Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Donald Trump and his campaign aides continue to struggle to distinguish between the Star of David and what the presumptive Republican nominee refers to as “a plain star.”

While it is surely troublesome when a candidate for president has trouble distinguishing between the six-pointed Magen David that serves as a symbol for modern Jewish identity and the five-pointed shapes that represent the states on the U.S. flag, perhaps we should not be surprised. There is a lot that Trump — who has been stung by charges of anti-Semitism since his Twitter account featured a crude graphic of what sure looked like a Star of David with a pile of money and references to Hillary Clinton as “corrupt” — refuses to recognize about the crude language of hatemongers past and present.

Instead of simply apologizing for sending a message that would end up being celebrated by white supremacists, the Republican candidate made things worse last week when he announced that his critics were “sick” and suggested they had “bad tendencies.”

Trump gets caught out on the fascist fringe too frequently for comfort. Trump’s campaign, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein, has invited “a debate, a historical debate about what fascism was and is and how Donald Trump fits into that picture” — a debate that should include a discussion of “authoritarianism,” “despotism,” and “the desire for a strong man who doesn’t trust the institutions of democracy and government.”

The Fourth of July weekend discussion of Trump’s tweeting, and the concerns expressed by Democrats and Republicans about how, as the New York Daily News notes, the image of the Star of David mingled with piles of cash “made its way from a neo-Nazi message board to his 9.4 million Twitter followers,” has embarrassed some Trump backers. House Speaker Paul Ryan, the candidate’s most prominent supporter, said the Trump campaign needs to “clean up” its social-media messaging. “Look, anti-Semitic images, they’ve got no place in presidential campaigns," said Ryan. "Candidates should know that.” 

That’s certainly true. But Ryan continues to support Trump, providing cover for a candidate who has shown no inclination to stop walking the authoritarian shadow line.

Trump has been called out more than once for promulgating neo-Nazi and fascist themes. Have people forgotten that just a few short months ago Trump retweeted a quote associated with Benito Mussolini?

On Feb. 28, the Sunday before Super Tuesday, a Twitter parody account that was named for the fascist dictator who aligned Italy with Nazi Germany — @ilduce2016 — tweeted the line: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” (Researchers suggest that variations on that line originated with others but that Mussolini popularized it during his years in power.) The billionaire’s Twitter account seized on the @ilduce2016 message and forwarded it to the candidate’s millions of followers.

The realization that he was retweeting what was once understood as a fascist call to arms should have embarrassed the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Indeed, Gawker staffers who created “the Mussolini bot” parody say they developed it “under the assumption that Trump would retweet just about anything, no matter how dubious or vile the source, as long as it sounded like praise for himself.”

But Trump did not appear to be embarrassed. When Chuck Todd of NBC’s "Meet the Press" asked the billionaire about retweeting fascist rhetoric, Trump replied: “Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK to — it’s a very good quote, it’s a very interesting quote, and I know it. I saw it. I saw what — and I know who said it. But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”

It was striking that Trump would defend his distribution of inflammatory words that Time magazine in 1943 described as one of the “gaudy phrases” that “studded (the) gaudy years” of the man who imposed a fascist dictatorship on Italy, who historians say “took part voluntarily and knowingly” in the arrest of Jews who were then deported to Nazi death camps, who allied with Hitler and the Axis against the United States and its allies during World War II, and whose forces fought and killed American troops who bravely battled fascism in what Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared to be the great “resistance to world conquest.”

Americans are supposed to have a problem with Mussolini and his associates — and a certain reverence for the struggle against fascism.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

But, again and again, it seems as if the historical significance of the struggle is lost on Mr. Trump.

When a candidate to fill the office that FDR once occupied casually describes an expression that’s been linked with a fascist as “a very good quote … a very interesting quote” — and when his campaign casually spreads around what even his supporters describe as anti-Semitic imagery — that’s a measure of the extent to which Trump and his allies have lost touch with this country’s history and with this country’s better angels. The response of an American presidential candidate to questions about whether he worried in any way about people associating him with “a known fascist” isn’t supposed to be “Look, Mussolini was Mussolini” or “What difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?” The response is supposed to be: “Look, I don’t want anything to do with Benito Mussolini or the gaudy phrases that were associated with him.”

Paul Ryan should recognize that it will take more than some editing of Twitter messages to clean up Donald Trump’s act. This is a candidate who seems to think that trafficking in crude stereotypes, making incendiary comparisons and comments, and retweeting lines from dark chapters in history will somehow “make America great again.” Trump is wrong, and those who provide cover for him are equally wrong.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Associate Editor of the Cap Times