Hitler learned much, expounded on these Jewish manipulations a hundred years ago in his Dearborn Independent. “To mollify a suspicion held against them wherever they have lived (a suspicion so general and so persistent as to be explainable only on the assumption that it was abundantly justified) the Jews have been quick to adopt the names and colors of whatever country they may be living in,” he explained.

The Jewish “passion for misleading people by names,” Ford wrote, had just given “immense camouflage” to those Jews who’d been behind the recent Russian Revolution and, closer to home, misled patrons of the country’s leading department stores. “There is an immense difference in the state of mind in which a customer enters the store of Isadore Levy and the state of mind in which he enters the store of Alex May,” Ford explained.

But it wasn’t only merchants. Take the head of the American Jewish Committee, Louis Marshall. “What could his old family name have been before it was changed for the name of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States?” Ford asked. (In Ford’s eyes, Marshall was guilty not only of deception but also of effrontery.) And actors, too: Charlie Chaplin, Ford speculated, had probably been “Caplan” or “Kaplan.” (It hadn’t mattered to Ford, either, that Chaplin was not actually a Jew.)

When anglicizing our names threatened Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell’s mission to slash Jewish enrollment in the 1920s, Harvard decreed that all applicants must disclose whether their parents had changed their names. Twenty-five years later, during the Red Scare following World War II, the issue flared up again. Seeking to discredit a letter denouncing the House Un-American Activities Committee, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi rattled off the foreign-sounding, Jewish-sounding, birth names of some of the signatories, as if each were a smoking gun.

“Danny Kaye,” he said as he went down the list. “We found out that his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky. Another one is Eddie Cantor, whose real name is Edward Iskowitz. There is someone who calls himself Edward Robinson. His real name is Emanuel Goldenberg. There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.” Neal Gabler’s biography of Walter Winchell describes the same Rankin calling Winchell “Lipschultz” and declaring, “I am a little skittish about a man who has his nose manicured, his face lifted, his name changed.”

Such outing has largely vanished from American life. In her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name, Kirsten Fermaglich, a historian at Michigan State University, notes that some American Jews have even reclaimed their original family names. But Trump never got the message. Only a few weeks after Smith’s appointment, he started with the innuendos. Apart from calling him a “thug,” he put Smith’s name in scare quotes, then appended a question mark to it. The night before his indictment, he was back at it, referring to “Jack Smith (What did his name used to be?).”

Trump’s queries sent Geoff Herbert of the Syracuse Post-Standard to check on Smith’s origins, at least back to his high school days in Liverpool, N.Y. All he found was that Smith had played varsity football and baseball. “Trump has provided no evidence to suggest that Smith changed his name,” he reported. “Smith is identified in his high school yearbook as Jack Smith.”

Trump’s relationship with Jews is complicated. His mentor (Roy Cohn) was one, and his daughter married another—and even became one herself. But that hasn’t stopped him from trafficking in a long list of anti-Semitic tropes. His obsession with Jewish genealogy is also nothing new. “If Jon Stewart is so above it all & legit, why did he change his name from Jonathan Leibowitz[?]” he tweeted in 2013, probably after Stewart had ridiculed him. “He should be proud of his heritage!”

Stewart wasn’t taken in, let alone impressed, by Trump’s new pose as defender of the Jews. “So I start to think to myself, oh, I think this guy is trying to let people know I’m a Jew,” he later said. “And I think to myself, doesn’t my face do that?” “It would be funny,” he said, “if it wasn’t so toxically crude and horrible.”

“Many people don’t know, but Donald Trump’s real name is Fuckface Von Clownstick,” he then added. “I wish he would embrace the Von Clownstick heritage.”

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