The idea of America was incomprehensible without the millenarian notion of a new land of milk and honey to which one might go and build a Jerusalem on earth without waiting for the end of days, skipping the steps set out in the Old Testament and the Gospels.
And that was the meaning of the famous “exceptionalism” formulated by John Winthrop, in the spring of 1630, during the voyage that took him from the Old World to the New. We have a special pact with the Lord, Winthrop told his flock. We will be a model of charity and Christian virtue. We will be the “city upon a hill” proclaimed in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
It is easy to see what is strange, from a strictly theological perspective, in this promise.
We know that for most Judeo-Christians, it is heresy to shove aside the order of things and purport to erect, right here, right now, without waiting for the resurrection, a new Jerusalem of jasper, sapphire, and chalcedony.
And we also know that it is possible to give an isolationist reading to this heresy upon which the United States was built: Is not the main purpose of Manifest Destiny to manifest itself? Is not the first job of a city on a hill to be seen, simply seen, visible and offered up for the admiration of the nations of the world? And is it not enough for the New Jerusalem to be a jewel, blazing with a thousand fires, dazzling the world with its incandescent beauty?
But there is another possible reading to give to this credo.
In the actual history of the sects and churches that made up the United States of America, no less strong than this first reading has been the temptation to encourage the world to move from admiration to adhesion, from amazement to imitation, and, when the movement was not rapid enough, when distant lands were slow to adopt the canons of the sublime city, to give them a little shove in the right direction.
To put it plainly, I think that Woodrow Wilson’s decision to go to war against Germany in 1917, Franklin Roosevelt’s resolution to join the battle against fascism in 1941, and, moving into caricatural mode, George W. Bush’s contorted and ill-fated operation to bring down Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq in 2003, all drew from the same well.
The paradigm was the same: a belief in the exceptional role of an American nation called upon to pick up the torch that had fallen from the fragile hands of the prophets and apostles of the City of God; and the mission was to carry that torch into dark lands.
The second theme is the Virgilian dream. Why Virgilian? Because Virgil is the poet who, in The Aeneid, recounts how Rome was founded by a survivor of the burning city of Troy.
Because it is he who told us that the colossal Roman Empire had its origins in the odyssey of a single man, Aeneas, who took off with the guardian deities of defeated Troy and arrived, several years and several seas later, in the terra incognita of Italy.
And because that was the other idea lodged in the heads of the first pioneers when they set off for America: to flee Amsterdam, Paris, London, or Plymouth, those new Troys consumed by the fire of persecution and tyranny; to take a moment, before boarding the boat, to capture the flickering flames of the guardian deities of the cities of Europe (those deities being the spirit of tolerance, a predilection for the common good and for law, and the idea of freedom); and, at the end of a long and exhausting voyage during which they, too, were the playthings of higher powers, were led to gates of hell, and were tempted a thousand times to fall into discouragement and to give up, those pioneers found, as Aeneas and his companions had found on the shores of Latium, a “virgin” soil on which to release their Lares, Manes, Penates, and other household divinities whom they had washed in the deep waters of the new Mediterranean that was the Atlantic Ocean.
We know that Thomas Jefferson was a fervent reader of Virgil and that fidelity to the European origins of the country he helped to found was one of the reasons that led him, in 1793, to call for active support for the French Revolution, in opposition to the president he served, George Washington.
We know that The Aeneid was bedside reading for great Latinists like the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather; the poet Samuel Low, whose ode lauded the ratification of the U.S. Constitution; the group of Boston citizens who urged the king of England to adopt a better pastoral policy; Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and designer of the Great Seal of the United States; and, much later, the journalist John O’Sullivan, opponent of the death penalty, precocious feminist, and inventor (in sympathy with the best of Italic and, by extension, European heritage) of the concept of Manifest Destiny.
One has only to inspect the dollar bill to find not just one but three quotations from Virgil. First, on the back, at left, circling the truncated pyramid capped with the eye of Providence and subtitled, in Roman numerals, with the date of the Declaration of Independence, are the words novus ordo seclorum: taken from the fourth eclogue of the Bucolics, these words announce “a new order of the ages.” Above that, we find annuit cœptis, which means “favor our undertakings”: it’s a free adaptation of a verse from the Georgics in which the poet implores the divinity not to abandon him. And finally, at right, held in the beak of the eagle that was also a symbol of Rome, we have a banner with the famous phrase “E pluribus unum” that also appears on the Great Seal, which conveys patriotic “unity” from a “plurality” of origins: “E pluribus unum” is an adaptation of a verse from Moretum, another bucolic that was believed, at the time, to have been written by Virgil.
The mission of these early Americans is clear.
It is to express, extend, and expand upon Virgil and The Aeneid.
It is to prolong, still farther west, the great adventure that began in Troy and continued with the founding of Alba Longa and then Rome, before finding its provisional fulfillment on the shores of New England.
The references, not just to Latin but specifically to Virgil’s Latin, signify an unbreakable tie to Europe as a land of ruins both moral and material, a land that one has left behind without regret while feeling certain of having saved the best part and firmly intending to bring it back to life, as Aeneas did.
And the nostalgia for Europe, the regret converted into resolution, the metaphysical decision to replay the invention of Europe is the second well from which the descendants of the Pilgrims and the Puritans drew in 1917 and again in 1941, when they retraced their steps, made the founding trip in reverse, and undertook to save the continent whence they had come.
A strict reader of the Bible will not fail to observe that it is not easy to be faithful simultaneously to Jerusalem and to Rome.
And such a reader might even point out that the holy city, the new Jerusalem come “down from God out of heaven,” is the opposite, term for term, of the blood-drunk whore from Revelation whose name is Babylon, which is another name for Edom, and thus for Rome, and thus for Europe.
Be that as it may.
America, when she embarks on imperial predication, even halfheartedly, is Jerusalem plus Rome.
Generous America, friend of democracy abroad as well as at home, is Isaiah plus Virgil.
It is—was—necessary to combine these two reasons so that the American dream could present itself as a dream for all, one with universal pretensions, even if this was only half true.
I have to say that these two pillars, which weathered the centuries well, are now, for the first time, cracking and giving way.
On the Virgilian side, we can date the reversal from the day in 1956 that the U.S. Congress voted to replace “E pluribus unum,” which had always been the country’s motto, with the less bucolic “In God we trust.”
We might date it from the death of the one and only Roman Catholic president that America ever elected—in other words, from the cyclonic, everlasting blow that was the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
And one can date it, naturally, from the moments when the last two presidents of the United States, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, matched their actions to the prevailing discourse and let it be known that Europe was no longer a priority for the United States.
In Trump’s case, the message was delivered with the vulgarity for which he is known. It came with his mad exit from the Paris climate accord in 2017. With his advice to Germany to rely on its own strengths—namely its trade surpluses—to assure its own defense. And with all the statements early in his term that caused his erstwhile allies to wonder how the president of America First would respond if a major crisis led NATO to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Would Trump still consider an “armed attack” occurring in Europe as an attack on the United States? Would he rise to the defense of the country or countries attacked? Or would he deem that the security of the Baltic states, Poland, or the Czech Republic was no longer a priority for him?
On July 15, 2018, at the end of a weeklong tour of Europe and on the eve of a meeting with Vladimir Putin in which he would appear shockingly weak and submissive, he let it all hang out: not only was Europe the “socialist” continent that he had scourged in 2011; not only was it the vast market whose common currency he declared in 2013 to have been created to “harm the United States”; not only was it the inconvenient rival whose incipient dismemberment he celebrated on the occasion of the Brexit vote in 2016—no, by July 15, 2018, in a mind-blowing interview with CBS News, he went so far as to say that Europe was nothing less than “the enemy of the United States”! The page was turned. Virgil’s thread was broken.
But a similar message had been conveyed, albeit with more ceremony and much more style and intelligence, over the eight preceding years. Remember when the dashing, elegant, and brilliant Barack Obama, at the start of his first term, declined to attend an important European summit. When the same Obama appeared to allow the National Security Agency to tap the personal cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel and, when word got out, played down the offense. When he skipped the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in favor of an Asian tour and then, two months later, begged off from the demonstration of solidarity for the victims of the attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market with the flimsy excuse of an “overloaded schedule.” When he acted as if his fondest vision was to see a Silicon Valley on Mount Fuji and implied that America’s future lay to the west, still farther west, without realizing that, the earth being round, the distant west was back in the Far East. And when he made it known that he wanted his two terms to be known for the tilt toward Asia, for putting relations with Russia back on an even keel, and for the nuclear deal with Iran.
By the time he came to Berlin late in his second term to speak on the importance of Europe, he no doubt wanted to repair his mistake. But the gesture had the feel of a last-minute correction or of an earnest student not wanting to leave any box unchecked. And the impressions that will last are that Obama said with a smile what Trump says with a scowl; that Obama acted as if the sun were shining while Trump grumbles about the weather; that Obama was all sweetness and light whereas Trump thunders about days of wrath; and that, with respect to Europe’s importance to the United States, the two presidents’ similarities outweigh their differences.
Not to mention the other abandonment of Europe—and of France in particular—that came at the end of August 2013 when Obama did a U-turn on the question of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. He laid down a “red line.” He threatened dire consequences if that line were crossed. And then, when it was crossed, he did an about-face and froze, leaving French President François Hollande, his planes ready to take off, to sort things out on his own. That will go down as a bad day in the history of transatlantic relations—and as a turning point in the deterioration of American deterrence. And for that, alas, we have Obama to thank, not Trump.
For the first time in its history, America springs from nothing but itself.
For the first time, it is cutting the dimly glowing thread that it had heretofore maintained between itself and what Hegel had called “old Europe.”
And Trump, who saw himself as Caesar, instead resembles Romulus Augustulus, Rome’s last emperor, a dreary, feebleminded character who has always reminded me of the fat little Hapsburg in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On and whose name is such a boon for a writer: Romulus, the name borne by Rome’s founder, as well as by the man who dug its grave; and Augustulus, the august name synonymous with classical splendor disfigured by the diminutive suffix that derides the greatness of which Virgil sang the praises. In real life, Romulus Augustulus was a cruel and ridiculous child-king. In the “nonhistorical comedy in four acts” that Friedrich Dürrenmatt devoted to him, he is a sovereign of whom it is hard to know whether he is criminal (“I was left with no other possibility,” he says, “other than to become emperor myself in order to be able to liquidate the empire”) or senile (for spending his days in his henhouse clucking, which is not far from tweeting, in unison with his fowl). In the end, he turned his empire over without a fight to the German prince, Odoacer, before beginning a quiet retirement. Could that be Mr. Trump’s plan? Could that be a clue to his strange behavior before the Odoacers of our time—Putin for one, or any of the illiberal dictators who, from every corner of the world, challenge and often trample the values of freedom, tolerance, and democracy that have been America’s credo from its beginnings?
Trump, who saw himself as Caesar, instead resembles Romulus Augustulus, Rome’s last emperor, a dreary, feebleminded character.
With respect to Jerusalem, the question appears to be more complex. First because the evangelical Christian right in the United States insists that the return of all the world’s Jews to Jerusalem is a necessary precursor of Jesus’ return to earth. And next because President Trump, in fulfillment of a promise made to the Christian right during the campaign, made the historic decision to move the American embassy in Israel to the Holy City.
But this move, which was welcomed by many Jews and friends of Israel as a courageous gesture that simply put reality straight with the law, should be viewed in a broader context for at least three reasons.
Reason one is that this neo-evangelical, anti-European form of Zionism has very little in common with Israel’s importance to the architects of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It is a form of Zionism that is a stranger to humanist, liberal values; that considers Jews as bit players in a spectacle that concerns them only indirectly; and that is prepared, to get where it wants to go, to push aside the Jews, body and soul. In this current of thought, the Jewish people’s wholesale return to the Holy Land is considered a prelude to their conversion. And from this point of view, there is nothing very surprising in the fact that among the guests of honor invited to bless the new embassy were a pair of strange evangelical pastors, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Hagee, who founded an organization known as Christians United for Israel in 2006, has asserted, among other enormities, that Adolf Hitler was partly of Jewish origin and that the Holocaust was, despite its horror, God’s plan. As for Jeffress, who had delivered the sermon at the service marking Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House, he is the same man who, in 2008, declared that Judaism leads straight to hell, and then, in 2010, opined that “you can’t be saved being a Jew,” citing as his source for this certitude “the three greatest Jews in the New Testament: Peter, Paul, and Jesus Christ.”
Reason two is that there is a world of difference between the two things. On one side, a political decision, that is to say, the decision of a politician who is visibly ignorant of the laws of ahavat Yisrael, or of the “love for the Jewish people,” that Gershom Scholem found tragically lacking in Hannah Arendt (how much more so in Donald Trump!). And, on the other side, the enormous metaphysical importance, for the Founding Fathers and their successors, of a symbol that implied that America, new as it was, was still bound to its Jewish spiritual roots, just as Rome had remained a Hellenic power in Polybius’ mind.
And, finally, when weighing policies, one cannot simply disregard the fate of real Jews living real lives, not only in Israel but in the United States as well. To celebrate imaginary Jews who, on the Judgment Day, will arise from their graves to serve as escorts for Christ’s return is fine. But it would be so much better to honor, respect, or even protect the real flesh-and-blood Jews who are not just standing around waiting but are fighting for their dignity and, too often, for their very survival! From this point of view, Trumpism falls far short of the target. Before Trump, particularly on American campuses, there was a powerful anti-Semitism of the left centered on promoting a boycott of Israeli products to protest the country’s presence on the West Bank.
Segments of the left (notably the extreme left) have taken advantage of disdain for, or hatred of, Israel to galvanize other “victims,” making the anti-Semitic potion even more dangerous.
And the friends of Israel will not soon forget the U.S. abstention in the U.N. Security Council just before Christmas 2016, allowing an anti-Israeli resolution to pass: To them, this clearly conveyed that the outgoing administration had resolved to conclude its second term with an unprecedented slap at the Jewish state.
But does anyone need to be reminded of the rising tide, in nativist and white supremacist circles, of a right-wing anti-Semitism that purports, since Trump, to reopen debate on the real color of the skin of Seth’s and Jacob’s children?
Or of the flood of tweets and retweets during the presidential campaign, where every strain of lunacy seemed woven into a single story of hate and criminality?
Or of the bile brewing in the depths of so many souls, which, during the election, began to flow forth, bearing along a flotsam of jokes about gas chambers, calls to reopen “the ovens” for the Jews of New York and Los Angeles, and assorted conspiracy theories?
Does anyone need to be reminded how, each time the attention of the new president of the United States has been drawn to the return of the oldest form of hate in one of the few places in the world where it seemed to be rejected and contained, that president has chosen to avoid the issue?
An example. His press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, held during the latter’s visit to Washington in February 2017. An Israeli journalist asked the president about the worrisome uptick in anti-Semitic acts in the United States. Instead of responding, the president rambled, as we have come to expect from him, about his astounding success. And, returning finally to the question posed, he observed, with a blank look and in a mechanical tone, that many “bad things” indeed happen in his country but that he will be, you can count on it, a president who cares about “peace.” That catch-all idea of the many bad things that happen in the country was not far from his disastrous declaration six months later, after the riots in Charlottesville, when he put on the same footing the racist violence of neo-Nazi sympathizers and the strong reaction of counterdemonstrators.
Another example. Another press conference a day after the first one. Another journalist, this one from an American Jewish weekly, asked Trump what the administration intended to do about the growing number of synagogues being attacked, Jewish schools evacuated, and community centers terrorized by bomb threats, thus far thwarted or faked. What was the president’s reaction? “Sit down,” he said, cutting off the reporter in mid-question. “I am the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen.” Then, when the journalist attempted to resume his question: “Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” he commanded, leaving the audience dumbstruck. And the least-anti-Semitic-of-people-or-presidents could find not a single word to explain how the America of Martin Luther King and Elie Wiesel intended to check the wave of anti-Jewish hate that was spreading across the country at a rate not seen since the 1930s.
Not to mention the strange set of circumstances that resulted in the omission from the president’s remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day of any reference to the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis. It was the first time since the observance was created that those words were dropped. With this fillip of ancillary offense: when the White House was asked about the sudden disappearance of Jewish names and about how those names had become a mere detail among the innumerable victims of Nazism, the functionaries whose job it was to serve up that day’s “alternative facts” tried to shift responsibility for the mistake onto a speechwriter who was, they saw fit to observe, a “descendent [sic] of Holocaust survivors.”
In a column in The New York Times published the day before Trump’s inauguration, I quoted some table talk by the future president, reported in a book by John O’Donnell, a former chief operating officer of Trump’s Atlantic City casino: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
I also quoted Trump’s campaign remarks to a gathering of donors from the Republican Jewish Coalition: “I know why you’re not going to support me! It’s because I don’t want your money.”
And I recalled a 2013 tweet storm in which, desperate to show that he was “smarter” than the “overrated” comedian and commentator Jon Stewart, Trump saw fit to rip off the mask behind which stood Jonathan Leibowitz, the Jewish name Stewart was born with.
In the same column, I compared Trump to the emperor Diocletian, a former swineherd who had been mercilessly teased by the students of a yeshiva run by Rabbi Yehudah. Later, after Diocletian had become emperor, he summoned the rabbi, who lived in the distant city of Banias. He arranged things so the rabbi would have to travel on the Sabbath, then tried to boil him in the post-travel bath customarily provided to permit guests to cleanse themselves after a dusty voyage. And when, at last, he received his visitor, he said to him with spite: “Just because your god performs miracles, you think you can scorn the emperor?”
This story seemed to me a good metaphor for America today, where, as in Rome, the triumph of nihilism can enable a swineherd—in other words, anybody, no matter how inarticulate—to become emperor.
I know that blind, obsessive, and unsubstantiated criticism of President Trump, when coming from a European, can be a disguised form of the old anti-Americanism. So I weigh my words.
But I have not changed my opinion.
Where Trump is concerned, I believe we are witnessing the “anti-Semitism of resentment” that Freud and Sartre identified.
Jews appear to those who harbor this resentment, including Trump, as representatives of an “elite” that patronized them for too long and against which they will take revenge once they are in a position to do so.
And so I am addressing the Jews of America and the world who might not see the trap here; I am addressing those blinded by Trump’s inconsistent, unreliable, and ultimately dangerous benevolence; I am addressing everyone who seems to forget that, no matter how often the 45th president of the United States expresses his love for Israel, reasserts his solidarity to its prime minister, and reminds us that his grandson is a Jew, he will always be a bad swineherd who reveres only power, money, and glitz and could not care less about the miracles, the calls to study and intelligence, that are the proper genius of Judaism. And to all those people, to those who, in a word, refuse to understand that entering into an alliance with that, bowing not to Pompey or Assuerus but to Diocletian, is to deny oneself, to betray one’s vocation, and to risk becoming no more than a shadow of oneself, I wish to say that, at the very best, they have put themselves in the position of Joseph making an alliance with Pharaoh to protect his brothers. But we know how that story ends. Just as a new pharaoh “arises over Egypt” who “does not know Joseph” and reduces his descendants to slavery, so, sooner or later, a new president will arise over America. Which will lead, according to the Talmud, to two equally tragic scenarios.
The “new pharaoh” may be new only in a metaphorical sense. As the Talmud clearly puts it, he is the same pharaoh who has “turned bad”—a turncoat. In which case, the unpredictable, occasionally benevolent Trump becomes another Trump and turns against an Israel about which, at the core, he cares not a whit: Israel, in this case, has everything to fear from the president’s legendary but cynical “pragmatism.”
Or the newcomer may indeed be a newcomer, another pharaoh altogether who arrives to take the place of the present one—and he will associate the Jews with his predecessor, whose cause and destiny they so recklessly embraced. In the United States, as elsewhere, the strength of the Jews lies also in the scrupulous maintenance of bipartisan balance. Their great wisdom has always been to avoid too ostentatious an embrace of one party over another. And they are a perfect illustration of the famous law of Cardinal de Retz, according to which “one abandons ambiguity only at one’s peril.” I suggest that it is terribly dangerous for Jews to forget this very old and prescient lesson.
But, for the time being, the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. Donald Trump’s exaggerated invocations of Jerusalem no longer have much to do with the case of real Jews who are being attacked by white supremacists—and even less with real Jewish culture, a culture that preaches the humanity of others, kindness to strangers, and a willingness to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and offer water to the thirsty.
These concerns and principles were the culture of the Pilgrim founders. But they are the creed, too, of the Jews who have played such a large part in building modern America. And it is to be feared that, with the banalization, negation, or, at best, the metamorphosis of the living name of Jerusalem, the second engine powering the empire, the good empire, risks being shut down.
From the book The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World, by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Copyright © 2019 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.