This week, Dianne Feinstein released a transcript of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The founder of the intelligence firm that created a report on Trump had been interviewed about the dossier they created and various subjects that had come up during their investigations. Feinstein says she released it to prevent further circulation of misinformation and efforts to undermine a certain investigation currently taking place.
People have a lot of opinions about her decision. Unsurprisingly, Trump is one of those people.
He shared his thoughts as he usually does—on Twitter, with the grace of a wobbly wheelbarrow full of tiny, angry potatoes. I’m mostly uninterested in the substance of what Trump tweets, but I’m very interested in the root of these messages and what people glean from the outbursts.
There are a few things to unpack in his tweet about Senator Feinstein, but his nickname for her hit me hardest. Trump has given all sorts of nicknames to people who he believes have wronged him. Some are basic schoolyard taunts, like Sloppy Steve Bannon, and some are straight-up racist, like when he calls Senator Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. Trump has named Senator Feinstein “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein.”
This nickname is not about her ninja-like ability to navigate complicated legislative systems or her poker face while playing political chess. It’s not even about Trump feeling like she went behind the back of other Senators, though there are people who would tell you that is it’s foundation. This term is about something much deeper. It’s about shining a spotlight on what makes Dianne Feinstein an “other” in a way that’s mostly invisible to people who don’t share that opinion. It’s a way of saying out loud what we know shouldn’t be said. It can be harder to spot these underhanded knocks, but make no mistake, this adjective is directly and consequentially connected to Senator Feinstein’s Jewish identity.
These kinds of cloaked messages aren’t new. In fact, writers have been using Jewish characters as devious villains in literature for decades. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a money lender who is so bent on forcing his rival’s death, he furtively assigns a “pound of flesh” surety to his next loan. Charles Dickens’ Fagin exploits orphan boys to get richer and secretly hides away his profits. George du Maurier’s Svengali, a man who controls and exploits a young girl, has become such a well-known character of manipulation, the term is used as a legal defense to protect defendants who have been beguiled into bad actions.
It’s easier to dismiss these statements as the ramblings of an incoherent, defensive man prone to tantrums. Those things are true. But language matters. It matters that, when insulting someone who he feels opposes his actions, the president sends quiet signals to hate groups and their ignorant audiences. It matters that five million Americans are reminded of their otherness when the president snaps at a fellow politician—and that they then become targets of discriminatory language and actions that have been further normalized.
It’s possible this stereotype is so deeply entrenched in our language and culture that Trump, like so many others, naturally falls back on it when he throws out insults, but that entrenchment merely means the belief exists—that it is living inside him and anyone else who gingerly tosses hate into their conversations.
But I think Trump knows who he’s talking to when he says these things. He realizes there’s a rapt audience online ready to lap up his thinly veiled call-outs. He knows they will respond to the bait. And respond they have. Helpful tip to anyone hoping to hold onto their faith in humanity: Even if you’re writing a tiny but critical blog post about hate language on social media, don’t search for that very language on Twitter. It will not end well.