In an appearance on Fox & Friends on Monday, Kellyanne Conway defended the president’s response to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead allegedly at the hands of a violently anti-Semitic man. Conway’s unwavering praise for the president and criticism of the media are no longer surprising, but she did manage to shock some viewers with her analysis of one of the causes of the slaughter:
The anti-religiosity in this country that is somehow in vogue and funny to make fun of anybody of faith, to constantly be making fun of people who express religion, the late-night comedians, the unfunny people on TV shows—it’s always anti-religious. And remember, these people were gunned down in their place of worship. As were the people in South Carolina several years ago. They were there because they’re people of faith. And it’s that faith that needs to bring us together. This is no time to be driving God out of the public square.
One of the many problems with Conway’s comparison of a violent attack on the Jewish synagogue to verbal attacks on religion in general is that doing so erases the specific anti-Semitic motivation of Saturday’s rampage. Jews reacting to the attack have pointed to both the long history of Jewish persecution and the specific and significant uptick of hate crimes against Jews and other anti-Semitic harassment since the 2016 election.
Conway is not wrong to reference the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in connection with this synagogue shooting. But the Charleston shooter was motivated not by anti-religious fervor but by racial hatred rooted in white-supremacist ideology. What the two massacres have in common are far-right radicalization in online communities and hate taken to its extreme. To categorize them under general anti-religious bias serves only to bolster a conservative argument that there is a war on Christianity, to obscure the bitter reality of America’s bigotry by claiming that the most powerful group in the U.S. is itself being victimized, and to stir xenophobic fears among the white conservative base of losing cultural dominance.
In other ways, Conway tried to simultaneously condemn anti-Semitism and erase this very specific form of hatred from the crime. At one point in her appearance, she condemned “media making it about themselves” before mentioning, without any clear connection, the 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, that left several Republicans injured.
A year and a half earlier, Steve Scalise almost lost his life crawling across the outfield in his own blood because that person was coming there to “hunt Republicans.” You’ve gotta call it what it is. The president’s asking us to rise above it and asking us to come together to unify as a nation. And anybody who’s saying he isn’t isn’t listening.
She repeated that the media’s focus should be on the “evil in the world.” Then she again chastised the press for covering the criticisms of the president’s inflammatory rhetoric and his abdication of the role of consoler in chief as well as the idea that Trump’s tolerance of anti-Semitism among some of his most rabid supporters has empowered the most hateful and violent elements of the right. These arguments, Conway asserted, showed the Trump White House to be a victim of the events:
The chyrons, the comments. I won’t even repeat the insults because it gives them oxygen. It gives them much higher ratings than they would otherwise get in their own shows. But the rhetoric that is said day in and day out about this White House, the people who work here, the president, the vice president, their families—it’s got to stop.
You’ve got people constantly making comments about Nazism, Nazi Germany. “This president is turning us into”—somebody from CNN tweeted out a picture of concentration camps when the migrants were trying to come over the border earlier this year. That’s got to stop.
Conway’s defense ignores instances in which Trump has tolerated or even seemed to tacitly endorse anti-Semitic elements of his base. He has retweeted notoriously anti-Semitic figures and groups; famously blamed both sides in the Charlottesville clash between protesters and white supremacists and neo-Nazis; signed onto conspiracy theories featuring George Soros, one of the most common figures at the center of conspiracy theories positioning cosmopolitan Jews as the shadowy figures controlling government and media (and a focus of the killer’s hatred); and proudly claimed himself to be a “nationalist” while seeming to acknowledge the “white nationalist” connotation of that word. (Trump defenders have pointed out that the suspect in the synagogue shooting apparently hated Trump, believing him to have been controlled by Jews, and that Trump has Jews in his own family.) We also know the gunman was angered by the synagogue’s support for refugees, and there’s no denying Trump stoked anti-immigrant sentiments as a central element of his campaign and presidency.
Instead, Conway argued that the president had done a praiseworthy job in responding to the shooting. It’s true that Trump forcefully denounced anti-Semitism and hate at a campaign rally that day, but he followed up his remarks with jokes and attacks on Democrats. He also argued that the synagogue should have had armed guards. In defending his decision to even hold that rally just hours after the shooting, Trump falsely claimed that the New York Stock Exchange reopened the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Conway, though, seemed to think any critiques related to these decisions were absurd:
In this case, the president is leading the country to heal. And he said it many times during that speech. They complain. They don’t like the way he pronounced the word. They don’t like how he said it. It was five minutes too late. He should have said it on Twitter first. It was 18 seconds too early than what they expected. Cut it out, and listen carefully, because everybody else is listening.
More than 16,000 people have signed a letter to the president written by the leaders of a Pittsburgh-based Jewish group saying that Trump would not be welcome in the city unless he forcefully denounces white nationalism.
The synagogue attack followed a week in which a white man killed two black people in a Kentucky grocery store in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack and in which a Trump acolyte mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and to CNN.