Opinion » Viewpoint

Trump and the Jews



While visiting Poland in 1976, I heard about a book. It was called Anti-Semitism Without Jews: Communist Eastern Europe, and it was mentioned to me because the Jews of Poland, once numerous, had almost entirely been murdered — yet the hatred of them persisted. The title of that book popped into my head in the aftermath of the slaughter of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semite. President Trump, not to mention Republicans in general, denied any connection between the shooting and the president's rhetoric. They are either historically ignorant or moral cowards.

First, their ignorance. They do not appreciate that, in both style and rhetoric, Trump's anti-Semitism, like that of Eastern Europe's, is "without Jews." He himself lacks the prejudice. He was born and raised in the resplendently Jewish city of New York. His daughter converted to the religion, and his grandchildren are being raised as Jews. His associates — once Roy Cohn and later Michael Cohen — have been Jews, and he is supported by major Jewish donors such as Sheldon Adelson, whose wife, Miriam, lost family in the Holocaust. Trump is not a Jew hater.

But he has adopted or embraced the mind-set of an anti-Semite. He does not rebut the stereotype of the villainous rich Jew, that latter-day Rothschild, George Soros, who is seen as the deus ex machina funding the caravan of the desperate wending its way north from Honduras. In Soros' native Hungary, where he escaped Adolf Eichmann's roundup — more than 437,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz — Soros is literally the poster boy of all the standard anti-Semitic tropes, especially that of the amoral Jewish cosmopolite.

In the United States, the cliche of rootless amoral Jews has been replaced by a media with the same odious characteristics. Jews have long been associated with journalism — in 19th-century Vienna, the word "journalist" was analogous with Jew — and in 1941, Charles Lindbergh, a steadfast isolationist, made matters clear in a speech in Des Moines, Iowa. What he called "war agitators" consisted of three groups: "the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration." These "agitators," he added, are "only a small minority of our people; but they control a tremendous influence. Against the determination of the American people to stay out of war, they have marshaled the power of their propaganda, their money, their patronage."

Only crackpots talk that way today. But the fundamentals remain. In Trump talk, the media remains the enemy of the American people. It lies. It lies because it is evil. It lies because it is un-American. Trump relies on the predicate for this belief, which was established years ago when the three television networks and some major newspapers were controlled by Jews — and if Trump does not know this, anti-Semites sure do. Jews no longer control, but stereotypical "Jewishness" endures.

In the belief system of Trump and his followers, the media account for so much that is wrong with America. It is false for the sake of being false, and it is false in sneaky, underhanded ways. This is nothing new, of course. President Richard M. Nixon went after the press in a similar way, and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, made it one of his themes. But no administration has made media-bashing a matter of policy — not merely a way of rebutting criticism but a way of governing, of disestablishing truth and facts.

This is a kind of fascism or, the economic program aside, communism. The ruling party doesn't have opponents or critics, it has enemies — "enemies of the people," in this case journalism. The rhetoric strips the opposition of any standing, any legitimacy. It is not a party in temporary opposition. It is a party in permanent sedition.

Trump had been frank about his intention. Lesley Stahl of CBS News told an audience in May that Trump told her he wants to "discredit" and "demean" the media "so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you." But it's far less clear that he realizes what encouragement he offers to conspiracy believers, of which anti-Semitism is the most adaptable and durable.

I don't necessarily see the homicidal act in Pittsburgh as proof of a resurgence of American anti-Semitism. A far more certain danger is the validation Trump has offered those who believe in all sorts of conspiracy theories. In spirit and in essence, this is anti-Semitism that so far lacks only Jews. History, though, warns that the vacuum will be filled. It's up to Trump and his morally dormant Republican Party to ensure that Pittsburgh remains a spasm of the awful past — and not a harbinger of an even worse future.

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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