Trumpism and Antisemitism
The United States is witnessing a disturbing rise in antisemitic acts. In St. Louis, more than 100 tombstones were tipped over; similar hate crimes have taken place in Philadelphia and New York. Such attacks are also taking place in small towns. In Scottsburg, Indiana (a community with less than 10,000 residents), the gravestones of a Jewish couple were defaced with spray paint. To date, there have been reports of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in 33 states.
There has been a rise in hate crimes of all types since Donald Trump’s election. Four days after his electoral victory, an Episcopal Church in a small town in southern Indiana was vandalized with “Heil Trump.” Last weekend, in Orchard Park — a suburb of Buffalo, New York — residents and local police officers discovered spray-painted swastikas and vulgar graffiti on overpasses, a dozen vehicles and an elementary school playground. Ten Jewish community centers have recently been targeted with bomb threats. And the list goes on.
These latest acts constitute the escalation of the overt antisemitism that reappeared during the presidential campaign. What began with tweeting and Internet trolling is now manifesting itself in more brazen and threatening ways. Unless the underlying conditions are addressed, there is every reason to expect that these attacks will persist and become more violent.
The growing antisemitism in the United States has been fed by a social-political atmosphere that is conducive to it. White nationalist groups have been encouraged by the current administration’s willingness to lend an ear –and more — to those on the far Right.
President Trump does not have to be explicitly, or even implicitly, antisemitic in either words or deeds to create conditions in which antisemitic groups feel emboldened. By being ever ready to entertain conspiracy theories, by showing little regard for facts when they are not to his liking, by “remembering” the Holocaust without any mention of the destruction of European Jewry, by empowering figures such as Steve Bannon, and by lending credence to the agenda of the alt-right, the president has helped to make these waves of antisemitism and bigotry possible.
Over the past year, our public discourse has deteriorated; what was once political spin has been replaced by palpable and shameless lying. It is clear that Trumpism — with its contempt for inconvenient truths and glorification of authoritarian strongmen — is in part responsible for what is taking place. Racist ideology feeds off of illusions — beliefs that are held because they satisfy deep-seated wishes, without regard for evidence, justification or warrant. Trumpism has provided the soil in which such illusions are free to grow unhampered by a sense of moral responsibility.
The current rise of antisemitism was able to take root more easily when common manners and basic decency were shoved aside during an increasingly ugly election. Courtesy and manners are essential to ethical life (in the Hegelian sense). The loss of the simple decency that we generally take for granted has wide ramifications, and ultimately it creates a social environment where inhibitions against overtly racist acts are weakened, and hate crimes are more likely to occur.
Trump has shown himself ready to make brazen accusations without citing any evidentiary support; he has shown contempt for the rule of law and the freedom of the press. Trumpism insists that we cannot be held morally responsible for the claims we make, and the statements we endorse.
To stem the rise of antisemitism, we must restore the integrity of our public discourse and our commitment to intellectual honesty and self-scrutiny. Antisemitism has been allowed to grow because we, as a country, have created an environment that is conducive to race-minded reactionaries. Our country has grown meaner and more cynical. In the span of only a decade, comments that would have been inconceivable to say in public are now becoming increasingly commonplace.
We cannot underestimate the importance of trust. As the philosopher Jay Bernstein observed, “…[T]rust relations provide the ethical substance of everyday living. … Trust relations are relations of mutual recognition in which we acknowledge our mutual standing and vulnerability with respect to one another.” Trust is the “invisible substance of our moral lives” — we only notice it when it has been shattered.
The recent antisemitic and racist acts are attacks precisely on that trust.
Restoring social trust is a long and difficult process. In this case, it will involve, among other things, undoing the moral and epistemic harm caused by Trumpism. And Trump himself must begin this undertaking.