Trump's America and the Failure of Assimilation

At the top of this page is a map of America in the process of voting Donald Trump to be our next president. There are going to be a lot of think pieces about this upset, a lot of hot takes, and a lot of work to be done. But for the moment a lot of us look at this map and see the same thing:

Half of the country hates us.

Trump's victory is the victory of the rise of white nationalism. This was not an election that was based around qualifications, as Trump has none. It was not based around policy, as Trump has none that are clearly articulated, and those he has are mostly the usual sort of plutocratic tax cuts for the the very wealthy. No, his campaign was entirely about demonizing the other. He started with Mexican immigrants, quickly moved on to Muslim refugees, and somehow, by the end of his campaign, had managed to be thoroughly misogynistic, encourage outright racists, nod his head at homophobes, and capped it off with a final ad campaign that was instantly recognizable as an antisemitic dog whistle.

A lot of people are looking at this map right now and thinking that half of America hates them. Pretty much the other half of the country. A little more than half of this country probably feels hated, in fact, as it looks very likely that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

This is a Jewish blog, so let me address a Jewish subject. It's something I have been thinking about a lot lately, and the election of Trump has clarified the subject a great deal for me. And that is the question of being publicly, visibly a Jew in the United States.

It's becoming a hard to time to do that. The rising tide of white nationalism, especially expressed by its activist wing, the alt right, has targeted Jews. Emboldened by Trump's rhetoric, they have become the vanguard of the sort of relentless campaign of harassment pioneered by Gamergate in their attempts to suppress feminist criticism of video games. If you are identifiably Jewish on Twitter, there is a good chance you will, at some point, be subject to gleefully antisemitic language and imagery, increasingly coupled with threats.

And this hasn't just happened in the online world. There has been a rise in real-world antisemitic incidents, including assault, as reported by the Anti-Defamation League.

This troubling trend points to a few things, none of which are surprising to anyone who knows the history of antisemtitism:

1. It is important to note that there are many Jews who are not white. But these incidents remind us that even for light-skinned Jews in America, whiteness is provisional. Americanness is provisional. The ancient mythology of antisemitism has us as rootless others, eternal interlopers whose only allegiance is a clannish impulse toward power and money. This view of Jews never went away, and is enjoying new popularity among white nationalists.

2. Antisemitism is complicated because it simultaneously privileges Jews and punishes them for their privilege.  This puts Jews in the unenviable position of being pressed between those who are worse off and see Jews as representatives of privilege and those who are better off and see Jewish privilege as suspect and unearned.

3. Antisemitism is appealing to people with the sort of paranoiac worldview that leads to them seeking out conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, Americans seems unusually susceptible to this sort of mindset, first clearly documented all the way back in 1964 by Richard Hofstadter in his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Classic antisemitism seems perfectly designed for this mindset, and so we are seeing a revival of popularity of such hoary antisemitic golden oldies as the International Banking Conspiracy, Jews Conspiring Against the Greater Good for their Own Best Interests, and  Jewish Ownership of the Media.

I'd like to briefly take a look at Trump's final campaign video, which made use of one of these tropes. The ad took as its text Trump's dark musings in a speech on October 13 in which he opined that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and that “a global power structure” is in league against the interests of everyday Americans.

The ad made explicit who he was talking about, putting faces next to his statements: business magnate George Soros, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Janet Yellen, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. All Jews.

Note how perfectly this fits the structure of antisemitism. All three are assimilated and accomplished American Jews (although Soros was born in Hungary). There are no specific charges levied against any of them, only the general accusations that they are in league against U.S. sovereignty. There are no non-Jews including in this roundup of villains, and this cannot be an accident, not with how effectively it positions Jews as suspicious interlopers pursuing clannish, anti-American schemes.

And, for me, this is a reminder that the great American experiment of assimilation has been a failure. Jews can be accomplished businesspeople, the most American of pursuits, as George Soros is. Jews can attend the most WASPy, old money educational institutions, as did Yellen (Yale) and Blankfein (Harvard). And yet all somebody need do is mutter some old accusations and suddenly they are nothing but plotting Jews. Soros is especially a popular demon of the right, as he has undeniably used his power and influence to sway elections -- but so have the Koch brothers. And this is how antisemitism works. Behavior that is unremarkable when done by a gentile becomes suspect when done by a Jew.

I don't know how many actual, active antisemites there might be in America. But I know that half of the country either is incapable of recognizing antisemitism or does not care about the issue, because those people voting for someone who made antisemitism part of his campaign, and has received full-throated, unanimous public support from people who are unambiguously antisemitic.

I am not here to rail against assimilation as a personal choice. I am a big tent Jew, and I think all sorts of expressions of Judaism are legitimate and marvelous and should be celebrated. Hasids would no doubt look at me and see a thoroughly assimilated America Jew, especially since my relationship with Judaism is almost entirely secular.

But assimilation is not simply a personal choice. It is also a tactic, and a deliberate one. There is a long history of Jewish assimilation and opposition to assimilation, but when we talk about it in the modern sense, we are talking about something that started with the Haskala, the Jewish enlightenment. It came at a time when European Jews were increasingly living an urban life, which increased both their visibility and their contact with their gentile neighbors.

Assimilation was specifically developed as a tool for increasingly economic and social opportunities with non-Jews, especially for Jews who were in the upper classes. It was also seen as a tactic for combating antisemitism. Assimilation probably did work in the former case, but, as has repeatedly been demonstrated, was a cataclysmic failure in the latter case. Worse, because of the way antisemitism works, assimilation ends up playing into the idea that Jews are unwelcome interlopers with unearned success. Every step of the way, Jewish success is met with antisemtic pushback.

Jews are not unique in this. Jewish assimilation is a sort of an early precursor to respectability politics, which black communities and gay communities have both wrestled with, among others. There is always a sense that if we could just placate the majority, convince them that we are not so very different, they will accept us.

And yet here it is, 2016, and half of America just voted to essentially elect an orange bellows with the word "hate" scrawled across it. No matter how hard you try to be to be respectable, to fit in, to seem nonthreatening to the majority, they still find space within their mean little hearts to shout "All lives matter," to shoot up a black church, or a gay bar, or to make commercials accusing Jews of being a global conspiracy against the United States.

It's exhausting, it's maddening, it's heartbreaking. But it's something else as well. It is liberating.

Because it means that we can choose to assimilate or not assimilate as we wish. We can be as visibly or invisibly Jewish as we want to be, because it does not make a lick of difference to the dominant majority. Whether we walk around with peyes or in jean shorts, they still are going to put brackets around our names and read to each other from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." No matter what we do, antisemites are still going to antisemite.

Me, I think I'll continue finding ways to be a little Jewier. I always found assimilation to be a bore, and so will continue to look for ways in which I can be publicly, visibly what I am: a busily, noisily, actively, aggressively secular Jew with a particular interest in Jewish cultural expressions and Yiddish.

I suppose that's what I have been doing all along with this blog. But I sort of feel like I need it now more than I did yesterday.