Despite being gay and Jewish, I have never identified as a “minority” in America. Call it white privilege or deluded optimism, but the expansiveness of the American creed always convinced me that Bill Clinton was right when he said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Yet the increasing likelihood that the Republican Party will nominate Donald Trump to be president of the United States—and the enthusiasm his populist, nativist, and jingoistic campaign is eliciting from a shockingly high number of my fellow Americans—has made me question, for the first time in my 32 years as a citizen of the greatest country on earth, whether our society is on the road to violent disintegration.
Not since living in Europe have I felt more aware of my Jewishness than these past few weeks. While residing in Berlin, I had written an essay for Tablet magazine about my participation in a notorious exhibition at the city’s Jewish Museum colloquially dubbed “The Jew in the Box.” For two hours on a Wednesday afternoon, I sat in a Plexiglas vitrine fielding questions from curious Germans. “The ‘Jew in a Box’ is an ironic, meta-commentary on what it is like to live as a Jew in contemporary Germany: You feel sometimes that you are an endangered species—or, as the museum commentary puts it, ‘a living exhibition object,’ ” I wrote. “As a Jew in Germany, you are confronted by your Jewishness, your difference, on a continual basis.” If Europe can be a suffocating place for a Jew (or anyone who isn’t white and Christian), America is a breath of fresh air. When I participated in a Tablet magazine symposium about diaspora Jewry later that year, I remarked upon how refreshing it was returning to a country where one’s ethnic and religious identity was a relative non-issue.
Nor was it just America’s acceptance of diverse personal identities that I found to be more comforting than Europe’s stifling cultural conformity. Being on the receiving end of frequent complaints about the authoritarianism and provincialism of the American political right, I would often smugly cite the late French writer Jean-Francois Revel, by way of Tom Wolfe, who noted “one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” When my European friends remarked upon the sorry state of American race relations, I would pointedly ask when Germany would elect an ethnic Turk chancellor or France an Algerian Muslim president. The closest America has ever had to a Jean-Marie Le Pen—a demagogic white nationalist of countrywide political stature—is Pat Buchanan, and look how far his career went, I would scoff.
The Tea Party, whose rise I witnessed from abroad, was from the start condemned by Europeans as crypto-fascist, so inured are they to see any populist movement of the right as downright illegitimate. (Populist movements of the left are subject to no such scrutiny.) As recently as last month, before Trump won the New Hampshire primary, I posted the “dark night of fascism” jibe on my Facebook page in accompaniment to a Der Spiegel article about the presumptive nominee I found particularly alarmist.
No longer, however, can I say that America has any sort of claim to being a more politically mature democracy than those across the pond, a sorry fact almost entirely attributable to the Trumpian ascendance. (Nor does it augur well that Bernie Sanders—a Sandinista and Castro-loving socialist demagogue whose haimish demeanor conveniently distracts from his crackpot and failed ideas—is attracting so much support from ostensibly serious people.) Americans have clearly not exorcised the demons of our past as much as we like to think.
Where to begin? As a journalist, I find Trump’s contempt for the basic functions of democracy—in particular the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—absolutely appalling. His call to ban all Muslims from entering the country is fundamentally evil. Naturally, Trump has also said he’s unsure whether President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was wrong, despite official condemnations by later American presidents. The casually dispensed threats to those who might challenge his authority as president, from the Speaker of the House (“he’s going to have to pay a big price”) to military officers who refuse his hypothetical illegal orders mandating commission of torture and war crimes (“They’re not gonna refuse me”), has literally kept me awake at night with visions of the country gradually transforming into a North American caudillo-stan. If a recent Washington Post article about therapists reporting an outbreak of “Trump anxiety” among their patients is any indication, I am hardly the only Jew dealing with such existential worry.
Trump’s Nuremberg-esque rallies, where entranced audiences obliviously raise their right hands in impromptu loyalty oaths, evince a frisson of seething aggression. One has come to expect that black and Latino protesters, not to mention fellow journalists, will be roughed up, behavior Trump has repeatedly and explicitly endorsed. His call for deporting 11 million illegal immigrants raises the prospect of nationwide nighttime raids and are the harbinger of a police state. His unapologetic mockery of the physically disabled—one of the Nazis’ earliest victims—resembles a CliffsNotes’ Nietzchean will to power. If Trump doesn’t get his way at the Republican National Convention this summer, that he will deploy some sort of organized paramilitary force—transforming Cleveland into a far-right phantasmagoria of Chicago 1968—is hardly idle speculation.
Watching the Trump drama unfold, I have felt a sense of being transported back to my earlier posting abroad as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in which capacity I covered upheaval across the former Soviet space and North Africa. This is the sort of candidate and the type of politics we associate with failed states and military dictatorships, not the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. If Trump wins the nomination and, God forbid, the presidency, I anticipate race riots in major American cities. Philip Roth’s alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, envisioning the narrow election of a President Charles Lindbergh who keeps America out of World War II and presides over a worsening climate of anti-Jewish persecution, is no longer the stuff of my Bubbie’s tsuris.
Given his wink-wink, nudge-nudge circumlocutions about the Ku Klux Klan, it’s easy to understand why Trump terrifies racial minorities. Yet Jews qua Jews have been left out of the discussion about Trump’s bigotry. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, after all, is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, having married the scion of another corrupt New York real-estate mogul, Jared Kushner, and Trump has accumulated an abundance of Jewish friends and business partners over his many years in the Big Apple. As he reminded the debate audience last Thursday night, he was once the Grand Marshal of New York’s annual Salute to Israel Parade. Indeed, as my Tablet magazine colleague Liel Leibovitz wrote last year, at a time when many still viewed the Donald’s campaign with a sense of curious bemusement rather than resigned terror, there is something of the macher in the “vaudevillian” Trump, an “heir to a precious Jewish tradition.”
These biographical details, meant to reassure Jews who may be on the fence about the billionaire, are cold comfort. From the cult of masculinity to the boastful anti-intellectualism, Donald Trump has unleashed ugly passions that any Jew with even the most tenuous connection to Jewish community, history, or tradition ought instinctively fear. Nativism, racism, populism, physical and rhetorical thuggery, blatant lying—these are things that should disturb all people of good will. But they are anathema especially to the Jewish “critical spirit,” that rich tradition of skepticism and humanism loathed by know-nothing anti-Semites throughout history. To those Jews who contemplate making peace with a President Donald Trump: He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.
More disheartening than any of Trump’s individual policy pronouncements and behaviors is the fact that so many Americans are unbothered by them. According to political scientist Matthew MacWilliams, Trump supporters have an “authoritarian” disposition. They admire strength to the exclusion of any other characteristic including decency, consistency, and compassion, never mind respect for the rule of law. This trait has long eluded political pollsters because, like me, they didn’t think that a predisposition toward authoritarianism was a characteristic worth measuring in the American electorate. That it so clearly is does not bode well for the future of our republic.
If Trump has brought out the worst in the American right, so has he elicited the worst from a segment of the American left. To their everlasting credit, many conservative intellectuals have forthrightly denounced Trumpism, providing a moral example for the many spineless Republican elected officials (with the heroic exception of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse) who have shamefully chosen to stand on the sidelines as their party moves closer and closer to nominating an authoritarian demagogue as its presidential nominee. This elite-level repudiation was most clearly expressed in “Against Trump,” a cover story symposium published by National Review, and an open letter lambasting the Republican front-runner signed by over 100 prominent GOP foreign policy and national security experts, many of them friends and colleagues and whose views I enthusiastically endorse. Both initiatives placed country over party, stressing the threat that Trump poses not merely to conservative values and the future viability of the GOP, but more importantly the fundamental tenets of America’s democracy and global standing.
To a certain species of left-wing pundit, however, these patently good faith sentiments are the result of darker, malign motivations. What really angers the conservative establishment, these commentators believe, is Trump’s refusal to bow before the “neoconservatives,” a political classification often indistinguishable from “Jewish foreign policy hawk.” MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews—who in a tirade last year attacked “piggish money people,” “a rotten crowd out there that is very hawkish,” and “wants to fight more wars”—believes that Trump’s condemnation of Operation Iraqi Freedom is what turned the “war hawks” against him. Never mind that Trump’s supposed heresy of GOP foreign policy dogma is as muddled and inconsistent as his views on any other matter, and reeks of opportunism. After National Review published its symposium, Matthews invited the magazine’s Washington editor Eliana Johnson onto his television program. There, the Father Coughlin of MSNBC demanded Johnson admit that Trump’s latter-day opposition to Iraq was the reason her magazine so strenuously opposed his candidacy. Matthews, who after the network fired Pat Buchanan ably assumed its designated slot for blowhard tribune of the lace-curtain Catholic, insisted of the contributors that “regime change is in their bloodstream” and that “every name on that list supported the Iraq War.” Not only is the latter claim demonstrably false; the word “Iraq” does not appear once in any of the 22 separate contributions.
Writing for Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, Zaid Jilani, last seen losing his job at a liberal think tank for calling various American politicians “Israel-firsters,” says Trump is “setting off alarm bells among neoconservatives who are worried he will not pursue the same bellicose foreign policy that has dominated Republican thinking for decades.” Professional neocon watchers Ali Gharib and Jim Lobe, meanwhile, predict, “There’s little doubt that the neocons and their allies will, sooner or later, call for another Big War in the Middle East, and when they do, it seems President Trump will be wholly unresponsive.”
In the National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn singled out Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan, who has written two, bracing Washington Post op-eds denouncing Trump and declared his support for Hillary Clinton should Trump become the Republican nominee. “Kagan is an eloquent writer, but he elides the fact that many of Trump’s positions are not all that different from what the GOP has espoused in the past when it comes to domestic issues. It is on foreign affairs where Trump represents a marked shift and it is this that truly troubles the neocon wing,” Heilbrunn declares. Because the liberal media’s obsession with supposed neocon machinations is endless, the New York Times gave Heilbrunn an opportunity to repeat his case last week, arguing that neocons are “interlopers” terrified at the prospect of Trump’s rise bringing about an end to their iron grip over American foreign policy.
I have a simpler, not to mention more charitable, explanation for why so many Jewish conservatives—er, “neocons”—viscerally oppose Trump: He’s a fascist demagogue.
Heilbrunn, of all people, should understand. He wrote an entire book in which he quite properly identified memory of the Holocaust and a resultant heightened sensitivity to totalitarianism as crucial factors in shaping neoconservatism, the centerpiece of which was fervent, moralistic opposition to communism. Is it not more likely that it’s the aforementioned, objectively disturbing aspects of Trumpism—and not an absence of warmongering blood lust, which Trump actually displays far more than the neocons—that most disturbs Jewish hawks?
Undeniably, neoconservatives have much to loathe in Trump’s putative foreign policy. Praising Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader,” commending the Chinese communists for their “strength” in massacring thousands of students in Tiananmen Square, attacking free trade, slandering our close allies as freeloaders, promising to unwind the postwar international liberal world order that America constructed and has maintained for seven decades, and, yes, promising to be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—all of these positions are ones that neoconservatives oppose.
But they are also positions that most Americans, never mind conservatives, oppose, and for good reason. “The neocons are right that a Trump presidency would likely be a foreign policy debacle,” Heilbrunn concedes, before divining the real reasons neocons loathe Trump. Not surprisingly, Heilbrunn’s argument drifts into incoherence, like when he describes a “belief in the exercise of unilateral military power” as a Trumpian conviction that used to reign within the GOP until the party was captured by the neocons, though elsewhere Heilbrunn (and others) have ascribed unilateralism as a fundamental tenet of neoconservative ideology.
Which is it? Reuters has reported that diplomats representing some of America’s closest allies are quietly raising serious concerns to U.S. officials about Trump’s highly unusual behavior. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove has gone so far as to say that his “European counterparts” are expressing worries about the American election. Yet when neocons who supposedly don’t give a fig about international opinion complain about Trump, it is because, in Heilbrunn’s mocking language, they are raring to fight a “fresh crusade” against a new “authoritarian foe.”
None of the reservations listed by the anti-Trump GOP foreign policy experts are particularly “neoconservative.” On the contrary, opposition to dictators, support for the sole democracy in the Middle East, bolstering relations with America’s traditional allies; these are values typically associated with liberals like Bill and Hillary Clinton. If anyone can be accused of bad faith, it’s not the neocons but their obsessive critics. It is a testament to the extent of their paranoia about “neocons” that they would go so far as to speak favorably of Donald Trump—a man who brags about “bombing the shit out of ISIS,” calls for the wanton slaughtering of innocent civilians, supports banning Muslims from entering the United States, and brags about being “the most militaristic person” running for president. This is a man who opposes a “bellicose foreign policy”?
It’s long been said of anti-Semitism that it always starts but never ends with the Jews. With the rise of Donald Trump, I fear we are seeing this phenomenon in reverse. Jews are one of the most popular minorities in the United States and it’s inconceivable to most Americans that “it could happen here,” that the sort of violent anti-Semitism so sadly familiar throughout history and pervasive around the rest of the world might rear its ugly head on our shores. It is inconceivable that a leading presidential candidate could ever get away with saying the things about Jews that Trump currently says about Mexicans or Muslims.
Yet that assumption is not one that we can reassure ourselves with any longer. A staple of anti-Semitic complaint from the Nazis to Donald Trump’s newfound friends in the Klan is that Jews are always and everywhere the devious orchestrators of racial integration. Rootless cosmopolitans, Jews allegedly promote immigration and miscegenation so as to bring about a more diverse society in which they can sublimate their own ethnic difference. Through this “mongrelization,” Jews will precipitate the demise of white, Christian communities, thereby destroying the last vestige of resistance to their assertion of pernicious control.
Unlike other anti-Semitic memes, there is truth in this observation, though not of course for the reasons that Nazis and white supremacists think. Jews have indeed played disproportionate roles in struggles for racial equality, from the movement against South African apartheid to the cause of civil rights in the United States. And while Jews felt called to these movements by faith, universalistic political commitments, or an innate sense of justice, doing so was also in their communal self-interest. A country that is politically pluralistic, open to new ideas and new people, ethnically diverse, and respectful of religious difference, is a country that will naturally be safer for Jews than a country that is none of these things. This, I believe, is why so many Jews, foreign policy hawks or not, innately fear Donald Trump.
These last few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate the Jewish identification with liberalism (both in its classical and modern American political form) more than at any other point in my life, and in a way no history book or sermon by a rabbi could relate. The fate of Jewish life in the West is inextricably bound to democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance and ethnic harmony. If there’s a silver lining to the resistible rise of Donald Trump, it’s that it has forced us to realize this truth.
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