President-elect Donald Trump has selected Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, the online home of the alt-right – a neologism for white nationalism – to be his chief strategist. Bannon had made Breitbart a home for a host of reactionary and intolerant beliefs. But this choice in particular has brought to the surface the antisemitic undercurrent of Trump’s reactionary populism.
Previously antisemitism has been a social phenomenon mostly public on the comment section of Stormfront and the mutterings of geriatric bigots. In odd ways its renewed prominence is both new and old. What is old is what this zombie bigotry does for power. What is new is that Jews are not, or at least not in the same way, the vulnerable shtetl-dwellers and working-class that were the victims of centuries of European antisemitism. Nor are we so closely associated with communism. Indeed, if any ideology claims to represent Jews these days – and it is a false and dangerous representation – it is Zionism, an ideology and movement not of the powerless but of the powerful.
But to claim that antisemitism exists does not explain how to fight it. It dictates neither prescriptions nor alliances. And how we go about explaining the phenomenon goes some way towards guiding us as to how to mobilize against it.
Antisemitism is not a just the blight of individual intolerance, to be cured through liberal tolerance. Antisemitism is the creation of antisemites, and they create it for a reason. In this case, it is the “socialism of fools,” in the words of Augustus Bebel. Political antisemitism blames Jews for financial manipulation and usury, rather than viewing finance as part of capitalism – a rational machine of social domination.
Various movements have deployed antisemitism in the past, but in the present – with all disrespect to endless op-ed writers anguishing about the “new leftist antisemitism” in order to attack the anti-racist movement for Palestinian rights – it is a movement and a sentiment of reaction, of the Right. From the fascist Jobbik in Hungary to the US-allied Saudi regime, antisemitism is a class project which seeks to harness anger and fury at the way things are, and to redirect it to Jews.
For the Saudis, blaming a “Jewish Lobby” for US aggression in the region distracts from the fundamental alignment between Saudi policy and US policy.
For Trump, it is a part of a plan to “make American great again.” His anti-immigrant rhetoric is coupled with a vision of a national economy, renewed protectionism, and domestic renewal and growth. It is a classic populist agenda. It seeks to create a partially imaginary “shared interest” between the millionaire and billionaire supporters of Trump’s campaign, and the white middle-classes where he found his strongest support. One mortar to cement together such social blocs is nativism – a rejection of the foreign Other. Hence the vicious attacks against immigrants, especially Muslims.
Another mortar is antisemitism. Antisemitism works to deflect unease with capitalism to nebulous “global power structures.” The effectiveness of such a ploy is not its falsity. It is that it is partially true. There is a power structure. And George Soros, for example, prominent in Trump’s demonology, does play a powerful role in contributing to that structure. What is false and dangerous is the reduction of the structure to the religion of those playing such roles.
Trump is not a fascist, but underneath him are the germs of a fascist movement, awaiting the appropriate avatar. The policies of capitalism and state racism create a resentful white underclass. As the center collapses – and the center is collapsing the world over – elites are embracing everywhere right-wing populism. In the absence of a genuine left-wing or anti-capitalist alternative, that populism will be the politics of some portion of that underclass.
We are conditioned to associate antisemitism with Nazism. For that reason it is important to keep things in perspective. Jews are not very much oppressed as a people in the United States, despite the intolerable rhetoric coming from Trump and his supporters. The first victims of Trump are those who have seen their prayer rooms vandalized, who fear going outside alone, as racists attempt to deny them public space.
This does not mean that things could not get uglier. It means a repetition of 1930s and 40s-levels of ugliness is extremely unlikely. Jews have a right to feel afraid and to react politically to that fear (they also have the right, like Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, to gush over the election of Trump in anticipation of services rendered to the colonial Zionist movement). But that fear ought not to lead to the embrace of the Democratic Party. Economically shattering the county for 40 years, and for 24 years pushing the Republican Party as the evil to be defeated at all costs, created a domestic underclass desperate for an alternative, and alienated the Democratic Party’s core support base. Right-wing populism is the child of the center-right drift of the Democrats.
It isn’t just that lesser-evilism birthed a greater evil, but that it was a disaster on its own terms. It was under the Clinton-Obama Democrats that deportations hit record levels and US contra-wars, sanctions, and no-fly zones destroyed much of the Middle East. Trump’s threat is to bring home the state of lawless mayhem that the US creates abroad, as well as among the Black and Brown populations in the United States. In the post-Nazi reckoning, Aimé Cesaire wrote of liberals aghast at the Third Reich. But the camps, roundups, and massacres were nothing new to the colonial victims of European liberalism. What was new were the locations and identities of the victims. Cesaire wanted badly for people to understand that Nazism was the product of a sick and “indefensible” Europe, much as Trumpism is the product of a US social and political order that was neither reformable nor defensible.
Then as now, the point was not to finger-wag, to say I told you so. It is to consider the criticism of liberal tolerance for far-off murder, and close-up murder of the poorer and the darker, as an invitation to join a more inclusive movement – one big enough for all of us, except for those who insist that others pay the price for their safety.
For to turn anti-Trumpism into more yearning for the days of the Democrats is to create and accept that old division between those whose safety we insist upon as a precondition for our own and those whose safety may be sacrificed so long as we are secure, a security that is ever-fleeting in any case, tenuous, on the verge of withdrawal – almost a bribe. I do not recommend accepting it. What power gives power can also take.