The demagoguery displayed by President Trump stoked the populist narrative that outside forces stole the election from him. Otherwise, he would have won in a landslide. And so his followers marched to the Capitol, with some of them storming its walls laying waste to congressional offices, claiming victims and forcing a shutdown of our democratic process to certify a presidential election. Undeterred, and to its credit, Congress worked through the night and early morning to certify the election of President Biden.
Populism has been a dangerous tool used by demagogues against Jews. The blaming of the “other”: rich financiers, communists, industrialists profiting by war, landlord/slumlords, wealthy men bribing politicians with “benjamins,” conspirators scheming to rule the world — all these stereotypies have been used as code to blame the Jews for the misfortunes of the moment. Even the supposed “newspaper of record” reinforced this anti-Semitic trope when it published a cartoon displaying the Jew, Netanyahu, leading his Trump poodle by a leash. And all of those anti-Semitic tropes have been directed against the Jewish state, supplemented by accusations of the wanton murder of innocents.
And with the recent Georgia election, we had the spectacle of the Perdue campaign using a doctored photo of Jon Ossoff, with a nose made longer by digital manipulation, against the backdrop of a sullen and sinister photo of Chuck Schumer. The implication was obvious. Ossoff was a Jew with a stereotypical hooked nose, who lies, like Pinocchio, and is under the control of his Jewish master Schumer, who as Senate majority leader will control the destiny of millions. The Perdue campaign explained that the ad was a mistake and it was immediately withdrawn, but this strains credulity.
We lived in Georgia in the early 1980s.One of the leading areas of Jewish demographic growth was in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta. During our time there, a Conservative synagogue was founded in Marietta, called Congregation Etz Chaim.
Barely seven decades earlier, Leo Frank had been shamefully convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was forcefully removed from prison and lynched. As an Easterner and a wealthy Jew, he fit the stereotype favored by the populists and anti-Semites. This atrocity led to the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League.
After Frank’s arrest and conviction, one of the leading populist politicians in Georgia, newspaper editor Tom Watson, went on an anti-Semitic rampage. He accused the then senatorial candidate, Hoke Smith, of accepting “Jew money” to champion Frank’s cause and conjured up all the epithets in his populist toolbox, concluding that “it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” His hatred was all-encompassing — he also hated Catholics and thought blacks to be inferior.
So now, the Peach State elected a Jew and Black to the Senate. This was facilitated in part by Trump’s defamation of Georgia’s two top Republican elected officials, the governor and secretary of state, and his claims that Georgia’s electoral vote was a fraud, depressing Republican turnout. Perhaps this unexpected result will foster better relations between Jews and Afro-Americans, not only in Georgia but also nationally.
I have written on these pages that Donald Trump was Israel’s best friend, better than any other president. Despite the conventional wisdom that it would stoke riots in the street, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, honoring a two decade long Congressional commitment, he accepted Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, considered the West Bank as disputed rather than occupied territory, and presided over the Abraham Accords.
But his off-the-scale narcissism, reckless dismissal of his most talented aides and advisors if they were not in lock-step with his dangerous impulses, mismanagement of the covid crisis, and weakening of our alliances, among other transgressions, will mark his administration as a failure.
His sowing of needless division though his demagogic populism and his discrediting of the electoral process with demonstrably false claims of fraud has hurt our image abroad and set a precedent for questioning the integrity of future elections.
But his coup de grace, in creating the combustible situation that led to the storming the Capitol — something not seen since the British attack in 1814 — will mark his last days in office with infamy.
I hope in the coming days, we will build upon the statesmanship displayed by members of the Congress to reestablish comity in the body politic so that these recent events will be a dangerous anomaly in our quest to be a more perfect union.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.