For admirers of Philip Roth, there were two moments that stood out during the inauguration of Donald Trump. The first was the new presidents repeated insistence that, from now on, it would only be America first. Those two words sent a chill through anyone who knows that America First was the movement, filled with nativists and antisemites, that campaigned so hard to keep the US out of the war against Hitler. Among its luminaries was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, whom Roth imagines as US president in his great novel, The Plot Against America.
The second moment came when Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, stepped forward to bless the new president. Roth readers could not help but recall Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, happy to stand at the side of the fictional President Lindbergh, despite everything.
When reading the novel, you’re not sure whether to excoriate Bengelsdorf for his unprincipled opportunism — he does well out of his relationship with the man in the White House; his wife starts wearing fine minks — or his naivety. Lacking the hindsight available to us now, perhaps Bengelsdorf does not realise what kind of man he is vouching for, or where this could all lead. He tells his fellow Jews to calm themselves, reassuring them that Lindbergh is not the monster they fear.
Hier has faced plenty of criticism. One rabbinic colleague, Jason Miller, reminded him that he runs a Museum of Tolerance while Trump had built his campaign on intolerance. Miller added that Wiesenthal would be “rolling in his grave” at the thought that the dean of an institution bearing his name would give his blessing to a politician who had indulged hatemongers and who took so long to reject the endorsement of the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke.
Hier’s defence is that it would have caused “ill will” towards Jews if Trump’s request for a rabbinic seal of approval had been rebuffed. And, I suppose, he can make the same case for taking part in the ceremony as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton: that their presence did not imply political endorsement, so much as respect for the democratic process.
But that logic does not apply to the minority of American Jews who are throwing in their lot with the new US president.
Put simply, Jews should want nothing to do with Trumpism. Some might be drawn to the new president’s hawkishness on Israel, typified by his promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his nomination of the pro-settler extremist David Friedman to serve as ambassador. But those who care about Israel’s future viability as a state both Jewish and democratic know such moves can only hurt, not help. They are a bottle of vodka left on the doorstep of an alcoholic: presented as an act of friendship, they are in fact an encouragement to self-destruction.
Of course, hawks will disagree. But there are two areas where most Jews should be able to find common ground. Look at the movement Trump is part of. Before the inauguration, visitors to Trump Tower included Marine Le Pen, who declared 2016, “The year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up.” She spoke those words at a “counter-summit” of European far right parties, including Alternative for Deutschland, gathered to hail what they called the “patriotic spring”.
Let that phrase sit with you a while: the Anglo-Saxon world. Do you think Mme Le Pen thinks you, or most readers of this newspaper, count as Anglo-Saxons?
But there’s a deeper reason why no Jew can feel comfort in Trump’s world. This week one of his aides stood at the White House podium and told a series of blatant, demonstrable untruths, asking Americans to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. Later, another Trump adviser said these weren’t lies but “alternative facts.”
Now, the topic was relatively trivial: the size of the crowds at the inauguration. But what it reveals is anything but trivial. It shows that Trump is taking a leaf out of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian manual: spread falsehoods and disinformation, dispute even the most obvious facts, until the public’s faith in truth itself is shaken. The aim is for a world where nothing can be really known for sure, where everything is just one person’s opinion against another.
As Denial, the film about the David Irving trial, is released, we Jews should know better than most how terrifying such a world would be. But the same is true of all the defining elements of Trumpism: the disregard for facts, the demands for an annual day of “patriotic devotion”, the suspicion of the outsider, the trampling on democratic norms. There is an obvious place for Jews in Trump’s world — standing against every last bit of it.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist