Antisemitism is Back in American Politics. Where Will it Lead?
Trump's white supremacist dinner is part of a dangerous pattern.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt begins her landmark 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, with an extended history of the rise of antisemitism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In her telling, antisemitism rose as European monarchies relied on wealthy Jewish creditors, like the Rothschilds, for large loans. These monarchies, like the Habsburgs of Vienna, fell after World War I, and became nation-states. The nation-states that emerged, like Austria and Weimar Germany, guaranteed individual rights (however imperfectly) for minorities like Jews. But these nation-states also failed and turned totalitarian. She wrote, "Modern antisemitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balance of powers crashed."
Her analysis on the rise of antisemitism amid the decline of democratic nation-states came to mind as antisemitism has entered into the American political mainstream. On Nov. 22, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had dinner at Mar-a-Lago with white supremacist Nick Fuentes and performer Kanye West, now known as Ye. In October, Ye tweeted that he would go "death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE," leading to his suspension from the platform. Fuentes' worldview includes Holocaust denial and calling for the military to be sent into Black neighborhoods. Despite Trump's multiple post hoc attempts to defend himself claiming he didn't know about his views, during dinner, according to Axios, he said to Ye of Fuentes, "I really like this guy. He gets me."
Trump came into the political mainstream as the American political system seemed to be in crisis -- certainly not on the scale of Weimar Germany, but nevertheless faltering. More and more Americans felt left out of politics amid rising income inequality and globalization. In 2016, Trump railed against elites and vowed, "I alone can fix it;" this message resonated with enough voters for him to win. In 2017, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., chanting "Jews will not replace us," and one woman was killed in a separate peace rally after a white nationalist ran over her. Trump failed to condemn those rioters, and instead claimed there were both "very bad" and "very fine people on both sides."
On Jan. 6, Fuentes led a group of far-right activists who marched on the Capitol. The next day, Fuentes said on Twitter that the Capitol assault was “awesome and I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t.” Fuentes has been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 Committee, and at least seven people with links to his America First organization have been charged with federal crimes.
In 2022, some on the right defended Ye. On Oct. 9, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said the rapper was being targeted by the media for "having opposing thoughts from the norm of Hollywood," adding that he himself was "100 percent supportive of the Jewish community and Israel." In an interview with Fox News' Tucker Carlson, Ye validated a right-wing worldview -- criticizing abortion and defending his support for Trump -- but according to Vice, the most unhinged and antisemitic comments were edited out. However, on December 2, Ye's praise of Hitler on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' show seems finally to have been a bridge too far. After the interview, House Judiciary Republicans deleted their October tweet that read "Kanye. Elon. Trump." which was left up for weeks as the rapper's bigoted comments mounted.
Trump has shattered the taboo of welcoming extremists into American politics. While the right seems to have finally dumped Ye, most Republicans haven't criticized Trump for dining with him. (Former Vice President Mike Pence was among the few to condemn Trump.) Republican congressional leaders have condemned Fuentes and antisemitism, but mostly avoided answering whether they would support Trump in 2024. (On Dec. 3, Trump suggested that the Constitution should be terminated; Republican lawmakers continued mostly to be silent.)
The United States is in a stronger position than the fragile European democracies of the 20th century to avoid the totalitarianism that Arendt described. In the November midterm elections, many candidates who denied that Biden won the 2020 election lost, such as Kari Lake of Arizona. However, among Republicans, there hasn't been a reckoning about why embracing extremism is dangerously destabilizing to our political system or even in pure political terms, a loser. (For example, GOP House members like Jaime Herrera Beutler or Peter Meijer lost primaries to election deniers who in turn lost to Democrats.) Once again, it will be up to voters in 2024 to decide whether to reject extremism.
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.