Trump Is a Charlatan - but He's No Hitler

American Jews should douse their hysteria and learn from other Jewish communities worldwide that engage with demagogues and even dictators.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts after being introduced at a campaign rally at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater, Boca Raton, Florida, March 13, 2016.
Reuters

There’s a clear correlation between many of the commentators who in recent years would have rolled their eyes and launched a diatribe every time Benjamin Netanyahu compared the Iran regime, intent on building nuclear weapons and wiping Israel off the face of the earth, to Nazi Germany, and those now using the same kind of language to describe the racist demagogue, Donald Trump.

This column has frequently criticized Netanyahu for his habit of using and abusing Nazi analogies, but by any objective assessment, Bibi at least has a better case than Trump’s critics have. If you are going to engage in comparisons to Hitler and dire warnings of the spirit of the 1930s and Never Again, then a regime which for the last five years has been actively assisting the mass murder of nearly half a million Syrians is a more fitting object of such epithets than a candidate, who as distasteful and divisive as he is, has yet to commit any crime worse than inciting his supporters to rough up some hecklers.

By this point, when Jewish politicians and pundits, from right and left, have already made such liberal use of Third Reich vocabulary, it’s redundant to even begin accusing anyone of demeaning the memory of the Holocaust.

The time for that has long past. It almost seems quaint now to get all scandalized over someone calling a politician “Hitler.” But now that the fascist horse has bolted the stable, I wonder what all those over-excited fulminators are going to call the next potential tyrant to come along. After all, Trump, who will probably lose should he indeed face off against Hillary Clinton in November, could well be just the precursor of something or someone much worse down the road.

So if Trump is Hitler, what would you call a real genocidal dictator? And while we’re on that subject, what about all the very real racists and fascists at the helm of successful political parties, some of whom actually lead countries around the world?

Trump is no doubt a charlatan, happy to pander to the worst human instincts in his quest for the nomination. But instead of succumbing to hysteria, American Jews would do well to learn from the experience of their European brethren who have a bit more experience dealing with this sort of politician.

Take the Hungarian community for example. Many of its members are unhappy with the jingoistic prime minister, Viktor Orban, who takes pride in leading a non-liberal administration. At the same time, they know he’s the main bulwark blocking the openly anti-Semitic Jobbick party. So they have little choice but to engage with him warily. Nevertheless, they boycotted his government two years ago when it dedicated a national monument whitewashing the role of Hungarians in collaborating with the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.

France is another instructive case. The community leadership there is still conflicted on how to address the “detoxified” iteration of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. For now the decision to have no contact with the National Front or its leader remains unchanged, but if the party continues to win local elections and once again becomes a serious contender for national leadership, Jewish leaders may be forced to revisit that. And meanwhile, Le Pen’s success is also pulling the more mainstream neo-Gaullists rightward and some of the xenophobic statements coming from its leaders are also worrisome.

And then there’s Britain, where the Jews are challenged by ominous trends in two large parties lead by problematic figures. Trump has rightly been pilloried for not repudiating his endorsement by Klan leader David Duke and it seems that neo-Nazis feel at home among his supporters.

Yet in Britain barely a week passes without a particularly nauseous racist or anti-Semite exposed in the ranks of Labour and the U.K. Independence Party. UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who have both addressed Jewish audiences, officially disavow any form of racism — and there is no reason to doubt them. But neither leader seems particularly troubled that their parties habitually attract these types. Corbyn has in the past readily shared platforms with anti-Semites and Holocaust-deniers and called them his friends. The British-Jewish community maintains a critical and careful relationship with both men, as it should. And then there’s Putin.

There’s been a widespread wailing and gnashing of teeth from a certain section of American Jewry over AIPAC’s hosting of Trump next week at its annual policy conference. Trump has accepted the invitation extended to all candidates of both parties still remaining in the race.

I wonder what they would have thought of the rather sycophantic visit of the leaders of the European Jewish Congress to Vladimir Putin in Moscow two months ago. I’m not saying that Putin is also Hitler, despite his propensity to invade neighboring countries, crack down on dissent within his own state and send an expeditionary force to a friendly dictator in Syria to help him butcher civilians. Jewish leaders have little choice but to engage with distasteful leaders if they control the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews within their territories. But the EJC delegation failed to take Putin to task over the way he tried, just two years ago, to stoke and exploit anti-Semitism in Ukraine for his own purposes. And while we’re talking about Putin, it’s worth pointing out that his main Jewish cheerleaders are Chabad rabbis. Check out the newly formed “Rabbis for Trump” — you guessed it, they’re Chabadniks as well.

The dividing line in Western politics is shifting from left-right to establishment-anti-establishment. And while there is much to despise and much to fix in establishment politics, anti-establishment parties and leaders, from left and right, too often provide cover for racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic elements. (Even the nice and seemingly harmless Bernie Sanders has a problematic record defending dictatorial regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua.) Despite our hopes in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dawning of what we optimistically called the “Arab Spring,” the politics of the 21st century is increasingly characterized by an erosion of democracy. Justified frustration and anger with the failings of the old democratic establishment and economic stagnation lead to a tolerance of radicalism, scapegoating of minorities and immigrants and an admiration for “strong” leaders. These are treacherous waters for Jewish communities and leaders.

Jewish life has only flourished for long in stable democracies and the rise of a Trump is ground for real concern. But calling him a Hitler disregards the basic fact that Jews have no choice but to engage with dictators and demagogues as well. As long as they remember that relying on the favors of these strongmen, even if they claim to be friends of Israel and the Jews, is plain dangerous.