This August a friend of mine visited me and my mother in Carson City, Nevada. I took her up to Virginia City, a nearby mining-turned-tourist town, where the main drag is full of old Western storefronts. You can buy a bedazzled belt buckle and have your picture taken as a floozy or gunslinger from the “Old West.” But what used to be a booming mining center in the mid-nineteenth century, has turned into a rundown tourist hotspot.
Virginia City represents the small-town America that Donald Trump wants to make great again, the one that waxes nostalgic for a past that never existed. A number of stores boast “Silent Majority for Trump” posters. Confederate flags hang from the flagpoles (regardless of the fact that Nevada was never a confederate state; in fact, it became a union state during the Civil War to ensure Lincoln’s re-election).
In the front window of one store, next to the Trump poster, was a case of Nazi swastika pins for sale.
Rather than a random pairing of disparate vitriol, the store’s physical manifestation of neo-Nazism embodies middle America’s turn toward anti-Semitic hate in the era of Trump.
I’m an American Jew who identifies as an atheist. My mother is Jewish; my father was not. My great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. My maternal grandparents weren’t particularly religious, but we share a Jewish cultural heritage. I had never experienced anti-Semitism first hand before, and I was horrified by the Nazi swastikas.
When the owner of the store asked if my friend and I wanted a free piece of candy, I replied, “No thank you. We don’t support racism.” As we walked away, he yelled back at us, “Well, when you wake up tomorrow and think differently, come back.” For me, this was indeed a wake-up call.
Trump’s white nationalism and incendiary rhetoric not only has allowed for hate speech toward Muslims, Hispanics, and women, but also has paved the way for the explicit resurfacing of neo-Nazi hate speech and violence. The examples of tweets and memes on behalf of neo-Nazis that support Trump are innumerable. There are the recent Nazi-style death threats tweeted toward Jewish women writers, and of course the Star of David tweet, and let’s not forget when Julia Ioffe was bombarded by anti-Semitic trolls after profiling Melania Trump.
But the Trump movement goes beyond the vaguely rhetorical to encompass the real. Recently, Peter Jacob, an Indian American man running for Congress in New Jersey, had swastikas spray painted on his house twice in 10 days. Jacob is Christian, but Trump supporters mistook him for Muslim. It’s no coincidence they employed Nazi symbols to attack him. Trump himself is not an anti-Semite (though he explicitly made a reference to Jews’ “liking negotiating deals,”) but it is obvious that many within his movement are.
The majority of urban American Jews are completely disconnected from the on-the-ground neo-Nazism that is brewing in small, conservative predominantly-white towns across the U.S. Trump’s acceptance and even provoking of violence has created a space for neo-Nazi white nationalists to openly discuss their feelings. And to do so with pride and without fear.
Because of this disconnect, Americans, even liberals, brush off the severity of Trump’s anti-Semitism. They say it only resonates with “fringe figures” like the former Klu Klux Klan member David Duke, or with Andrew Anglin, the neo-Nazi white nationalist. Anglin recently said on Duke’s radio show, “if by some Jewish trickery we do not win this election, people are going to blame the Jews.” Many Trump supporters will. In fact, they already do.
While right-wing Jews in America, led by Sheldon Adelson, and the right in Israel, play down the anti-Semitic hate that has arisen with Trump’s candidacy, they scream anti-Semitism over every political stance which denounces Israel’s occupation of the territories, not to mention those that dare question Zionism’s morality.
In reality, compared to the Trump train, the BDS movement – which is home to many proud Jews and whose leaders explicitly denounce anti-Semitism – is benign. Frankly, the hysteria over the BDS at the expense of calling out the true anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism of Trump’s followers is like shooting the old woman in the Prius who honked at you rather than the guy who just ran over your dog with his jumbo truck.
I’m a Hillary supporter, and I have been since the primary season when I volunteered for her campaign. However, my concerns about the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism—both on the ground and on the internet – has nothing to do with a political party. Rather, they are rooted in how Trump’s bigotry and rhetorically-vague calls for “action” (his euphemism for violence) are fueling a real and violent return to explicit neo-Nazi demonstrations that perhaps most Americans wanted to believe had disappeared from the mainstream.
This isn’t just ambiguous language about international banking conspiracies. These are blatant attacks on the Jewish religion and culture at the community level, attacks that are going undetected by the larger mainstream media and are often unchallenged by those on the ground. As Trump has increasingly turned towards the idea that the election is “rigged” against him, and his supporters declare that it’s “pitchfork and torches time in America!” any Jewish support for his campaign is both explicitly condoning and unambiguously allowing for the proliferation of anti-Semitism in America.
People who believe Trump’s defeat at the polls will result in a return to the pre-Trump status quo are mistaken. While Trump’s rhetoric may not be explicitly anti-Semitic, it has created a space in which neo-Nazi sentiments can be openly expressed. And they’re here to stay.
Dr. Cassia Roth received her PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she currently teaches courses in Latin American history. Follow her on Twitter: @mixmastercass
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