You may have missed an odd little quote from Donald Trump when he addressed the press on Air Force One last week (originally off-the-record, until the White House released the transcripts):
“Hey, now it’s shown there’s no collusion, there’s no obstruction, there’s no nothing. Honestly, the whole thing, it is really a media witch hunt. It’s been a media witch hunt. And it’s bad for the country… When they say “treason” — you know what treason is? That’s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the atomic bomb, okay?”
That’s right; he brought up the Rosenbergs, the Jewish-American couple executed for spying for the Soviets in 1953.
First of all, there’s the technical issue with what Trump said in just that last bit (as usual, an amazing ratio of falsehoods per syllable):
1) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were not convicted of treason; they were convicted of espionage (you can’t commit treason when two countries, no matter how strained the relationship, are technically allies).
2) The extent of Ethel’s involvement has been a matter of debate for decades, but it seems that she primarily worked as a recruiter to the spy ring rather than deliver secrets to the Soviets personally.
3) While Julius did provide intel related to the atomic bomb, saying he was “giving” it to the Russians is a wild exaggeration of the information he did share.
But as is often the case with Trump, it’s not just his skewing of the facts that matters, but the manipulative context in which he uses them. In order to deflect legitimate inquiries into his campaign, Trump has called investigations a “witch hunt,” and then invoked victims of an actual witch hunt of what a real traitor looks like. And not just any witch hunt—one which disproportionately targeted Jews.
Trump and his supporters have been dropping the phrase “witch hunt” for a while now, and those who remember HUAC and governmental persecution of leftists in the 1950s have already taken issue with it. Julie Garfield, for example, the daughter of the great Jewish actor John Garfield wrote an essay in The New York Times about how upsetting it is hearing the phrase thrown around so blithely. Her family blames the Red Scare for her father’s death of a heart attack.
Unlike Garfield (and most others brought before HUAC), the Rosenbergs were guilty of crimes that involved giving American intelligence to a foreign government. But their trial, conviction, and and ultimate execution were not only suspect in their proceedings, but were arguably driven by anti-Semitism. Jews were seen as suspect during the Cold War, their loyalty to the United States questioned. The Rosenberg Trial terrified Jewish Americans, who feared what it would look like to have the insidious stereotype of the Red Jew come to life.
Trump, who holds every privilege, can’t understand a nuanced historical event that plays on actual persecution, when he sees persecution as anything that doesn’t go his way. And of course, this is another example of Trump claiming in one breath that he loves Jews, and gleefully embracing anti-Semitic tropes (and anti-Semites) in the next. It’s not surprising, but still distressing that the president has the chutzpah to compare himself to the parents of young children who were executed for their supposed disloyalty to America, when his own son was willing to collude with a foreign government for political gains.
Once again, the president’s sense of irony seems to be sorely lacking.