by Dan Berger
One of the (many) surprising things to come out of this election campaign has been the re-legitimization, on a mass scale, of old-school antisemitism. After years of high-profile, front-page news stories about whether the slightest expression of Palestine activism and solidarity comprised “antisemitism,” we now have a president-elect who has trafficked in the most cartoonish examples of anti-Jewish stereotypes. While his closing campaign ad depicted Jewish political figures as part of a global conspiracy, Trump’s primary campaign saw him tell the Republican Jewish Committee that he was the first candidate who didn’t want their money and that he was as good a negotiator as all of them. More troubling, he aims to appoint as chief strategist the alt-right spokesperson widely praised by neo-Nazis. While some mainstream commentators have flagged Bannon’s appointment as “controversial,” CNN and other media outlets have nonetheless given white nationalists space to pontificate as policy analysts. With white supremacists establishing an inside-the-beltway think tank, their influence will likely grow in the coming years: the neo-Redeemers go to Washington.
Obviously, Jews are hardly the most targeted group under Trumpism. Nor is this antisemitism new. As left-wing analysts of the so-called alt-right have noted, the far Right has always held on to an ideology of antisemitism. Meanwhile, the Republican Right’s commitment to Israel or opposition to antisemitism has always been equal parts cynicism and racism: they’ll do anything to discredit the Left, especially people of color, and they see themselves engaged in a civilizational conflict with Muslims. At best, they see Jews as shady and duplicitous conspirators rather than sworn enemies. Still, over the last year antisemitism has become quietly popularized but surprisingly unchallenged in a culture that has spent years dismissing protests against Israeli apartheid as antisemitic.
The emerging opposition to Trumpism has rightly focused on the groups facing the most dire, most violent threats–people facing deportation, exclusion, and mob assault. Within this logic, antisemitism remains a powerful ideological trope that the now-mainstreamed far Right has projected onto its authoritarian platform. From the announcement of Trump’s campaign in June 2015, it was clear that his worldview was shaped by far right conspiracy thinking, in which antisemitism is never far removed: the notion that “Mexico sends their people” is a foolish framing of why and how migration happens. Yet it reveals the antisemitic structure of Trumpian racial logic.
Put simply, Trump’s antisemitism is not primarily about Jews. Rather, the antisemitism functions as a structuring apparatus for his racist political outlook. By antisemitism, I mean a right-wing populist ideological framework that is 1) steeped in conspiracy thinking 2) premised on a misplaced anti-elitism against a secretive, racialized cabal that 3) can only be understood in crude, patriarchal nationalist terms. This kind of antisemitism is evident in Steve Bannon’s recent claim that he is not a “white nationalist” but rather an “economic nationalist.” Antisemitism here combines the neoconservative desire for U.S. militarism to fight a global “clash of civilizations” with late-19th century tribalist race thinking under the banner of capitalist accumulation. As the independent scholar Chip Berlet wrote in 2012, antisemitism is a racializing logic that, since 9/11, has applied as much to Muslims as to Jews. Whether it is Mexico “sending their people,” Hillary Clinton’s “secret [meetings] with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” (yes, he said that), or a host of other paranoid utterances by the now president-elect, Trump’s worldview is antisemitic. He understands geopolitics as a series of conspiracies that need to be met with violence. Race is his shorthand for describing whether someone is an agent of a global conspiracy or its victim.
Trumpian antisemitism has been the ideological framework for the most sustained white supremacist assault in generations. Its primary targets are Muslim, Black, and Latinx. The fact that Trumpian antisemitism is not exclusively directed at Jews—despite a host of transparently anti-Jewish statements, actions, and supporters—may speak to the shifting alliances and categories of analysis in this moment. Trump’s son-in-law turned close advisor, Jared Kushner, is an orthodox Jew—and now so is his daughter. Some Hasidic Jews supported Trump, pointing to his patriarchal stance and Islamophobic proposals. Similar sentiments can be found in Alan Dershowitz’s defense of Steve Bannon while attacking Black Lives Matter and BDS, or the speaking invitation extended to Bannon by the Zionist Organization of America. From the tragic to the farcical, right-wing celebrity conspiracist Wayne Allyn Root even suggested that Trump might be the “first Jewish president” since he is a successful businessman from New York who also lives part-time in Florida.
These kinds of endorsements echo those of Ben Carson and Omarosa, “Latinos/Hispanics for Donald Trump,” and others who see themselves above the victimization they co-sign with their endorsements. Simplistic projections of the linkage between identity and ideology fail to capture how race and politics intersect in the modern United States. White supremacy is increasingly untethered from phenotypic whiteness, yet more virulent than it has been in fifty years. Part of our fight in the years to come—and not just the four years of a Trump presidency—is to operationalize an analytic clarity about the nature and function of white supremacy. Trumpism demonstrates that antisemitism continues to play a vital role in misdirecting class rage and other forms of resentment away from confronting racial capitalism and toward social violence (while ignoring the accelerating climate catastrophe).
The proliferation of swastikas on walls, schools, sidewalks, Black churches—even the gravestone of former Beastie Boy Adam Yauch—makes vivid the scale of this threat. It should also alert us to the recrudescence of antisemitism in contemporary racial formation. The Trump family allegedly changed their name from Drumpf to downplay their German heritage and ease their assimilation into the world of New York City capitalists. Later, Trump learned both business and politics from ardent racists who govern with violence and manipulation: most especially McCarthyite henchman Roy Cohn, who prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (an earlier generation of people Breitbart might label “renegade Jews”) as well as a series of mafia figures. He was trained by Cold War mercenaries, to which he adds 19th-century notions of racial contagion.
Yet the vast sweep of Trumpism’s many enemies suggests the potential for a renewed popular front against fascism and right-wing authoritarianism. The emerging coalition between some mainstream Jewish and Muslim groups is, in light of years of acrimony around questions of Palestine and Islamophobia, a breath of fresh air. Together with the grassroots initiatives led by undocumented activists, Black radicals, and so many others targeted by the incoming administration, they point toward the possibility of widespread alliances needed to upend what is already an expressly racist regime. Our fight is not only against the “socialism of fools,” as August Bebel famously called antisemitism on the left, but against the fools of national socialism—the pseudo, crypto, and explicit fascists of the Trump administration.
About the author: Dan Berger teaches comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. His most recent book is Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.
[Image: Nazi salutes at a Washington, DC restaurant, Friday, November 18, 2016 – via Rantt]