During the Democratic convention in 1924, the nativist and populist William Jennings Bryan gazed across the floor of Madison Square Garden at the supporters of Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to pursue the presidency. “You are not the future of our country,” Bryan declared.
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As we now know, in the fullness of time, Bryan was completely wrong. The immigrants and children of immigrants whom Smith represented, very much including American Jews, formed the political majority of the United States from 1932 for decades onward.
Being a voter and citizen during the ascent of a homegrown fascist, I try to take comfort from this historical example. Donald Trump’s hateful campaign and authoritarian rhetoric have tested my patriotic faith in American exceptionalism, including my lifelong belief that anti-Semitism has shrunken to the province of a deviant fringe of our society.
The Republican nominee amply displayed his abrasive, baleful, treacherous traits during this third and final presidential debate. Not that anyone should have been taken by surprise. Absent any evidence, Trump propounded the notion that the November 8 election is “rigged” and subject to massive “voter fraud,” all but inviting a Constitutional crisis in the former case and vigilante violence in the latter.
During the debate, in response to moderator Chris Wallace’s question about accepting the election result, Trump truculently shot back, “I’ll keep you in suspense.” And keep in mind that Wallace is the voice of Fox News, an auxiliary of the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement, hardly the stereotype of the “liberal media.”
Trump’s answers last night were the familiar vague boasts, augmented by bizarre mistakes, like using a term for the African-American “Great Migration” from the rural South to the urban North as his phrase for the exodus of Syrian refugees from that nation’s civil war.
Then again, Trump probably lumps African Americans and Muslims into his bucket of pariahs. Considering his fervent support from the Jew-haters of the alt right, Trump has perhaps done more than anyone to restore the black-Jewish alliance of the Civil Rights Movement and to establish a Muslim-Jewish coalition that can survive disagreement over the Israel-Palestine issue.
America is my country, and, despite efforts made to the contrary, an ignorant, dangerous demagogue cannot be seen as the Jewish choice simply because he mouths a few belligerent talking points that happen to include opposing the Iran deal.
If even one American Jew votes for Donald Trump, it will be one too many. His Jewish apologists, from Dennis Prager to Ari Fleischer to the Republican Jewish Coalition, indeed his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, should be viewed as nothing less than enablers.
As the debate made abundantly clear, this current election is not a reasonable variation on a normative theme – not Nixon vs. Humphrey, Reagan vs. Mondale, not W. vs. Kerry. It is an existential moment in the life of America, in which even a flawed, often unappealing Democratic centrist is the firewall against the real-life reenactment of Philip Roth’s alt-history novel “The Plot Against America.”
At one point last night, addressing a question about border control, Trump said perhaps the only true thing he has in his entire despotic and poisonous race for the White House. But, being just as clueless as William Jennings Bryan nearly a century ago, I suspect he didn’t recognize the real meaning of his words, coming from someone flourishing the power of destruction. And those words were: “We either have a country or we don’t.”
Samuel G. Freedman, the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew,” is a regular contributor to Haaretz. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman