I don’t sleep much these days. Having a 5-month-old baby means sleep comes in short bursts, or not at all. My wife and I have figured out an arrangement, second time around, where I hold down the fort, crying-baby-wise, until about 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning, and she handles the outbursts from then until morning. For someone used to getting a full night’s sleep, the ache of exhaustion is a perpetual companion, dulling my thoughts and blunting the link between brain and limbs.
I recently stared uncomprehendingly into a pot of macaroni and cheese I was making for my son, failing to understand how it had turned into a milky soup. It took 10 minutes for me to finally grasp that where the recipe had called for three tablespoons of milk, I had dumped in three cups.
My sleeplessness, though, is not purely a matter of child care — or at least not in the fashion I expected it to be. For I find myself, these days, thinking a great deal about my two children, and all they do not know about the world they inhabit. I find myself, in short, thinking about Donald Trump.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1990s, during that gloriously empty long decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the World Trade Center. I don’t remember the first time I learned about anti-Semitism. Having attended Jewish day schools until college, it must have come early — early enough for me not to remember it. And yet, for all we learned in school about the historical hatred of Jews, it was clear enough to me that anti-Semitism would never touch us in southern California, would never be anything more than the angry, and possibly disturbed, woman shouting “kike” out her car window outside a food pantry in high school.
For myself and the friend I was with, it felt more like a hilarious joke than a provocation. Anti-Semitism was real, and it was cause for concern, but it was not American, and likely never would be.
“The emergence of Donald Trump has forced me to revise my blasé optimism regarding the distinction between past and present, home and abroad.”
The emergence of Donald Trump has forced me to revise my blasé optimism regarding the distinction between past and present, home and abroad. The anti-Semitism swirling around the Trump campaign has been quieter and subtler than the blazing anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic sentiment emerging from the oratory of the Republican presidential candidate. Jews are not condemned as rapists or terrorists. Nor has the level of invective risen to the stature of Trump’s now-notorious misogyny. Instead, the Jew-baiting has taken the form of a subliminal flash in the corner of the eye, a nagging nocturnal presence retreating from the light of day.
Many of Trump’s most impassioned supporters are members of the so-called alt-right, a polite name for a noxious brew of fringe thinkers unified by their shared belief in, among other things, the treachery of Jews. For them, Jews are the stewards of perfidious international finance, the guardians of the hated news media. They are the icons of both wishy-washy liberalism and rapacious capitalism.
Trump has never directly addressed the anti-Semitic tropes of the alt-right, deflecting any such talk toward discussion of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law (themselves among the chief apologists for his appalling behavior). But a suspicious trend of amplifying their hate has been a feature of the Trump campaign. Trump has regularly retweeted comments from openly anti-Semitic Twitter accounts. He has been cagey in disavowing Louisiana Senate candidate, and former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard, David Duke, an impassioned supporter. Trump’s son Donald Jr. has retweeted an image of anti-Semitic mascot Pepe the Frog, and made a tasteless joke about the (presumably Jewish) media “warming up the gas chamber” for Republicans.
Most disturbingly, Trump shared an image of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton that called up standard anti-Semitic tropes long thought foreign to mainstream American discourse. Clinton’s face was posed next to a six-pointed star reading “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!,” set against a backdrop of hundred-dollar bills.
“[Trump] is the subject of conversations intended to occur far above our 4-year-old son’s head, but the news trickles down to him nonetheless.”
Taken aback by the barrage of criticism over the bigoted imagery, Trump and his acolytes sought to argue that the star was a sheriff’s badge, and the visual reference being made to her failed stewardship of government money as secretary of state. But the purported badge lacked the raised circular edges common to sheriff’s stars, and the conjunction of the Star of David with the pile of cash made significantly more sense as a visual reference to Jewish financial prowess, and Clinton’s ties to powerful Jewish financiers. The image’s origins from a purveyor of anti-Semitic internet memes effectively settled the argument: Trump, whether knowingly or unknowingly, was using the megaphone of his political success to broadcast hateful ideas of secretive Jewish power and influence.
In our household, we can’t help but talk about Trump. He is on the cover of magazines. His name pops up on the radio programs my wife listens to every morning. He is, more often than not, on the front page of the newspaper that arrives at our door every Saturday and Sunday. He is the subject of conversations intended to occur far above our 4-year-old son’s head, but the news trickles down to him nonetheless.
He regularly tells me that his mischievous stuffed animal, Popo the penguin, who likes to pop popcorn under his bed in the middle of the night and enjoys using a chainsaw to cut down trees on our block, has defeated Trump for the presidency. Every time he spots Trump’s picture, he recoils, even though he does not truly comprehend what any of us is fearful of Trump about. When he asks, we tell him that Donald Trump is someone who says mean things about other people, and that no one who can’t behave politely should be president. At 4, that’s really all he needs to know.
But Trump’s rise has forced me to consider the veracity of the ideas that I want to share with my sons. I believe that Jews in the United States of the 21st century live in the most tolerant society ever known for Jewish life. Jews have the ability to work and worship and participate in civil society and government in virtually unparalleled freedom, and it is only through the majesty of the American experiment that any of this might seem ordinary or predictable.
I have never felt the need to shy away from criticizing this country or its elected officials; do not get me started on the misbegotten Iraq war or the presidency of George W. Bush. But my critique was always constructed on a foundation of fundamental appreciation for this country’s essential generosity to a people who have been, at best, grudgingly tolerated for much of their history. To what extent will Trump and his successors be able to change that? To what extent have they already done so?
So much of the debate about Trump in the Jewish world has revolved around whether or not Trump is, himself, an anti-Semite. The answer, while tantalizing, is ultimately irrelevant. What is unquestionably true is that Donald Trump, through his embrace of the ferociously anti-Semitic alt-right and the Jew-baiting Breitbart News (itself founded by a Jew), whose chairman Stephen Bannon, reportedly reluctant to allow his children to attend the same school as Jews, is now the Trump campaign’s CEO, has shifted the terms of the debate such that what once had been far outside the mainstream of American political discourse has now seeped in. The sewers have crept into our homes. Jewish journalists are attacked with torrents of anti-Semitic bile and threats of concentration camps. Twitter is a hotbed of Jew-hating provocations. A study by the Anti-Defamation League uncovered 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets over the course of the last year.
Trump has noticeably shifted the ground on which American Jews stand. From this vantage point, I judge a return to open persecution of Jews to be a vanishingly unlikely scenario, but what if American Jews become more like their European brethren, fearful of openly expressing their beliefs, and of the violent bigots intent on silencing them? How can I explain to my children the gap between my own childhood and my fears about what the rise of Trump might do to theirs?
“How can I explain to my children the gap between my own childhood and my fears about what the rise of Trump might do to theirs?”
I no longer believe I can tell my sons that there is no anti-Semitism in the United States; that we are protected from the raw venom that is now perhaps America’s chief export. Trump has changed the rules of the game, and one of the myriad byproducts of his rise is that he has changed what it means to be an American Jew. He may not be able to strip us of our privilege, but he has stripped away the illusion that we are a permanently protected class. Jews are fair game now.
My heart is heavy for my children, unaware of the damage this man has wreaked. I dread the day that I will have to explain it to them, have to explain how more than two decades of wildly inflammatory “news” and craven politicians more than happy to capitalize on a misinformed populace has led us to this impasse. Trump is our comeuppance for the sin of ignorance.
And then I think about all the other families in America who will have to have those conversations, not some years down the road, but tonight. I think of the Muslim and Hispanic parents who will have to explain to their children that Donald Trump means them harm, and that they cannot guarantee that they will be able to protect them from his grasping little fingers. For this is not a test, not a what-if, not a counterhistorical stem-winder. This is America in 2016, and even if Trump loses, as I fervently hope he will, who is to say that another Trumpian figure will not triumph next time? What will we tell our children then?