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Donald Trump brings new meaning to ‘guilt by association’

Almost 4,000 years ago, the code of laws issued by Hammurabi, king of Babylon, included a decree that if a house is not constructed properly, collapses and kills the owner’s son, the builder’s son should be executed.

Fast-forward to the Cold War, when many Americans were forced to resign or were fired from their jobs or were blacklisted because they were allegedly or actually linked to alleged or actual communists.

These days, laws punishing people based on their connections to disfavored individuals or groups are regarded as incompatible with the fundamental premise of liberty: Americans should be held responsible only for their own beliefs and behavior.

That said, although it no longer plays a role in establishing criminal or civil liability, “guilt by association” remains an extraordinarily effective way to judge the character of acquaintances, friends, and political leaders. Donald Trump (who refuses to relinquish fawning “love letters” North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un sent to him) is a 21st-century incarnation of tyrants who, according to Aristotle, “are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered. And no man who has the spirit of a freeman will demean himself by flattery.”

Trump’s modus operandi — feign ignorance when pressed about praise by an odious person; if absolutely necessary, issue a vague or self-evidently insincere condemnation and change the subject — brings new meaning to “guilt by association.”

In February 2016, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, declared that “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.” Asked if he repudiated Duke and white supremacist organizations, Trump replied, “I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. … You would want me to condemn a group I know nothing about. I’d have to look.” Trump subsequently blamed his failure to disavow Duke and white supremacist organizations on a faulty earpiece.

Trump did not mention that in 2000, he attributed his decision not to seek the presidential nomination in the Reform Party to the influence exerted on the party by Duke, Patrick Buchanan, and Lenora Fulani: “This is not company I wish to keep.”

During a presidential debate in 2020, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he condemned white supremacists. “Give me a name of a specific group,” Trump replied. When Joe Biden mentioned the Proud Boys, a violent militia group, Trump said only that Proud Boys members should “stand back and stand by.”

After the debate, Trump told reporters, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

Meanwhile, the Proud Boys posted “stand back” and “stand by” above and below the group’s logo.

Faced with a firestorm of criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats, Trump told Sean Hannity, “I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.”

A few weeks later, NBC News’s Savannah Guthrie asked Trump if he condemned QAnon conspiracy theories. “I know nothing about QAnon,” Trump said. “I just told you,” replied Guthrie. “What you tell me doesn’t necessarily make it fact,” Trump shot back. He subsequently added that it was impossible to know if U.S. government officials were running child trafficking rings.

In the summer of 2022, Trump continued his flirtation with QAnon. The former president reposted a video maintaining that leaders of the Democratic Party are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles whom Trump will exile to Guantanamo Bay or execute when he returns to the White House. The video also presented an image of Trump holding a playing card with a “Q” on it.

On Truth Social, a MAGA booster declared that Trump’s repost was a “massive hat tip” to QAnon and a “big middle finger to the ‘Fake News.’”

In November 2022, Trump had dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Kanye West, who made antisemitic comments and said he admires Adolf Hitler, and Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist.

“You are better than this,” said David Friedman, the Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel. “Even a social visit from an antisemite like Kanye West and human scum like Nick Fuentes is unacceptable. I urge you to throw the bums out, disavow them and relegate them to the dustbin of history, where they belong.”

Trump did not take Friedman’s advice. Instead of a condemnation, he maintained he was trying to help Kanye, “a seriously troubled man, who has always been good to me,” and that West brought Fuentes, “whom I never met and know nothing about.”

In a twist on “guilt by association,” Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur and former Breitbart editor, claimed he had asked West to include Fuentes “to show Trump the kind of talent he’s missing out on by allowing his terrible handlers to dictate who he can and can’t hang out with” and to remind the former president “that he has systematically, repeatedly, neglected, ignored, abused the people who love him the most, the people who put him in office.”

According to The Associated Press, Trump’s staff decided to implement protocols to make sure that everyone who met with him had been fully vetted and approved — and that a senior campaign official was always in the room.

Two weeks later, Trump attended an event at Mar-a-Lago to raise funds for a documentary on sex trafficking. One of the speakers, Liz Crokin, a reported QAnon Pizzagate conspiracy theorist, posed for photos with Trump. “You are incredible people, you are doing unbelievable work, and we just appreciate you being here and we hope you’re going to be back,” the former president declared.

No one, it seems clear, can save Trump from a verdict of “guilt by association.” 

And no one should.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Antisemitism Chris Wallace Conspiracy theories David Duke Donald Trump Holocaust denial Kanye West Kim Jong Un Mar-a-Lago documents probe Milo Yiannopoulos Nick Fuentes Pizzagate conspiracy theory Proud Boys QAnon Racism in the United States Trump 2024 White supremacists

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