Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination for President months ago, Donald Trump’s candidacy has been the greatest gift that late night television comedians could have hoped for. From Jimmy Fallon to John Stewart to Jimmy Kimmel, and virtually every week on Saturday Night Live, Trump’s increasingly grandiose bellowing has been a comedian’s dream. He has been the proverbial well that never runs dry, a sure-fire laugh every time.
But from the outset, lurking not far beneath the jokes and the laughter, there has been a festering and ever-growing sense of unease. How can it be, many have asked themselves (myself included), that a leading candidate for a major party rarely shares any serious policy views beyond bizarre rants (e.g., building a wall between us and Mexico, calling his opponents weak and tired, insulting just about every minority group in the country, ridiculing those who disagree with him and accusing the press of being unfair to him when they call him on his behavior) and yet consistently sees his poll numbers go up, not down?
I have felt, on more than one occasion, that I am living in an episode of "The Twilight Zone," where the line between fantasy and reality is hard to discern, or maybe Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” where the more outrageous and unhinged the anchor person became, the larger his following.
It was all surreal, and borderline comic if disturbing, as we watched Donald Trump defy all logic and odds and pursue his improbable candidacy. True enough, until this week, when it became horrifying. In proposing that America, in response to the very real threat of extremist Islamic terrorism here at home, simply close its borders to all Muslims except for returning American citizens who happen to be Muslim, Trump crossed the line from late-night joke fodder to genuinely terrifying.
This may be the moment that we all look back on at some future date and say that this was the week when America woke up, when we stopped laughing, and realized that the anger that Trump was tapping into was so potent and pervasive that he just might get the Republican nomination. I don’t think I’m going out on too far a limb when I say that no one that I know would want to live in an America with Donald Trump as president.
In my almost thirty-five years in the pulpit rabbinate, the same pulpit all those years, there has been only one time that I can recall saying something in a sermon that got a significant number of congregants angry enough to make sure I knew about it. I remember it well. The sermon was on Meir Kahane. I said that I was deeply concerned hearing Jews say that his views “were of course a bit extremist, but really, he’s saying what most of us feel and think.” That, I said, was exactly what Germans said about Hitler before he came to power. Hitler’s hateful ideology was the perfect fodder for a people who were unhappy and angry. He gave them a focus for their anger, and made them feel empowered and validated.
Donald Trump is not Hitler. No one, thank God, is Hitler. His evil was unique. But Trump is using the same strategy of tapping into the lowest common denominator of American anger and discontent by playing to our fears. The policies that he is espousing would trample on just about everything we hold sacred in this country, ostensibly for safety and the public good. In so doing, he would be doing to Muslims what we Jews would be screaming about at the tops of our lungs if it were done to us, and with good cause. He is painting an entire religious community with the brushstroke of its most extreme element. Really, who if not us has a better and more authentic appreciation of the dangers of his rhetoric than we do?
Judging by the condemnation that Trump’s pronouncements have generated across religious and political lines, it would seem that he has, indeed, finally gone a step too far. But the one thing that Donald Trump is not is stupid, and it’s unlikely he did it inadvertently. One might reasonably believe that, all along, he has been counting on this negative response to portray himself as the only candidate out there who is truly and totally prepared to stand up to the threat of radical Islam. And while politicians and religious leaders have roundly condemned him, it remains to be seen what happens to his poll numbers. Americans frustrated by what they perceive as American weakness seem willing to indulge him in his excesses, because “he’s saying what everyone really believes.”
As an American and as a Jew, I can no longer laugh at Donald Trump, and I think it’s well past time when all sane Americans come to the same conclusion. The legacy of hate left unchecked and naively tolerated is burned into the skin of concentration camp survivors. No, Trump is not Hitler, but we Jews have dedicated too much energy to insuring that “never again” would not become an empty slogan to allow him to continue to be the target of comedians. His candidacy is now a bona fide threat to America. It’s time to wake up.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.