On September 3, Cynthia Hughes, founder of the Patriot Freedom project, regaled the crowd at Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with the plight of her nephew, Tim Hale-Cusanelli. Poor Tim, who once served in the Navy, had been convicted for his role in the January 6 insurrection. The story of his “mistreatment” drew moans from the sympathetic audience.
Hughes did not mention that Navy investigators found 34 former colleagues who reported that Hale-Cusanelli had expressed “extremist or radical views pertaining to the Jewish people, minorities, and women.” One recollected Hale-Cusanelli’s practice of asking new colleagues if they were Jewish. Another remembered him saying Jews “are ruining everything and did not belong here,” and yet another recalled him saying, “Hitler should have finished the job.” Hale-Cusanelli has been photographed wearing a distinctive Hitlerian mustache. His passion for genocidal antisemitism developed into a passion for a right-wing putsch attempt, and now he has become essentially a martyr figure championed by the Republican Party’s leader.
In the early-20th century, contempt for Jewish immigrants was an important tributary in the stream of reactionary politics. Antisemitism reached a peak during the Great Depression, when right-wing populists like Charles Lindbergh depicted the Roosevelt administration as beholden to the Jews. The aviator’s “America First” movement characterized Jewish support for hawkish measures against Nazi Germany as evidence of disloyalty.
The war and the Holocaust discredited antisemitism, and it largely disappeared from mainstream circulation. When Pat Buchanan ran for president in 1992 and 1996, he revived both the slogan and many of the ideas of the “America First” movement and produced an enthusiastic reception. But his antisemitic innuendo and creepy enthusiasm for the procedural rights of elderly former Nazi camp guards made him toxic to the party Establishment. (“I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to antisemitism,” concluded William F. Buckley.) Buchanan was forced out of the party altogether. By the first decade of the 21st century, antisemitic theories were more likely to be used against the Bush administration — whose more conspiratorial critics saw the hidden hand of international Jewry behind its bungled Iraq invasion — than on behalf of any Republican cause.
Trump resurrected Buchanan’s strain of populist nationalism. He’s always nurtured business relations and personal ties with Jewish people, but his revival of “America First” — both the slogan and the ideas surrounding it — inevitably excited antisemites. In 2016, he tweeted out an image using a Star of David to symbolize Hillary Clinton’s “corruption.” The Trump campaign tweeted an altered version after an outcry but then ran an ad in the campaign’s closing days decrying “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities” coupled with images of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein — all of whom are financial figures who happen to be Jewish.