Opinion

Steve Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin in the White House

Most American Jews, until now, thought anti-Semitism was just a vestige of pre-Holocaust America. Now, we’re swimming in uncharted, but decidedly unfriendly, waters.

Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon at Donald Trump's election party, November 9, 2016.
Chip Somodevilla, AFP

Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite but he is a cynic of remarkable (and remarkably successful) proportions.  So it is hardly surprising that the father of a converted Orthodox Jew has been willing to exploit anti-Semitism to get what he wants: in this case, the American presidency. Trump’s appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, the former mastermind of Breitbart.com, where he can deploy the resources of the White House in support of white, Christian nationalism that characterized both Breitbart and Trump’s campaign, demonstrate that Trump is willing to go even further. 

It feels strange in America in the modern era to accuse a prominent political figure of both being an anti-Semite and of exploiting anti-Semitism for political gain—at least it was before the Trump campaign. Then again, when was the last time a White House appointee received the explicit endorsements of the leaders of the KKK and American Nazi Party? 

Before  Trump, American Jews were definitely concerned about what appeared to be growing anti-Semitism in Europe, but much of this, we reasoned was a reaction to Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, together with the influx of Muslim Middle Eastern immigrants into these same countries. Sure there was some of the old “Socialism of Fools” - that has already had such murderous consequences - still at work in places like Hungary and maybe Poland (countries without many Jews at all, it must be added), but the U.S., fortunately, never had any such experience. Most of us believed anti-Semitism in America to be so marginal it was not really worth worrying about.

Today many Jews are not so sure. Breitbart, under Bannon, created an influential media empire driven by conspiracy theories that frequently mirror the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Once Trump tapped Bannon to lead his presidential campaign, many of these same themes began to appear in Trump tweets and campaign statements. Trump commercials complained about fanciful conspiracies between “international bankers” “the media” and wealthy Clinton donors, but always seemed to feature pictures of Jews on the screen. Trump, himself, kept repeating the names “George Soros,” and “Sidney Blumenthal” during the debates. Since most Americans have no idea who these people are, it was clear that he was sending out a “dog-whistle” to his anti-Semitic supporters, just as he did when he tweeted Hillary Clinton surrounded by dollar signs and stars of David

Because anti-Semitism has not been a real issue in America in recent decades, except when the accusation has been leveled against left-wing critics of Israel  — usually but not always undeserved and transparently deployed as a means of shutting down debate over Israeli behavior—the mainstream media did not know what to make of these signals. Neither did most Jews. 

Ironically, the people who were most focused on this re-emergent hate were the journalists with Jewish-sounding names—many of whom were not Jewish—who found themselves subject to an avalanche of often threatening anti-Semitic abuse for reporting critically (and truthfully) about Trump. But once again, this all seemed rather distant to the lives of most American Jews, few of whom had ever experienced the kind of anti-Semitism that feels genuinely threatening, either personally or professionally. This was, we all thought—and I include myself in this category--a vestige of pre-Holocaust America. All of us since 1945, I would have argued were “American, Chicago born” (or fill in the blank) like Saul Bellow’s Augie March.  Just look at how popular Larry David is.

So with Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin in this story, in the White House, Jews are now swimming in uncharted but decidedly unfriendly waters.  True, there are probably not that many devoted  anti-Semites out there. The ADL estimates that for all the gazillions of nasty tweets and Facebook threats to Jewish journalists, they can be traced to a total of no more than 1600 individuals.  Perhaps they represent 200,000-250,000 people. This is certainly not insignificant, but they would not matter to most of us were it not for the fact that the president’s strategy is being directed by someone believes  them to be an integral part of the movement that helped to create this presidency in the first place. And now, all the resources of the White House will be at his disposal.

What’s more, unlike Trump, Bannon does not appear to be merely manipulating these people  for political gain. He really hates us. According to a sworn statement by his ex-wife in 2007 in which he was also accused of physical abuse, while visiting a private school for one of their children, Bannon demanded of the director “why there were so many Chanukah books in the library." At another, she testified that he had asked her "asked me if it bothered me that the school used to be in a Temple." At a third school, she explained, Bannon "went on to say the biggest problem he had with [the school] is the number of Jews that attend. He said that he doesn't like Jews and that he doesn't like the way they raise their kids to be 'whiney brats' and that he didn't want the girls going to school with Jews."

Given Trump’s demonstrated dedication to whatever works—to say nothing of the strange silence of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law and top advisers, Ivanka and Jared Kushner — the challenge for Jews, and for those in media regardless of religion or ethnicity, will be whether to try to paint lipstick on this pig or accept this ugly truth and figure out how to fight it.

Early signs are mixed at best. Upon the announcement of Bannon’s new job, Newt Gingrich, a favorite of Trump funder Sheldon Adelson, explained that Bannon was being “smeared” by the left and could not possibly be an anti-Semite because “He was a managing partner of Goldman Sachs. He was a Hollywood movie producer.” CBS News described him merely as 'former Goldman Sachs executive.”  Yes J Street (as could be expected) and  ADL, thankfully, issued strong statements. And  Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the director of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued a particularly useful statement as it spoke not only to the potential dangers to Jews but to all those who have reason to fear the forces unleashed by Trump’s campaign. “In his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia,” he said. “There should be no place for such views in the White House.”

But so far, AIPAC has been completely mum (aside from removing its support for a two-state solution from its website). According to one tweeter, the organization was “privately apoplectic” over the choice. In public, however, not so much. So too, the rest of the so-called major Jewish organizations, with shockingly few exceptions, to say nothing of most Christian and ecumenical organizations. 

To be fair, it’s not an easy situation to face up to, and as far as modern American history goes, it has few if any precedents. But to borrow and tweak a phrase Hillel the Elder that is going to get a real workout, I fear, in the coming years, “If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? But if we’re only for ourselves, who are we?” 

Or as a friend warned recently: just think what is going to happen when America does not become ‘great again’ and Trump supporters go looking for a scapegoat. 

Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation and a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress. The author of ten previous books, he is currently writing a history of the Israel/Palestine debate in the United States.  Follow him on Twitter: @Eric_Alterman