From every internet niche comes a native shorthand, so we should not be surprised that includes putrescent swampy niches from the putrescent swamps of Twitter. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman shared his war story in the paper:
The first tweet arrived as cryptic code, a signal to the army of the “alt-right” that I barely knew existed: “Hello ((Weisman)).” @CyberTrump was responding to my recent tweet of an essay by Robert Kagan on the emergence of fascism in the United States.
“Care to explain?” I answered, intuiting that my last name in brackets denoted my Jewish faith.
“What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha!” CyberTrump came back. “It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim.”
Truly though ((those brackets)) are not ultrasonically subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle and not heroic enough to conjure Aesop’s image of belling the cat. Let’s call the construction the Jewish cowbell. The cowbell is a series of parentheses, anywhere from one to three, around the name of a Jewish person, to signal Jewishness. It proliferates in the dank margins of online conservative discourse, where anti-Semitism glows like a weird mold; tweets exhort Jews to follow trails of dollar bills into ovens and warn readers, via photographs of goose-stepping Nazis, not to “piss off the white boys.”
That critiques, or even mentions, of Trump can incite brain-atomizing gusts of anti-Semitism from certain corners of the web is, sadly, not news. Just ask writer Julia Ioffe, who weathered Holocaust-themed abuse after she profiled Melania Trump for GQ, or journalist Bethany Mandel, who felt so intimidated by the violent threats of the #MAGA, or Make America Great Again, crowd (she was called a “slimy Jewess” and told she “deserved the oven”) that she went out and purchased a gun. But such vituperation often begins with this curious Jewish cowbell, a typographical indicator of ethnicity that hearkens back to the starred armbands Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. Looking at these parentheses is a surreal experience: Not only do they mark out Jews, but they visually contain them, sequestered as if in a camp or prison.
According to historian Sarah Werner, there are few precedents for using typography to signify particular forms of identity. In 17th-century multilingual dictionaries, various typefaces could connote various tongues: blackletter for Flemish and English; roman for Italian, Latin, and German; and italic for French and Spanish. Though most English texts switched from blackletter to roman in the mid-1500s, works that strongly evoked a shared English culture continued to be printed in blackletter, including the great national bibles, such as 1611’s King James version.
Leaving aside clandestine methods for designating the race of potential jurors, the closest many texts come to telegraphing ethnic or regional background is dialect. Mark Twain shaped the language of black characters to mirror “Negro speech” (or his perception of it) in Huckleberry Finn; so too William Faulkner in his fiction and George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess; novels by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston allowed men and women to voice the vernacular music of their communities.
Mic has a good exposé on the origins of the cowbell: Known to alt-right activists as an “echo,” the symbol sprang from a hardcore conservative podcast named the Daily Shoah. The Shoah “featured a segment called ‘Merchant Minute’ that gave Jewish names a cartoonish ‘echo’ sound effect when uttered,” Cooper Fleishman and Anthony Smith explain. When they reached out to the podcast editors for more information, they were told that the meme also functioned as a critique of “Jewish power”:
“The inner parenthesis represent the Jews’ subversion of the home [and] destruction of the family through mass-media degeneracy. The next [parenthesis] represents the destruction of the nation through mass immigration, and the outer [parenthesis] represents international Jewry and world Zionism.”
After just a few hours of research for this post, I cannot begin to describe the vile Freudian effluvium that pours out of Trump-adjacent spigots of the internet. Think cartoons of purple-lipped black guys spilling McDonald’s drinks across the desks of white employers (to support Trump’s scorn for affirmative action) and Jews vacuuming up money through their fantastical schnozes. Men who criticize Trump can expect to find themselves starring in rococo gay sex scenarios: id-soaked fantasias of BBCs (big black cocks), cucks (cuckolds), “receptive homosexuals,” and “romping groups” of “alpha males” mingling with “subversive degenerates.” Women face gross comments on their bodies, accusations of mental instability, solicitude about their “meds,” and social Darwinist speculation on their corrupted “bloodlines.” The craziness highlights posters’ fluency in internet porn even as it foregrounds intense erotic and racial anxiety. And all this is preceded, often, by a ((symbol)) whose clarion call-to-viciousness evokes the clang at the start of a boxing match.
“Hey, look at this fetid thing!” journalism has its limits, but its value is unmistakable in the Age of Trump, and this particular fetid thing should make us step back and reflect. The Republican nominee for president is riding a wave of support that looks for all the world like Hitler nostalgia. As a casually Jewish woman without the financial means to get my horns removed or my cloven hooves separated into toes, I am dismayed. Cowbell bigots may represent a tiny fraction of Trump followers, but they’re too toxic to be written off as a mere parenthetical.