First They’ll Come for the Mexicans - Then They’ll Come for the Jews?

Joe Biden and Ann Coulter remind people of the dangerous mix of Trump-style demagoguery and nativist American resentment.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Donald Trump speaks during a rally in San Pedro, California, U.S. September 15, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In a coincidence that may come as a surprise to the famed Likud lawmaker from Beit Shean, it turns out that the first Jewish American to serve in the U.S. Senate was also named David Levy, and that his parents were also of Moroccan descent. Levy, who eventually changed his name to Yulee, was elected to the Senate in 1845. Four years earlier he was also the first Jewish member in the House of Representatives, though that distinction is open to debate: at the time, Yulee’s Florida had yet to become a full-fledged state. Some historians thus claim that the first Jewish Congressman was actually Lewis Levin, who was sent to Capitol Hill in 1844 to represent Philadelphia’s 1st Congressional District.

David Levy Yulee Credit: Mathew Brady - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Levy and Levin had several things in common. Both tried to distance themselves from their Jewish background but were nonetheless subjected to constant anti-Semitic attacks throughout their careers. Both married non-Jewish spouses. Both were considered dangerous demagogues. Both would have been shunned by the bulk of contemporary American Jewry. Landowner Levy supported slavery and espoused ongoing war against Florida’s Seminole Tribe; editor and journalist Levin agitated against Catholic immigrants, mainly from Ireland, sparking outbreaks of violence and, in some cases, actual loss of life.

Lewis C. Levin in his youth, from an 1834 portrait by Rembrandt PealeCredit: Unknown

Together with Protestant allies, Levin was one of the founders of the Native American Party, otherwise known as Know Nothing, because of the reply that members were reportedly told to give when questioned about their quasi-clandestine group. Levin depicted a grand papal plot, claiming that European monarchs had been sending over Catholic “paupers and villains” in order to undermine American Protestants and subjugate them to the rule of Rome. His favorite motto was “I go for everything American, in contradistinction to everything foreign.”

The Know Nothing party burst upon the national scene in the mid 1850’s but disintegrated, mainly because of differences over slavery. Daniel Day Lewis depicted one of the party’s last agitators in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic Gangs of New York. Levin, who ended his life in an insane asylum after serving six years in Congress, was described by historian Jon Forman as a “frothing emotional psychopath, one who tries to carry people along a path of hate until his star begins to fade and his ‘medicine’ fails”. Levin’s career, Forman added, “illustrates that grievances in our political and social life breed demagogues.”

Among the Catholic immigrants that Levin fought one should mention Owen and Jane Finnegan, nee Boyle, who fled the great Potato Famine in Ireland and came to America in 1849-50, while Levin was in Congress. 158 years later, the Finnegans’ great great grandson, Joe Biden, was elected as the first Catholic Vice President in U.S. history. It was only natural, therefore, that it would be Biden who made the direct link this week between the Know Nothing campaigners who railed against his ancestors and Donald Trump who is attacking Mexican immigrants today in much the same language.  

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, October 29, 2014.Credit: AP

Speaking at Hispanic Heritage Month at the Naval Observatory, Biden blasted what he described as Trump’s “sick message”. The New York real estate magnate was “appealing to the baser side of human nature,” Biden said, “working on this notion of xenophobia in a way that hasn’t occurred in a long time. Since the Know Nothing party at the end of the 19th century.”

Biden assured his audience, however, that Trump’s message “won’t prevail.” The American people, he added, are decent. To counterbalance Trump, Biden ironically brandished the upcoming visit of the wildly popular Pope Francis, heir to the seat once occupied by Gregory IX, who was described by Levin and the Know Nothings as an “immoral and ambitious tyrant.”

Biden, who has yet to announce whether he will run for the presidency himself, put his finger on the central element of Trump’s astonishing and ongoing attraction to  many right wing voters. With all due respect to his television savvy, quick tongue and willingness to take on the Republican establishment, Trump’s candidacy skyrocketed mainly because of his brutally unbridled attack on what he described as rapist, murderous, drug-dealing Mexican immigrants who are illegally crossing the border, with the Mexican government’s active encouragement. Trump only became a phenomenon after he promised to deport all 11 million Mexican illegals and only came to dominate the Republican field following his promise to build an impenetrable wall along America’s Southern border, for which Mexico, he pledges, would pay by itself.

Trump thus became the latest hero of the “Common Man”, the term attached to white American males in the early 19th century after they had been granted near-complete suffrage. It was against this backdrop that the American Republican Party, later renamed the Native American Party, developed its creed that long outlived its own short life: that the world was divided into “real Americans” and others, whose only purpose in life was to take what they had away. Since then, the ideology of American nativists in whatever shape or form they assume has stayed constant, while their victims have changed from Irish to Germans to Italians to Russians to Jews to African-Americans to Chinese to Japanese to Muslims and Hispanics.

The main standard bearers of nativism in recent years have been the Tea Party. The movement, which took the GOP and Congress by storm in 2010 in reaction to Obama’s election, has shifted its focus since then from tightening the federal budget and curtailing government intervention to a crusade against illegal immigration: this was the backdrop, after all, to the crushing defeat of Virginia’s senior Jewish lawmaker, Eric Cantor, in the 2014 Republican primaries. Cantor’s unforgiveable sin – besides being Jewish, as some have claimed - was his willing to support comprehensive immigration reform. Less than two years later, Congressional conservatives are still fuming at GOP leadership for failing to derail Obama’s executive orders on illegal immigrants; part of that intifada is now being directed at House Speaker John Boehner and is responsible for the internal divisions that crippled Republican responses to the Iran nuclear deal.

Tea Party Patriots supporter James Manship, whose nickname is States, reads from the Declaration of Independence during a Flag Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, November 2, 2010.Credit: Reuters / Molly Riley

Trump is their great white hope: his business successes, his harsh rhetoric, his financial independence and his willingness to lash out at Obama and to continue voicing controversial Birther babble have turned Trump into a Tea Party hero. In their wake come the Evangelicals, who support Trump despite the glaring disparity between his personal and social values and theirs: they too are yearning for the Good Old Days, before African Americans were elected president, liberal values imported from Europe were imposed from Washington and Catholics from Central and South America begin pulling their weight at the polls.

To appeal to this motivated and active bloc, other GOP candidates have also sharpened their tone on immigration, as could be seen in both presidential debates that were televised by CNN on Wednesday. None of Trump’s competitors, however, have gone so far as to advocate deportation of illegal immigrants, which, if carried over a two-year period, would require the expulsion of 16,500 people per day; perhaps they could use the trains.

Jewish Americans who may be weighing a vote for the GOP in 2016 are deterred by Trump’s extremism on immigration, an issue that has been close to the community’s heart since the late 19th century, when immigrants from Eastern Europe were themselves the targets of nativist agitation. Some Jewish right-wingers might also be nervous about Trump’s independence from the deep pockets of heavy pro-Israel donors, such as Sheldon Adelson.  And only minutes after the end of the debates this week, conservative columnist Ann Coulter poured high-octane fuel on this already smoldering fire in a Twitter outburst against candidates pandering to “fu..ing Jews”, which was generously described by the Anti-Defamation League as “borderline anti-Semitic”.

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush at the second Republican presidential debate, September 16, 2015.Credit: AP

Coulter’s rant sparked howls of widespread protests but also garnered a disturbingly high volume of right-wing support.  It resurfaced the submerged streams of anti-Semitism that run through parts of the radical right, which have been overshadowed in recent years by the Jewish establishment’s focus on Israel-bashing in the deep-left and by the GOP’s no-questions-asked support for Israel, in general, and its right wing prime minister, in particular. Coulter’s tirade may thus have ruined the slim chances of realizing the GOP’s evergreen dream of enticing Jewish voters away from the Democrats, especially at a time of widespread discontent about Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran. Finally, Coulter may have jolted some people into renewed awareness of the dangers awaiting any democracy when an amoral demagogue incites disgruntled natives who feel that strange and alien forces are stealing their homeland and their livelihoods. First they’ll come for the Mexicans, of course, but afterwards who can tell.