Donald Trump taps into a dark tradition of American racism

December 05, 2016 00:35

It can’t happen here? My friends, it is happening here,” suggests one of the characters in Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which takes as its thesis the supposed election of the antisemitic, Hitler enthusiast Charles Lindbergh as US president in 1940.

Mr Roth’s imagination conjures up a nightmare — antisemitic legislation and rioting, the creepily entitled “Just Folks” Aryanisation programme and the forced relocation of Jews to Kentucky under the sinister Homestead 42 scheme — which even those most pessimistic about Donald Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office next January do not envisage.

Nonetheless, as Jonathan Freedland argued in the Guardian last week, among the many certainties that Mr Trump’s election has overturned is the notion that the US — especially in contrast to Europe — represents a safe haven for Jews.

The president-elect’s appointment as his chief strategist of Steve Bannon, whose far-right Breitbart website is no less coy about attacking Jews than it is women, African-Americans and Muslims, has simply fuelled concerns that were already heightened by a campaign that drew Jew-haters out into the open. As the Republican strategist Rick Wilson noted last autumn, “it seems that while not all Donald Trump supporters are antisemites, many of the most vocal and vicious antisemites seem to be Donald Trump supporters”.

Despite defenders pointing to the fact that his daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism after marrying Jared Kushner (himself a key player in the president-elect’s campaign and transition), Mr Trump has shown few signs of wishing to allay those fears or reject that support. As the historian Deborah Lipstadt suggested on the eve of the election, Mr Trump represented “the most virulent public expression of antisemitism in the US in many years”.

But as Ms Lipstadt’s words imply, antisemitism is not as un-American as many have come to believe.
Mr Roth’s tale of a Lindbergh presidency may have been fictional, but the former aviator’s fascist sympathies were very real. Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany three times, with Hermann Goering awarding him the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle.

An ardent proponent of appeasement, Lindbergh became the most prominent supporter of the isolationist America First campaign, addressing huge rallies which fought to keep America out of the war. In September 1941, his mask slipped in a speech in which he accused “the Jewish race” of having “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government” and issued a veiled threat to those Jews who advocated American intervention in the European conflict: “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” The speech produced an avalanche of condemnation, with the Jewish gossip columnist Walter Winchell joyfully reporting that Lindbergh’s “halo has become a noose”.

One man for whom Lindbergh would always remain a hero, however, was his friend Henry Ford. Their favourite topic of conversation is not hard to imagine. “When Charles comes out here, we only talk about the Jews,” Ford told the FBI’s former Detroit bureau chief in 1940.

The principal outlet for Ford’s virulent antisemitism was his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which the businessman purchased in 1918. He soon began publishing a series of articles — which ran for 91 issues — detailing the vast Jewish conspiracy allegedly controlling America. So pleased was Ford with the result that he had the articles bound into a four-volume collection, The International Jew, of which he distributed 500,000 copies to his subscribers.

Ford’s newspaper, which republished The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was also given away in the company’s car showrooms, helping to spread its antisemitic bile nationwide. As Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history, has suggested, Ford’s ability to capture national attention made his activities especially pernicious. “Pretty much anything Henry Ford did was news.”

Thankfully, however, the businessman was unable to turn his celebrity into political power: standing as a Democrat, he narrowly lost a US Senate bid in 1918; six years later, he mounted an ill-fated bid for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Like Lindbergh, however, Ford was able to console himself with Hitler’s heartfelt appreciation for his efforts: in 1938, he, too, was awarded the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle.

Another fan of Lindbergh was Father Charles Couglin, whose weekly radio broadcasts were said to have attracted a listenership of 30 million during the late 1920s and 1930s.

Initially a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, the “radio priest” turned against the president, denouncing him as the unlikely tool of corporate moguls and Communist revolutionaries, and founding the National Union for Social Justice to campaign against him.

After Mr Roosevelt’s re-election, Couglin launched the magazine Social Justice (which featured Lindbergh on its front cover). While he continued to peddle his economically populist message, the evils of “Soviet-loving Jews” and the virtues of isolationism — depicted as the need for “less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity” — now became his principal targets.

Couglin showed that economic populism and antisemitism were occasionally comfortable bedfellows. This was most evident during the late 19th century when, facing economic difficulties, rural America felt its power was waning as immigration surged and cities grew.

Aiming to capitalise on popular anger, the Democrats’ 1896 presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, skillfully deployed coded antisemitic language.

His most famous speech of the campaign used the imagery of Christ’s crucifixion — “you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns … you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” — to link Jewish financiers to the plight of American farmers.

While mainstream conservatism went to considerable lengths to snuff out antisemitism in the post-war years, it continued to linger on its extreme fringes, especially among groups such as the Liberty Lobby which attempted to resist the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The presence of many Jews in the struggle to end segregation simply confirmed the far right’s view of an unholy alliance of Communists, Jews, blacks and “limousine liberals” hell-bent on the destruction of “white civilization”.

Even without the explicit appeals to Jew-hate, it is possible to see, given the various guises in which American antisemitism has emerged, why antisemites were drawn to Mr Trump. His economic populism, which promised to restore a better, by-gone age, recalled that of Jennings Bryan, while his neo-isolationist foreign policy appropriated Lindbergh’s slogan of “America First”.

Mr Trump’s mastery of social media allowed him to communicate directly with his “little guy” supporters in a manner which would have made Father Couglin proud. And that those who remain uncomfortable with the advances made by black America over the past half-century — epitomised by Barack Obama’s election as president — should have been drawn to the man who was the most vocal spokesman of the racist “birther movement” is obvious.

Finally, of course, as Salon writer Arthur Chu argued last year, comparisons between Mr Trump and Ford spring easily to mind: men whose personal brand was more important than their fleeting party labels, whose riches freed them to spout bigotry dressed as “straight-talking”, and who managed, despite their great wealth, to present themselves as outsiders. Ford, however, only managed to set foot in the Oval Office as a visitor.

December 05, 2016 00:35

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