During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was a Shabbat guest speaker at Bournemouth Synagogue. As a former Washington correspondent, it was inevitable I would be asked about the implications of upcoming elections for Israel and the Jews. I wince now when I think about my answer and some of my writings at the time. My view was that Trump couldn’t possibly be the threat to democracy and normal political discourse portrayed by elements of the media and we ‘the Jews’ had little to fear.
Nearly four years on, as a frequent (pre-lockdown visitor) to the US for work and family reasons – one of my sons lives in Texas – I realise how naïve and wrong was the benign view.
Among the reassuring aspects of Trump’s potential presidency was the fact that he was so exposed to Judaism as a New Yorker and through his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
What could possibly go wrong when Kushner was married to Trump’s ‘favourite’ child Invanka – an Orthodox convert to Judaism?
The assumption Kushner would have educated Trump on race and Israel was mistaken. By effectively putting Kushner in charge of Middle East policy, in a capital city where there are no end of think tanks involved in the region, was a huge error. It made the basic mistake of thinking that diaspora Jews automatically understand the region. The result was the Trump or Kushner peace plan, which appeared to give the green light to annexation of the Jordan Valley – a policy that has been as divisive inside Israel as it has in British Jewry.
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As damaging as Trump’s Middle East policy has been in advancing Israel’s cause on the world stage, it is as nothing when compared to Trump’s making ‘America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ slogans. The president’s evocation of these phrases at the time of the Charlottesville demonstrations three years ago and, more recently, after the revival of ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) unmasked the racially loaded side of Trump’s character.
When Trump took office, friends recommended I read the 1930s novel It Couldn’t Happen Here by the celebrated author Sinclair Lewis, about a freely-elected president who learns from European fascism to clamp down first on freedom of expression, then adopts the antisemitism mantra and creates a nationwide chain of re-education camps straight out of the Hitlerian playbook.
Many of the themes of Lewis’ novel are revisited at present in the evocative dramatisation of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, on Sky Atlantic. Director Minkie Spiro captures the anxiety of North American Jewry when anti-war demagogue Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D Roosevelt to the White House. Lindbergh seeks to shield himself from suggestions of antisemitism by adopting a tame rabbi – anxious for recognition – to his cause.
In Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, played by John Turturro, the fictional president finds the perfect foil in much the same way as Kushner and Ivanka are Trump’s shield against antisemitic views. This is nothing new in American politics. The tapes of Richard Nixon show he had nothing but contempt for Jews. But he made himself kosher by shielding behind his brilliant Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi-era Germany.
The most chilling episode in The Plot Against America is when the New Jersey Jewish family at the story’s core are mysteriously evicted from the Washington DC hotel for making what were perceived as incendiary comments. Trump’s America First comments since BLM and the recent non-stop protests in Portland, Oregon, could be scenes straight out of Roth’s novel.
Race in American is complicated, but by empowering the right wing fringe, Trump has unleashed the tropes of the ages. The concern must be that the ‘silent majority’ are listening but not being heard in the opinion polls. There is already talk from team Trump of challenging a presidential election result if it doesn’t like it.
We should pray for a decisive Democratic victory. Joe Biden may have lost his mental sharpness, but he represents a less racially charged and more predictable America.