Analysis |

Trump's Populist 'America First' Should Scare American Jews and Worry Israelis

But the really scary thing is the volatile mix of the 45th president's short fuse with the vast powers and arsenal now under his command.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Donald Trump is joined by the U.S. Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump is joined by the U.S. Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017.Credit: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The inaugural address of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States – a construction no one could have imagined – was dark, belligerent and populist through and through. Contrary to the repeatedly mistaken predictions that he would moderate himself, Trump gave a speech that was a direct extension of the divisive and inciting election campaign that got him here. It was not a speech that can be dubbed “presidential” in any conventional sense of the word, though it clearly signaled that the very concept of “presidential” is about to undergo radical change.

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Trump’s speech will be received enthusiastically among his white and hardcore supporters, and parts of it might even please Bernie Sanders fans on the left. Everyone else, including conservative Republicans, should be repelled and apprehensive. In the name of the “people,” Trump lashed out against the establishment, against the elites, against most of the people who were sitting behind him on the steps of the Capitol, including, most ungracefully, President Obama. They are yesterday, he told his supporters, and you are tomorrow.

The tortured face of Michelle Obama said it all. In direct contradiction of facts, statistics and the reality all around him, Trump described an impoverished, dispirited and broken America, on the verge of total breakdown. All of his predecessors exploited the masses and sucked its blood but new history begins today, and Trump is its commander in chief. And while comparisons to the 1920s and 1930s have already been exhausted over the course of the election campaign, Trump’s speech seems to have been lifted directly from that era: if not from Benito Mussolini or Franco, than from Louisiana’s Huey Long. The echoes were unmistakable and, historically, they bode ill for Jews.

“America First! America First!” he cried, unashamedly and unabashedly, despite the fact that he is well aware of the negative historical connotations of the term, especially for Jews. This is the lesson for all those who cheer Trump’s disdain for political correctness: it also means that the sensibilities of Jews and other minorities are subservient to the will of the leader and the needs of his propaganda. Right wing Jewish nationalists, in Israel and America, may applaud Trump’s unequivocal pledge to wipe radical Islamic terrorism off the face of the earth and may cheer the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but they should remember: If "America First" is your only commandment, changing circumstances could make Israel pay the price as well. America, as Trump said, over all else.

The kind of populism espoused by Trump on Friday isn’t the same as fascism, of course, though populism is often the platform that enables it. The sincerity of Trump’s populist appeal is doubtful, given the billions that are alleged to reside in his bank account, the billionaires that he has just put in charge of the American economy, the sweeping tax reform that he proposes, that will benefit the rich, and the expected repeal of Obama Care, which is likely to hurt the poor. In an interview with Quartz, Professor Frederico Finchelstein of the New School in New York said that populism and fascism have a wide common denominator, which will sound painfully familiar not only to people who heard Trump’s speech but to anyone who follows Israeli politics. These common traits include “a division of society into two camps, 'the people' and 'the elites,' a proud antagonism toward intellectuals, the rejection of culture and knowledge in favor of instinct, the promotion of polarizing views, demonization of one’s opponent, a contempt for judiciary, military, and political powers and a strong intolerance of free press.” A fascist regime, Finchelstein adds, is defined by its use of violence, first by gangs and militias and then by the state itself. The question is whether one will be able to tell when the line between populism and fascism is crossed, in the United States as well as in Israel.

Added to the ominous mix was an unusual presence of God in the ceremony, both in the six clerics who blessed the new president – including the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier – and in Trump’s speech as well. Not only will God Bless America, as is customary, he or she will protect it as well, Trump promised. The settler leaders who attended Trump's inauguration were satisfied but, again, not so American Jews. They fear the conservative GOP’s intention to blur the separation of religions and state, and Trump’s words provided no comfort.

Trump dashed hopes that he would give a calming and unifying speech, though he did include a line or two that TV commentators seeking a positive spin on what is traditionally such a festive day could seize on. “It's time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots,” Trump said. The crowd seemed to appreciate the message, though it’s doubtful whether it will allay the fears of those black and brown folk, who were so conspicuous in their absence. The age in which they were fully equal but only in spilling blood for their country, they had assumed, had ended long ago.

Trump will inevitably declare his inauguration the greatest ever, but the truth is quite the opposite: it was a dour and sour affair, perhaps historically so. Even Trump will find it hard to ignore the massive bald spots that television cameras showed in the mall across from the Capitol. Possibly the rain had something to do with it, though for the most part the responsibility falls exclusively on Trump. He is paying the price for his combative, vindictive and hostile posture and for his refusal to abandon it in the wake of his November 8 victory. On the other hand, he’s America's president now and his ability to exact revenge is no longer limited to a Tweet’s 140 characters. If there’s something to be scared of right now, it is the volatile mixture of Trump’s short fuse with the vast powers and arsenal that are henceforth under his command.

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