Donald Trump won. He won on fear and hatred—two powerful emotions which have been historically even more powerful than love and hope.
His campaign embraced anti-Semitic vocabulary and other tools to attack others and to peddle fear. Trump’s ad,“Donald Trump’s Argument for America,” by pairing the language of power and control with images of influential people who happen to be Jewish, unabashedly invoked antisemitic vocabulary.
“For those who control the levers of power in Washington,” Donald Trump states, among the ad’s mash-up of images of billionaire George Soros, Janet Yellen, and bundles of cash. The imagery, synched with accusatory voiceovers of “global special interests,” is not accidental. It’s deeply steeped in the anti-Semitic “alt-right” belief in, as the ADL has pointed out, “the anti-Semitic notion that “the Jews” dominate and command the U.S. Federal Reserve System and in effect control the world’s money.”
But none of this is new.
The white disenchantment that drove Trump into power very much resembles the European Christian response to Jews’ receiving equal rights in the 19th century. Jews were not supposed to be equal and their economic success and perceived equality was seen as coming at the expense of Christians.
In 1880 writer Heinrich von Treitschke, commented on a wave of recent attacks against Jews and how it was covered in the press: “About the national shortcomings of the Germans, the French, and all other nations, everybody could freely say the worst things: but if somebody dared to speak in just and moderate terms about some undeniable weakness of the Jewish character, he was immediately branded as a barbarian and religious persecutor by nearly all of the newspapers…..”
The press in Von Treitschke’s time was discredited as being “under unjust influence of the Jews.” The right and the left in the United States have been similarly discrediting the media today. And Trump’s campaign upped the ante with explicit attacks on journalists.
Von Treitschke’s writings make it clear the “little man” in 19th-century Germany was threatened by the idea of equality and social acceptance of Jews. “The moment emancipation was gained,” von Trietchke wrote, “the Jews insisted boldly on their ‘certificate’ and demanded literal parity in everything, forgetful of the fact that we Germans are, after all, a Christian nation and the Jews are only a minority….” He further described Jews as “an alien element, which has usurped too much space in our life.”
Von Treitschke’s sentiments resemble the sentiments of Trump voters who have responded to and embraced his attacks on “political correctness.” They have released the pent-up energy that had been muzzled since the 1960s and 1970s, when both African-Americans and women began to make social and economic strides in American society.
That hatred, along with sense of losing a grip, was “deep and strong” in 19th and early 20th century Europe and is now re-emerging before our own eyes.
Fast forward to the interwar period, and the rise of right wing parties in Germany, including the Nazi party. It was facilitated by both the emphasis on the “humiliation” of Germany under the Treaty of Versailles, and the failures of the German government to effectively prop up the German economy. The party’s propaganda tapped into anti-Semitism, whose vocabulary and tropes of “controlling power” and “finance” and the “press” had been well developed, used not as the main focus of the leaders but as a tool. The Nazis became one of the largest parties in Germany, rising from 2.6 percent of the vote in 1928 to 18 percent in September 1930, gaining 107 seats in the Reichstag. The National Socialists were successful because they tapped into fear and disenchantment resulting from a war and financial crisis. The German voters wanted to take their country back!
In 2016 in the United States, a similar sentiment has pushed Trump to the presidency—a sense of disenchantment of white Americans who used to dominate the professional and political life of the country. A black president and a woman symbolized the loss of power and influence. Women and minorities, in demanding “parity,” by running for the highest office in the nation, were seen as “usurping too much space” in the national life—much like Jews were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
And even though the main force of the backlash was aimed against the minorities and women, as the closing ad of the Trump campaign shows, Jews—the preeminent and integrated minority—and anti-Semitism also became a tool of this campaign and force behind Trump’s success.