In 1898 novelist Emile Zola published an open letter in the wake of “l’affaire Dreyfus,” the attempt by reactionary forces in France’s military to falsely accuse a Jewish artillery officer of passing secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was convicted, stripped of rank, and sent to Devil’s Island. Zola’s letter was titled “J’Accuse.” It is one of history’s more important works rejecting the poison of anti-Semitism.
Over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville and their aftermath have played out, I’ve been thinking about the long, terrible history of anti-Jewish sentiment and activity.
Those of us on the right who declined to support Trump, the nominee of the Republican Party, still generally hoped to have been wrong about him. Wishing the country success, we hoped President Trump would behave differently than Candidate Trump. That hope took two forms.
First, we hoped but did not believe that Trump’s anger, rudeness, and apparent inability to express complex thoughts were an act designed to energize a specific political constituency, and that the inner man was more intelligent and sensible. (Few of us really believed this.)
Second, we hoped more realistically that President Trump would surround himself with wise advisers, who would help him to reach out to a broader audience, adopt rhetoric and a communication style more appropriate to high office, while providing the President-elect access to the mature judgement and understanding of policy he so obviously lacked on his own. That hope seemed somewhat realistic. Every new President finds the office more daunting than expected. All lean on experienced advisers wise in the ways of Washington, even if (like Ronald Reagan) they reject many inside-the-Beltway values and priorities.
Both hopes have now been entirely dashed. On Friday night, a protest by a coalition of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee. A broad coalition, from the center left to the far left, gathered for a counter-protest.
When the alt-right demonstrators marched through the University of Virginia campus on Friday night, they did so carrying flaming torches while chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The references to Nazi rallies at Nuremberg were obvious. The next day there were multiple violent clashes between the alt-right demonstrators and their opponents. The police ultimately donned riot gear and called an end to the alt-right’s scheduled and permitted demonstration. They began to march away. Then in mid-afternoon a 20 year old neo-Nazi accelerated his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring dozens. The young woman killed was in no sense any sort of dangerous radical leftist.
This act of deliberate murder motivated by political ideology was an obvious act of domestic terrorism. Across the political spectrum, elected officials rushed to condemn it as such. Except one. On Saturday afternoon, hours after the deaths, Trump made comments condemning violence “on many sides, on many sides.” That night, he suggested that some “very fine people” had been among the gathered Nazis and Klan members. These garbled comments suggested both sides somehow equally shared the blame, triggering an immediate firestorm of criticism.
On Tuesday, Trump walked back his earlier comments and made a sock-puppet speech condemning “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” Late but appropriate. If President Trump lacked the historical perspective and political wisdom to reject Nazis, he had at least been persuaded to pretend to do so.
Then yesterday, while appearing in Trump Tower, he reversed himself, and doubled down on his earlier remarks. He informed us that there were “some very good people” among the crowd of skinheads giving Hitler salutes, and suggested again that perhaps it was really the counter-protesters who were responsible for the violence.
There could not have been a more blatant display of intentional anti-Semitism and white-supremacist ideology than that on view in Friday night’s march. The guys carrying the torches on Friday night were intentionally identifying themselves with the movement that started World War Two and ran the death camps.
As an historian, I believe that anti-Semitism is the most reliable marker for political evil in the modern world. It has been rejected by every U.S. President of the modern era. Full welcome of the Jewish community as members of the American landscape is one of our country’s most essential advantages. This acceptance goes back at least to our first President, George Washington. Yet today there is a continuum of sympathy with anti-Semitic thoughts that reaches closer to the Oval Office than it ever has in modern American history. (If you don’t believe me, look at the comments section of any article on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com.)
Anti-Semitism appears to have allies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or at least an apologist. With this latest Trump outrage we wonder again whether his bizarre behavior is the result of ignorance, stupidity, malice, or actual age-related cognitive decline. That no longer matters. Trump is awful. Whether he was born awful, attained awfulness over time, or has had awfulness thrust upon him no longer matters. He is unfit for the office and shows zero signs of growing into it.
In the early 1960s, William Buckley, editor of influential conservative journal National Review, explicitly rejected the lunatic John Birch Society and read them out of the conservative movement. He paid a price for doing so in cancelled subscriptions. In the 1990s, Buckley again acted with courage, correctly identifying anti-Israel comments by former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan as evidence of anti-Semitism and isolating him from mainstream conservative opinion. (Buchanan went on to found The American Conservative, a new paleo-right opinion magazine associated with the more rational segments of the alt-right, and dedicated to nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism.)
I’m a conservative and remain a registered Republican, at least for now. It is time for my party to do what William Buckley did back in the day. Republican leaders must go beyond piecemeal criticism of Trump’s serial blunders, and proceed toward an explicit repudiation of his occupation of the Oval Office. The political costs of such a rejection may be profound. Much of Trump’s base continues to support him, and many are as angry and reactive as he is. Absent their support of the Republican coalition, my party may suffer a historic defeat at the polls next year, turning over the House and Senate to Democrats starting in 2019.
This has gone beyond any calculus of political advantage. Back in 1990, a small number of activists succeeded in hijacking the Louisiana Republican primary and nominating David Duke for U.S. Senator as a Republican. The national Republican party immediately disowned him and announced support for his Democratic opponent, Edwin Edwards. (The bumper stickers read, “Do the right thing. Vote for the crook.”)
Once you get to the point of Nazis and the Klan marching with torches, giving Hitler salutes, carrying long guns and pistols into a public park, brawling in the streets of an American city and launching an automobile into a crowd of people, you have no moral choice but to reject both the message and the messengers. Trump has refused to do so with the simplicity and clarity the moment demands.
He has to go.