Opinion

Be Even Louder: How American Jews Must Contest Trump’s Explicit, Vicious Racism

The president’s promotion of white nationalism, his ‘infestation’ talk redolent of Nazi propaganda, his attempt to make Jews pawns in his racist power play, mean U.S. Jews face a critical moral moment

U.S. President Donald Trump before the signing ceremony for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act at the White House, Washington, D.C. July 29, 2019
Alex Brandon,AP

The president’s racist attacks are coming so frequently now that it could be easy for their details to merge together, and for people to begin tuning them out - to accept them as normal. 

We can’t let that happen. 

It’s incumbent on all Jewish Americans to see what’s truly behind the president’s racism, and the risks it poses for our country.

On Saturday, President Trump unleashed yet another racist rant against a powerful, black, Democratic member of Congress, this time Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who serves as the Chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

The president directed his rage not just toward the Congressman, but also toward the city of Baltimore which he represents. The president called it a "rat and rodent infested mess," said that "no human being would want to live there," and claimed that Baltimore is "FAR WORSE and more dangerous" than the conditions he himself has created at the border. 

Monday, Trump doubled down on his attack, calling Cummings himself "racist," conferring on him the sarcastic title "King Elijah," and accusing Democrats of playing "the race card." 

What prompted this latest Twitter bullying? Last week, Rep. Cummings’ emotional questioning of acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan on the inhumane treatment and tortuous conditions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border went viral. 

Rep. Cummings spoke for millions of Americans outraged by this administration’s cruelty and concerned about the long-lasting trauma being inflicted on immigrant and migrant families by our government - an atrocity that resonates all too deeply for our Jewish community.

Like each of the president’s racist statements, the language he directed at Rep. Cummings was horrifying, but not unprecedented; the word "infestation," or its variations are a regular, but pointed, feature of his vocabulary.

As CNN’s Victor Blackwell pointed out, every time Trump uses this rhetoric, it has been targeted at people or communities of color, including civil rights movement icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), undocumented immigrants, and African nations grappling with the 2014 Ebola crisis.

This is no coincidence and no accident. Trump’s language has a clear purpose: to dehumanize black and brown people. It is a tactic with which Jews of all races are painfully familiar, rhetoric identical to the language that the Nazis used to justify genocide.

That’s why so many Jewish leaders and organizations were quick to condemn the president’s words; we know that if Trump is able to successfully dehumanize people of color he can more easily rationalize his policies which inflict cruelty and violence on them.

The president’s language is a mirror and amplifier of the language that white nationalists - those seeking to create a Christian and white ethnostate - use to advance their political agenda. His description of immigrants coming to the U.S. as an "invasion" stems from deeply-rooted racist and anti-Semitic tropes that resonate with and embolden white nationalist violence — violence that the FBI Director recently identified as a leading national security threat to our country. 

White nationalism isn’t a fringe concern. It is a growing social, political, cultural, and economic movement that has successfully moved from the margins of American society deep into the mainstream.

Jewish people know all too well that the lies spread from the mouths of our nation’s leaders, the politics of dehumanization, the chants of "go back home," are more than mere rhetoric. They are an existential threat to every one of us.

We have heard the echo of these words in gunshots in our nation’s synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway and now Miami. We have heard the echo of these words in the strike of matches thrown at mosques and black churches, from California to Mississippi.

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And we know that Trump’s racism extends beyond his words and motivates his policy agenda. Many of Trump’s proposals, such as his cuts to public housing programs, are specifically designed to inflict harm on low-income communities of color in Baltimore and other urban centers. 

At every turn, Trump makes his views clear: political and economic power belongs exclusively in the hands of white people, and all other communities must be criminalized, disenfranchised and made vulnerable to expulsion.

As Trump grows more brazen in his bid for re-election and more emboldened to cover up his administration’s corruption and criminality, which Rep. Cummings is working to expose in his role as House Oversight Committee Chair, it is likely that we will see his racism manifest itself in even more explicit and vicious ways. 

To be clear, the president is not using racism as a distraction; it is at the heart of his worldview. And recent news stories have suggested that Trump’s advisers also see political benefit in his plunging into the racist and xenophobic depths of the last few weeks. 

President Trump calls 'send her back' chant at his rally 'incredible patriots' 19 Aug 2019

The fact that virtually the entire Republican Party has either defended or kept silent about the president’s recent displays of bigotry suggests they too have calculated that their electoral prospects are improved by outright embracing, or at a minimum ignoring, his racism rather than opposing it.

It is our urgent moral duty to prove them wrong. As Jews, it is our obligation to condemn racism and xenophobia as well as the overwhelming silence that is accompanying it. 

We should also notice - and be deeply concerned about - the ways this president and his enablers are cynically using Jewish trauma and accusations of anti-Semitism against their progressive political opponents. It is now a ploy they are executing like clockwork, and we can’t allow our legitimate fears for safety and security be manipulated in this way.

We will not be pawns, nor will we separate ourselves from other communities in the crosshairs of this administration.

In this moment, every Jewish person and institution has a choice to make. Appeasement or complicity are not an option. 

The only way we can defeat the president’s white nationalist agenda is by building a movement of all those threatened by it – including all Jewish Americans – united by a vision of an inclusive multiracial democracy and economy that recognizes each person’s innate dignity.

We took the first steps toward this vision in 2018, when tens of millions of Americans, repulsed by Trump’s hatred, elected the most diverse Congress in American history. Next year, we must build on this progress to reject racism and division from the White House, and elect leaders committed to creating a society where all people can live, love and thrive. 

Jewish Americans have an obligation to continue forcefully speaking up and resisting Trump’s agenda; our history tells us the horrible cost of silence and inaction in the face of such hatred. 

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. Twitter: @JewishAction