One month more than 61 years ago, I was born to two secular, liberal Jewish parents who lived in a bedroom community for Rutgers University, a suburb that voted reliably Democratic. Despite all that, I have not lived my life within a partisan or ideological or demographic bubble.
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Two of my closest friends in childhood were Catholic, one of them with a fervent Goldwater Republican for a father. During my college years in the 1970s in the radical-chic confines of Madison, Wisconsin, I learned a healthy skepticism of left-wing dogma.
As a journalist and author in the decades since then, I have traveled widely in the United States. Writing about religion, I’ve spent time in evangelical Christian churches and resisted judging them. One of my books delved into the transformation of three working-class families from Roosevelt New Dealers to foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution.
All of these experiences made me a believer in American exceptionalism. When my wife, a convert to Judaism, told me she did not entirely trust the tolerant tone of contemporary America, I refused to join her in packing an emergency suitcase.
Tonight, though, in the shattering aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as president, I do not recognize my country. I find myself an instant alien in a nation about to be ruled by a virtual fascist who espouses and embraces the hatred of Muslims, Hispanics, women, gays, and, yes, Jews. He boasts of wielding imperial power to punish the independent judiciary and his defeated opponent, Hillary Clinton. And with a Republican majority in Congress, he will be free to cloak dictatorial edict in the robes of majority rule.
None of the rationales of Trump’s voters – that his ignorance and indecency were worth it in exchange for having a Republican president appoint a right-wing justice to the Supreme Court and throw out Obamacare, Wall Street regulation, and the Iran nuclear deal – can be accepted.
As impolitic as it was for Clinton to have described half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” she was right. Trump mobilized an alt-right base of white supremacists and racists and nativists and anti-Semites. The rest of his voters, whatever percentage they comprise, were willing to accept a Hitlerian figure in exchange for a promise he will deliver something they think they want, whether it’s a magical end to globalization or the demonization of all forms of diversity.
This utterly disheartening turn of events, the worst thing I have endured in my life, has some revealing antecedents.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, when black slaves were freed and given the right to vote, between 1,500 and 2,000 African Americans were elected to public office in the states of the former, defeated Confederacy. But in a terroristic backlash known as “Redemption,” the Ku Klux Klan and its ilk murdered at least 35 of those black leaders and mounted an armed insurgency that ultimately drove the northern forces of Reconstruction away and ushered in a century of Jim Crow segregation.
A half-century after Redemption’s awful triumph, Al Smith ran for president, the first Catholic to seek the office and a political hero to American Jews. From Klansmen in the gutter to elitist bigots like William Jennings Bryan and William Allen White in the penthouse, the dominant white Protestants of America subjected Smith to the most prejudiced rhetoric ever inflicted on a presidential candidate. Smith was routed.
And some 25 years later, after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the racist South adopted a policy of “massive resistance.” On its less lethal side, it meant refusing to implement any court rulings or the civil rights laws passed in 1964 and 1965. If such tactics did not make the point, white supremacists were perfectly willing to bomb a black church in Birmingham – only weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington – and kill four little girls. What is a little collateral damage, after all, in defense of white hegemony?
That bombing took place when I was eight years old, and I grew up through the turmoil of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the unfinished business of atoning for America’s original sin of slavery. But until this night, I believed in the better angels of my country.
I thought that the election and re-election of Barack Obama by a coalition of America’s ethnic and religious and sexual-orientation spectrum laid the false religion of white supremacy to rest. Now I realize that Obama’s very presence in the White House, his capability and his dignity, were more than white supremacy could bear. Now my folly and my naiveté are revealed.
One part of me, looking at the entirely unpredicted election results, cannot help but wonder if Vladimir Putin’s hackers have suborned the voting process. Believe it or not, that conspiracy theory qualifies as optimism. More likely, and far worse, the United States has gleefully hugged evil to its morally contaminated breast.
Samuel G. Freedman, the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew,” is a regular contributor to Haaretz. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman