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On a pleasant June day in 2017, two groups of mostly young men, maybe a hundred or so, gathered in separate spots in the nation’s capital. The new president of the United States was on Twitter, railing against his tormentors like a defenseless victim rather than the most powerful man in the world. The investigation of alleged collusion between Trump associates and Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign was quietly gaining steam. Trump’s political agenda was stymied, his approval ratings at remarkable lows for someone who had been in office for only half a year. But all was not lost for the forty-fifth president. In society at large, far beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a new force was taking hold, at least in part in the president’s name—one that was allowing bigotry to break into the open without fear of censure or shame. On the contrary, a weird kind of heroism was taking shape in certain circles of the country—indeed, of the world—where “political incorrectness” was to be heralded, the more incorrect the better. Donald J. Trump was having an impact.
So it was that at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, a site redolent with meaning, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world of his dream and where Lincoln’s second inaugural address warning that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” is etched in marble, the leaders of what has become known as the alt-right stood before a hundred or so followers. They were clad in khakis and white polo shirts—the Brownshirts of our time—and they cheered as the men (and one woman) at the microphone spewed anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-Semitic free speech. At the same time, in front of Trump’s White House, a smaller group, derisively labeled the alt-lite by the true believers in the alt-right, railed against the political violence of the Left, obliquely lending its support to the embattled president they revered. The two groups, in fact, hated each other—evidence, perhaps, that the far right was already splintering. But they also had common cause: both gatherings were billed as rallies for free speech, and both saw freedom of speech as license to say any damned thing they wanted. The time-honored notions that one person’s free speech ends where another’s safety and freedom begins, that shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater is not, in fact, protected speech, had been discarded without thought.
At the Lincoln Memorial, Matthew Lyons, a self-described “scientific illuminist,” warned against the parasites clinging to the white race. “You can leave them be; they die and the organism dies with them, or kill them and save the organism.”
Another fixture of the new white nationalist movement, Michael Peinovich, also known as “Mike Enoch,” cut to the chase: “Instead of giving another paean to free speech, yeah, yeah, great, we all love it, I’m actually gonna fucking use it.… The real battle is fought on the grounds of standing up for white people,” he bellowed into the microphone before dishing out the red meat to the faithful. He rattled through the endless signs of the coming “white genocide,” the diversity imperative that is depriving whites of jobs and admissions to higher education, the hordes of brown and black people fleeing terrible lands to sully ours without invitation from the upstanding white people. “Tell me what fucking rule we broke? Sorry for winning,” he shouted to cheers. Oddly, a man stood next to him with a sign that read “Jews for Trump” in English and Hebrew. But that didn’t stop Enoch from launching a call-and-response on who controls the media, who controls the Federal Reserve, who controls Hollywood, who controls Wall Street: the Jews, the Jews, the Jews.
“You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!” the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial chanted.
There it was, a new movement of prejudice and hate largely born in the invisible fever swamp of the Internet, now present in the flesh and claiming a new battleground for the Age of Trump: speech itself.
As the rally wrapped up, its ostensible leader and keynote speaker, Richard B. Spencer, the man credited with coining the phrase “alt-right,” told the dispersing crowd, “Remember everyone, see you in Charlottesville.” Clearly, this gathering was a dry run for bigger things.
* * *
As a child, I didn’t take hate all that seriously, even though I grew up in the South, where racism remained casual and African American women came to my segregated neighborhood in north Atlanta in the morning, then went home in the evening, exhausted, on what we called the “maids bus.” My family attended the most liberal Reform synagogue in the city, perhaps in the entire New South—the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, known by everyone simply as “the Temple.” It had a storied history in the civil rights movement and an ongoing relationship with the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Reverend Dr. King had once preached. But what I remember of my religious education was a near-constant lesson in Holocaust studies with a side of Zionism—the study of a past atrocity and a distant land, neither of which had much meaning to me. At one point in Sunday school, a friend and I put on a puppet show set in Auschwitz, where we joked about the gross and stinky latrines. Hate broadly, and anti-Semitism more narrowly, were that abstract and meaningless. We found it riotous.
And then, suddenly, it was neither abstract nor meaningless. The campaign of 2016 was well under way on May 18 of that year. Donald Trump had not yet won the Republican nomination for president, but he had marauded through most of the primary season by then, crushing Jeb Bush out of the gate, rendering Chris Christie a vassal, making mincemeat of Little Marco Rubio in his home state of Florida, and finally vanquishing Ted Cruz at his Waterloo, the Indiana primary, after mocking the appearance of his last rival’s wife and accusing his father of helping to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Much of the cognoscenti still labored under some vague notion that Trump—not really a conservative, certainly not a liberal—would be stopped at the convention in July, although the mechanics of that engineered coup remained a mystery. He certainly would not be elected president. Meanwhile, pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces were clashing with bloody intensity in San Jose, California, and on the streets of Chicago. Lusty chants of “Lock her up!” rang out at all of the Republican candidate’s rallies. Anti-Trump protesters—often black or Latino—were routinely pushed, punched, and kicked, with the politician at the podium growling his approval. Freedom of speech was no longer an inalienable right guaranteed by the Constitution but a concept to be fought over, defined, and redefined, and possessed by either the Right or the Left.
It was a watershed moment in American culture. We just didn’t realize it.
Like many journalists, I was active on Twitter and Facebook, using social media to promote my thoughts and writing, to share pieces that my friends and colleagues wrote, and to engage an audience that I hoped would read my articles in the New York Times. Politicians used social media as well, but usually in the dullest way, to broadcast pabulum (“On this Father’s Day, let us all honor our fathers”), promote meaningless slogans (“A Better Way”), or share partisan talking points generated by their leadership or consultants (“Obamacare is imploding”; “The rich need to pay their fair share”). Then there was Donald Trump who, long before his maiden run for office, had used Twitter as a window into his id, a mechanism to blurt out his ugliest thoughts and direct his army of followers. Few of us yet understood the power of that tool and what it could unleash.
On that May morning, the Washington Post published a column by Robert Kagan, a Jewish neoconservative at the Brookings Institution known in Washington for backing the invasion of Iraq but little known outside of Washington. The piece was on the rise of fascism in the United States.
I liked its step-by-step breakdown of how authoritarianism could rise in the world’s greatest democracy. Kagan wrote of the stark choice that political figures face with the rise of the autocratic strongman: “Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over.” Ambition may lead a politician onto the fascist bandwagon. No matter how incoherent the Dear Leader’s speech, the ambitious pol praises his wisdom in hope of “a plum post in the new order,” Kagan wrote. Others just hope to survive. They mumble their pledges of support and pray for the best. Others will put their heads down, believing the storm will pass and they will pick up the pieces, rebuild, and get back to normal. “Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.”
As I often do, I grabbed a snippet of a quote and released it to Twitter. I have a lot of followers—not celebrity level, not even a huge number for a Washington journalist, but in the tens of thousands. I don’t say that to brag. Boasting about the number of your Twitter followers is like boasting about the number of kids who want to sit at your table in the middle school cafeteria. It’s just not that revelatory.
Within minutes, I received a response with punctuation I had never seen before.
“Hello (((Weisman))),” wrote “CyberTrump.”
Nothing more. Just that. I was sitting at my desk at work. I had some time on my hands as an editor at the Times, since my responsibilities then centered on domestic policy—economics, the environment, poverty—and with the nation consumed in this strange presidential campaign, not a lot of policy making was going on.
“Care to explain?” I answered, intuiting that my last name in those triple parentheses must somehow denote my Jewish faith.
“What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha!” “CyberTrump” came back. “It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim.” With the cat belled, the horde followed.
What I didn’t know was that I had unwittingly exposed what was known in the alt-right as “echoes,” those three parentheses that practitioners of online harassment wrapped around Jewish-sounding names on social media. Unbeknown to, well, just about everyone, alt-right anti-Semites had created a Google plug-in that could be used to search double or triple parentheses, since ordinary search engines do not pick up punctuation marks. Haters would slap these “echoes” around Jewish-sounding names of people online they wanted to target. Once a target was “belled,” the alt-right anti-Semitic mob could download the innocuous-sounding Coincidence Detector plug-in from the Google Chrome store, track down targets like heat-seeking missiles, then swarm.
“You’ve all provoked us. You’ve been doing it for decades—and centuries even—and we’ve finally had enough,” declared Andrew Anglin, the creator and mastermind of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. “Challenge has been accepted.”
And swarm they did.
“Trump God Emperor” sent me the Nazi iconography of the shiftless, hook-nosed Jew. I was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words Arbeit macht frei replaced without irony with “Machen Amerika Great.” Holocaust taunts, like a path of dollar bills leading into an oven, were followed by Holocaust denial—a classic trope of modern-day anti-Semitism: The Holocaust didn’t happen, but boy, was it cool. The Jew as leftist puppet master from “DonaldTrumpLA”—an image of a giant, bulbous-nosed, shifty puppeteer holding the strings of equally offensive caricatures of feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, Occupy Wall Street types, and the like—was joined by other tropes: the Jew as conservative fifth columnist, the Jew as moneybags financier orchestrating war for Israel, the Jew as leftist anarchist, the Jew as rapacious, the Jew as Wall Street profiteer, the Jew as weak and sniveling, the Jew as all-powerful.
It popped up on my computer while I edited stories or chatted with reporters. It pinged on my iPhone in the Metro or while I was driving. For weeks, more than a thousand—maybe more than two thousand—such messages flooded my electronic life, usually as Twitter notifications but also as emails and voice mails. I hadn’t known that virulent anti-Semitism still existed in America; now, I couldn’t avoid it. The Jew can be all things to some people, it seems, none of them good.
“It is now fully documented that Jews are behind mass-immigration, feminism, the news media and Hollywood, pornography, the global banking system, global communism, the homosexual political agenda, the wars in the Middle East and virtually everything else the Alt-Right is opposed to,” Anglin wrote on his Daily Stormer website in an extensive guide to the alt-right, the burgeoning new white nationalist movement that I had tapped into. “This is, to a shocking extent, simply admitted by the Jews themselves.”
Anglin’s sentiments are old, even ancient. But Anglin is not. He is a figure of our time, one of the men—I have come across no such women—who ushered old-line anti-Semitism into the Internet era with his Daily Stormer, which was the most heavily trafficked neo-Nazi website in the world until GoDaddy and Google refused to host it in August 2017, citing incitement to violence as violating their terms of service. The move temporarily pushed the Daily Stormer onto the “dark web,” accessible only with special browsers that conceal the user’s identity and location. It has popped up again under obscure but accessible Internet addresses only to be chased back into the sewer like an unwanted rat. The site has extolled the heroism of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered seventy-seven people—mostly children—in 2011, and whose readers included Dylann Roof, who gunned down African American parishioners after they invited him to join their Bible study group in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Anglin has a way with words and an appreciation for how social media, email, and the good old telephone can be harnessed by an army of online “trolls” to torture an identified target. He has hackers at his beck and call to find and publish addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and other identifying information—an act known as “doxing.” And he has minions to make the release of that information sting.
* * *
The imaginings by my tormentors of me as an Orthodox Jew in wide-brimmed hat and Hasidic garb were, of course, laughable. I shop, when I shop, at Banana Republic or J.Crew or, if feeling pinched, at Marshalls, like everyone else. I worry about my weight and try to make time for the gym. I’m not much into davening or prayer of a less expressive sort, either. My invocations of God come all too often in profane moments of surprise or anger. Long black coats always struck me as heavy, hot, and unflattering.
For an assimilated Jew, that moment—the “Who, me? Why me?” shock—is indelible. We live lives of unstudied ordinariness, not particularly proud or aware of our assimilation, unconscious of the conformity that has meshed us with American society over the decades. Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore; most don’t live in particularly Jewish neighborhoods. When we stand out, we do so in the same way the rest of America does: through achievement or failure, purple hair or studied fashionableness, inherited and cultivated good looks or physical disability. Then, in this odd moment, we are singled out for the one trait we have stopped thinking much about: being Jewish. How did anyone even notice me? I thought, perplexed as much as anguished.
The truth is, I had become largely disconnected from Jewish life and faith, and like many American Jews I had been lulled into complacency. I was bar mitzvahed, sure, but that was a long time ago, with minimal effort and as little Hebrew as I could get away with. A professional choir (drawn in large part from the Peachtree Christian Church across the street) sang behind the curtains of my synagogue. I bought a Fender Telecaster with the proceeds. I still have it, though my high school girlfriend—Baptist, of course—seems to have kept my Peavey amplifier.
My Jewish identity in college and during my young adult life was observed mainly in the breach, through a brief infatuation with the Palestinian cause that brought me to an Arab village in northern Israel and an international peace commune in East Jerusalem; through my marriage to the towheaded daughter of a Pentecostalist from Appleton, Wisconsin; to the birth of my two daughters, whose gender absolved me of the potentially difficult choice of whether to have a bris.
As my infant daughters grew into childhood, Judaism became my guilty conscience, the thing I wanted for them but could not attain from my wife, who reasoned, logically, that raising the children Jewish would leave her an outsider in her own family. She had no interest in converting and had no expectation that I would accept Jesus as my savior. Best to slip to the lowest common denominator—nothing.
I would drag Hannah and Alissa to the free High Holy Day services at a local university, joining the other misfits from mixed marriages or tentative religious affiliations, smiling awkwardly, children in tow: islands of misfit Jews that formed for two weeks in the fall, dispersed like that mythical trash flow somewhere in the Pacific, then re-formed a year later. The girls hated it. They spoke no Hebrew, recognized no friends in the crowd, and had little context for that annual exposure to an ancient religion other than the springtime trek to Atlanta for Passover with Grandma (from the assimilated Upper West Side of Manhattan side of the family) and Zayde (from the identified Jewish Queens side of the family).
I would make my way through the season of Jewish guilt every fall, then assume my defensive crouch as the season of the Christmas tree, pine wreaths, nutcrackers, faux holly, plastic berries, and garish-but-temporary objets d’holiday approached, bearing the next wave of guilt—the sins of Jewish omission giving way to the sins of intermarriage commission.
But to say that my life in assimilated America was all disorientation and depression would be to severely overstate my dysphoria. Until the rise of Trumpism, Judaism was easy, not just for me but for millions of American Jews. It was cafeteria-style: observe or don’t, join a synagogue or attend the occasional Jewish film festival, read Philip Roth, eat bagels and babka, say “oy” ironically. You could be Jewish by religion, Jewish by culture, Jewish by birth or identity—take your pick. In October 2013, the Pew Research Center asked the American Jewish community what it meant to be Jewish. The answers said a lot: 73 percent, the largest category, said remembering the Holocaust, followed by another category that was even more nebulous, who said leading a moral or ethical life. Then there were the 56 percent who said that being a Jew meant working for justice and equality, the 49 percent who said it meant being intellectually curious, the 43 percent who said it meant caring about Israel, separated by a statistically insignificant gap from the 42 percent who said it meant having a good sense of humor. Second from the bottom, at 19 percent, was observing Jewish law, followed only by eating traditional Jewish food.
Our politics, once almost wholly liberal and Democratic, are now dispersed between the parties. As Republicans and Democrats fought over which party was more pro-Israel, which party was more open to Judeo-Christian ideals, which party was more open to Jewish voters (and donors), Jews felt their place in society comfortably cushioned in bipartisanship. Our coreligionists graced our movie screens (Natalie Portman! Scarlett Johansson! Winona Ryder!) and led the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago (Rahm! He was on a first-name basis with all of us, regardless of whether we loved him or thought him a schmuck). We succeeded without apology but also struggled like everyone else. Anti-Semitism was in the past. The “Jewish Question” was little worth mentioning.
And then, all at once, it was. On my phone, on my computer, in my voice mail. The information technology guys in my office asked if I had called the police (I hadn’t). I got that sad cancer face from colleagues and friends—I’m so sorry about what you’re going through. Strangers on the Internet told their followers and friends, if you want to see how ugly things are getting, check out @jonathanweisman’s Twitter mentions. I brushed it aside, but I couldn’t stop looking. Like the tongue finds the tooth with the ache, my eyes were drawn to my correspondents.
“I found the Menorah you were looking for,” one of them offered with a Trump-triumphant backdrop on his Twitter profile; it was a candelabrum made of the number 6 million—Didn’t happen, but man, was it cool. “Old Grand Dad” cheerfully sent over a patriotic image of Donald Trump in colonial garb holding up the Liberty Bell and fighting “against the foreign hordes” with caricatures of the Jew, the American Indian, the Mexican, the Chinese, and the Irish cowering at his feet.
I was certainly not the only Jewish journalist to experience the onslaught. Julia Ioffe is a gifted freelance journalist who covered the 2016 campaign (she now writes for The Atlantic). She was born in Moscow but driven out of the Soviet Union during in its last dying days in the 1980s by resurgent anti-Semitism. In April she wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ magazine that revealed that Melania had a half-brother with whom her family was not in contact. Hardly Watergate, but the revelation did not sit well with the future first lady or her husband. “My parents are private citizens and should not be subject to Ms. Ioffe’s unfair scrutiny,” Melania Trump wrote on Facebook on April 24. For the Trumps’ army of anti-Semites, she might as well have written, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Ioffe was served up on social media in concentration camp garb, threatened with rape, pictured kneeling, hands bound, brains being blown out by a Nazi executioner.
“I don’t control my fans,” Melania told an interviewer, waving off Ioffe’s treatment with a faint pshaw. “She provoked them.”
Bethany Mandel is a young, Orthodox, stay-at-home mom in New Jersey who writes for the Forward, an influential Jewish news outlet, as a conservative, often on social issues such as abortion. A social conservative with a buoyant, smiling face and a penchant for bragging about her children, she is hardly the profile of a target of right-wing hate, certainly not the “social justice warrior” the trolls love to loathe. But an off-handed anti-Trump tweet after the South Carolina primary drew scrutiny from Trump supporters, who, shall we say, did not bother to read her other work. She was called a “slimy Jewess,” threatened with sexual assault, and told she “deserved the oven.” One anonymous tormenter electronically harassed her for nineteen hours straight. When she received death threats in her private Facebook mailbox, she filed a police report—then bought a gun.
She had company in the growing camp of armed Jewry.
“I have augmented my firearms collection and training, obtained a Concealed Carry weapon permit, and became a NRA life member because of the approval of violence Trump has encouraged,” Nathan Wurtzel, a Republican strategist, told her, a quote she included in her Forward column in March 2016, not long before I felt the same lash. “It’s not just the anti-Semitism of his most ardent fans, but the general breakdown of civil society they seek. I think all American Jews should be armed per the laws of their state.”
Hadas Gold—Tel Aviv born, Arizona raised, and editor of Politico’s On the Media blog—appears to have done nothing more offensive than write about the presidential campaign with a Jewish name. For her sins, she was presented online with a Nazi-era yellow Jude star affixed to her chest and the warning, “Aliyah or line up by the wall, your choice.” (Aliyah is the term for Jews emigrating to Israel.) “What does it say about this election that I’m so meh about really crazy anti-Semitic attacks on me on social media and via email?” she asked on Twitter on October 16.
For women Jewish journalists, the anti-Semitic threat was mixed with an ominous menace of sexual violence.
The Anti-Defamation League tasked a group of venerable journalists, led by Steve Coll, the former managing editor of the Washington Post, to catalogue the attacks. Their findings: 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages posted on Twitter from August 2015 to July 2016, of which 19,253 were directed at journalists. The onslaught climbed significantly as the presidential race heated up. More than 800 journalists were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter, but ten of them received 83 percent of the total attacks. I was number five on that Top Ten list.
Beyond the Internet and beyond journalism, the pace of the assaults on multiethnic, multicultural democracy was only picking up steam. It would be foolish to think that hate this virulent would confine itself to commentary. It was certainly not confined to Jews. Muslims have been physically assaulted by Trump supporters. An Indian engineer in Kansas was gunned down by a man shouting, “Get out of my country!” His widow was later targeted for deportation. Hispanics—many of them not immigrants—have been taunted and threatened. Undocumented immigrants are being hauled from their homes, schools, and workplaces for deportation. Groups that had been maligned over centuries at different times in different regions now shared a common tormentor: the alt-right, a militant agglomeration of white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, and America Firsters that had been waging war on the Republican establishment for some time.
Richard Bertrand Spencer, one of the leaders of this new white nationalist movement, had been bouncing around racist, anti-Semitic circles through the Obama years. A son of privilege, born in Boston to an ophthalmologist and a cotton heiress, Spencer graduated from St. Mark’s School of Texas, the kind of broad-lawned private school where the boys wear white blazers to commencement, attend chapel, and have access to a planetarium. He majored in English and music at the University of Virginia, earned a master’s in the humanities from the University of Chicago, and studied in Vienna for two summers. His unfinished doctoral work at Duke was in modern European intellectual history. In short, he seemed as if he had nothing much to be angry about. Spencer burst into the public consciousness during the Trump campaign. His stiff-armed “Hail Trump” salute in full view of television cameras and print reporters on the eve of Trump’s inauguration made him something of a household antihero. He was famously sucker-punched in the face while doing an interview on Trump’s inauguration day. The video of this sparked both cheers and hand-wringing from liberals uncertain about the aptness of cheering violence.
The alt-right’s court jester, Milo Yiannopoulos, had also lived largely on the fringes, a silver-tongued provocateur at Breitbart, the conservative news website run by Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon and unofficial organ of the alt-right. He spoke with a posh English accent, specialized in taunting the Left, reveled in mocking women, and was an expert at seeking publicity. Then Trump was elected, and Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, the circus-like gabfest of the American Conservative Union. He had arrived. The ACU was once a staid guardian of traditional conservatism, standing athwart history and shouting “No”—William F. Buckley types with pipes and principles: small government, low taxes, but also tolerance. With the Yiannopoulos invitation and the slavish devotion to all things Trump, the organization that invented conservative ratings for lawmakers now believes hate is worthy of engagement. Images of Yiannopoulos posing with a stack of Hitler biographies and cradling a Nazi-era iron cross didn’t get him disinvited, nor did the stream of invective about “whinging Black Lives Matter activists,” “whining feminists,” and Jews that run, well, everything. The line was crossed when videotape surfaced of him extolling the virtues of homosexual relationships between older men and boys as young as thirteen. It is good to know that while anti-Semitism and racism are tolerable points of debate for the American Conservative Union, pedophilia and statutory rape are still beyond the pale. We all have our limits.
But fear not. As a consolation, Milo’s benefactors quickly raised $12 million to finance MILO, Inc., a touring company of alt-right provocateurs dedicated to “making the lives of journalists, professors, politicians, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists and other professional victims a living hell.” After Yiannopoulos’s book contract was canceled, he self-published his memoir, Dangerous, and launched it with a Manhattan book party that featured strippers who began their tease in full-length burkas, dancing dwarves in yarmulkes, and Milo himself snapping the necks of left-wing impersonators.
“Free speech is back—and it is fabulous,” he declared in his launch statement.
Then came Charlottesville and the “Unite the Right” rally that seemed to change everything—or at least forced a sleeping nation to confront its new reality. A racist, anti-Semitic mob gathered with its Nazi flags and “Jews are Satan’s children” placards not far from the green of the University of Virginia, founded by the man who wrote that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights. Tiki torches and chants of “Jews will not replace us!” provided the indelible images and sounds of the summer of 2017. Then an Ohio man named James Alex Fields Jr., who had marched earlier sporting the white polo shirt and black shield of Vanguard America, a group dedicated to white supremacy and fighting the international Jew, sped his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators gathered to celebrate the dispersal of the hate-mongers. Heather Heyer, a young Charlottesville paralegal, died; dozens were injured; and the notions of peaceful assembly and free speech were stripped bare.
The nation gasped.
* * *
There are broader crosscurrents in all this. The Right has successfully seized the cause of free speech in recent years, defining tolerance as the mandatory acceptance of intolerance. The alt-right popularized the term “special snowflake” for those delicate-hearted liberals who can’t quite stomach bigoted provocation, and the term now has wide currency on the nation’s campuses, where the battle lines are most clearly drawn. A sitting member of Congress, Steve King of Iowa, can declare, “I’d like to see an America that’s so homogeneous that we look a lot the same,” and we are supposed to accept this in the name of free expression. Kim Weaver, King’s would-be Democratic opponent in the 2018 midterm elections, dropped out of the race the summer before, citing on her Facebook page as one of the reasons “alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats.” A Republican state representative from Mississippi, whose district includes the site where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, mutilated, shot, and thrown into the waters of the Tallahatchie River, says any leader who allows Confederate memorials to be taken down “should be LYNCHED.” We tsk tsk. The far left has responded with ever more dramatic displays of militant policing of speech. A shout-down of the conservative scholar Charles Murray at Middlebury College sparked Milo Yiannopoulos to wade onto the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a provocation that was greeted with just the anarchist melee that he was hoping for. Not content with one violent clash between right-wing thugs and left-wing anarchists, verbal bomb thrower Ann Coulter decided that she, too, would speak at Berkeley, only to back down in the face of militant special snowflakery.
After the tragic shooting of Republican Representative Steve Scalise on a baseball practice field in the summer of 2017, a new cry arose from the alt-right. The shooter, who was killed by the police, was an unhinged leftist, a follower of Bernie Sanders who hated Trump. In his actions and death, the far right found a side cause to their free speech movement: standing up to the violence of the Left. Their victimhood neared completion; their own predations took another step toward carte blanche. Even after the bloody showdown in Charlottesville, alt-right defiance took the form of victimhood. It was the anti-fascist, or Antifa, movement that did it; it was the police that allowed it; it was the white man, again, who was oppressed. Even President Trump’s oh-so-mild displays of moral umbrage were greeted by the white supremacists with shouts of outrage.
“So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated [sic] & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?” demanded David Duke, the former Klan leader and unrepentant white supremacist, on Twitter in August 2017.
Through all this we are becoming unmoored from an agreed-upon reality. Our president can accuse our former president of wiretapping him, then send his consigliere, Kellyanne Conway, out to the cameras to declare, “I’m not Inspector Gadget.… I’m not in the job of having evidence. That’s what investigations are for.” His near-daily attacks on the “Fake Media,” the “Failing New York Times,” “Dumb as a Rock Mika Brzezinski,” “Crazy Joe Scarborough,” and “Fraudulent CNN” are meant to disorient us, to make us question truth itself, or, short of that, at least to inure his followers from the influence of actual events and an accumulation of data points that might shake their faith in him. The television journalist Megyn Kelly invited right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to be interviewed on her prime-time NBC news show to discuss his contemptible assertion that the massacre of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a “false flag” production of the Obama administration to push gun control; then, amid the outcry, she asked the parents of murdered children to appear on the show to defend the objective reality of their grief. They declined.
And we seem to be paralyzed in the face of the far right’s forcible seizure of the free speech movement. It’s hostage taking. A few weeks before the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in the summer of 2017, an African American minister from Texas, Dwight McKissic, published on a blog a draft resolution audaciously proclaiming that “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing,” naming this “toxic menace” as white nationalism and the alt-right.
His draft resolution called on the convention to “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system.”
The result wasn’t a unanimous vote of steadfast courage. It was chaos. The convention dithered, worried sick about the 81 percent of Evangelicals who voted for Trump. Divisions that lay beneath the surface of the Southern Baptist world burst into the open: divisions over race, politics, and hate. What was missing from the debate was religion and faith. A religious order could not take a firm stand against hate. “We were very aware that on this issue, feelings rightly run high regarding alt-right ideology,” Barrett Duke, the head of the resolutions committee, told a reporter for the Atlantic. “We share those feelings.… We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love, which we’re also commended by Jesus to incorporate.”
What Would Jesus Do? Equivocate, I guess.
Unsurprisingly, black ministers were furious. “We must be clear: We live in a time when equivocating on these matters furthers the sin of racism even to violence and death,” wrote Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Southern Baptist pastor, in a tweet. “Any ‘church’ that cannot denounce white supremacy without hesitancy and equivocation is a dead, Jesus denying assembly. No 2 ways about it.”
Richard Spencer was exultant amid the turmoil, which was reported from Phoenix by a blogger and freelance journalist, Sarah Posner. Presumably, it was her last name that elicited this comment on Twitter: “The irony of jews who imagine themselves to be morally superior accusing whites of supremacism.” The Jew is the oppressor; the white man is the victim.
* * *
A week and a half before Election Day, I spoke to a group composed largely of elderly Jews in a community center just beyond the D.C. line in Maryland—one of those small, nebulous villages—this one called Friendship Heights—that really has no right to be autonomous of the metropolis around it. “In ten days,” I said, “the United States will have elected its first woman president. The question at that moment will be whether the hate and division that surfaced during the 2016 campaign will be remembered as a last gasp of a defeated populace, clinging desperately to the old order they once ruled as it was swept away, or the beginning of a recalcitrant movement against American democratic pluralism.” Most members of the audience applauded with the same smug certainty that I was showing.
One man, though, with a strong Central European accent, stooped over a cane, spoke to me afterward. “I have seen movements like this before,” he told me.”They are not so easily dismissed.”
Like so many other members of the Washington cognoscenti, I had been dead wrong. I could justify it. Oh, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million; her 2 percent win was the largest of any losing presidential candidate since the disputed election of 1876. Had it not been for the Russians, or James Comey, or Anthony Weiner, or Jill Stein, surely she would have won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which she lost collectively by a smaller number than a capacity crowd at Lambeau Field. Perhaps all true, but I was wrong nonetheless.
And since that miscalculation, the troubles have grown for Jews, leaping from the abstraction of the Internet to the reality of toppled headstones at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, swastikas as graffiti, and bomb threats against synagogues and Jewish community centers, daycare facilities, and schools.
As with all sensitive matters in our sprawling, polyglot country, the new anti-Semitism is complicated. At a private meeting with state attorneys general, President Trump was asked about the rise of anti-Semitic threats. He told the attorney general of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro (who is Jewish), “You’ve got to be careful. It could be the reverse. This could be the reverse, trying to make people look bad.”
That “false flag” accusation was greeted with a new round of outrage by some Jewish groups and liberals, although, as with so many outrageous statements from the president, most stayed silent. Always best to wait and see. And perhaps they were proven right. When the first arrest was made in the bomb threats, the alleged perpetrator was a black former journalist of questionable mental health. He had apparently been phoning in the threats to get back at an ex-girlfriend. The coup de grâce came when a Jewish American-Israeli teenager was arrested in Israel, allegedly for having phoned in the lion’s share of the threats. Conservatives immediately hailed the genius of Trump’s warning and demanded an apology from all those who had claimed that his nationalism, reluctance to speak out, or sins of omission had fostered the attacks. David Duke’s white supremacist website declared that the arrest was made only after Trump sent a “trusted team of FBI agents to Israel to get to the bottom of this matter.” That gave Duke and his sidekick from Andrew Anglin’s neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, Eric Striker (who called himself “the winner of ‘the Daily Stormer Was Right and the Jews Lied’ award”), a chance to launch into a lengthy diatribe on the history of Jewish psychological warfare efforts against innocent white folks.
Yes, it’s complicated; but perhaps the reason mentally unstable young men were phoning in bomb threats to Jewish schools, community centers, and daycare centers was because anti-Semitism was in the news and in the national bloodstream. It would resonate.
“We have to ask ourselves, are people emboldened by the inflammatory rhetoric around them?” James Comey, the director of the FBI, asked a lunch crowd at a conference of the Anti-Defamation League in May 2017 in Washington. He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Donald Trump fired him a few days later.
Well after the arrests of those two bomb-threat callers, supporters of the president held a rally in Huntington Beach, California, one of several small but spirited pro-Trump gatherings that day. On the sands of Orange County, one Trump supporter held aloft a sign that read simply “Da Goyim Know.” It is a popular anti-Semitic meme from the Internet, code to the alt-right world, short for “Da Goyim Know, Shut It Down,” as in Oh, no! The non-Jews have discovered our nefarious plot to control the world! Better close down the operation. “Da Goyim Know”—the alt-right has your number, Jew. No, it doesn’t make sense to us, but it does to the initiated, and it had jumped from the virtual world to the very real one as punches flew between protesters and counterprotesters. There was nothing intangible or high-tech about fists connecting to faces on that beach.
“Nothing scares the destroyers of Western Civilization more than this: ‘Da Goyim Know.’ We are reaching critical mass and they know it,” David Duke crowed in a March 26, 2017, tweet, signing off, “Make America Great Again.”
In Charlottesville, before blood started flowing in the streets, Duke told the media crowded around him, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”
Whether he knew it or not, Donald Trump ran the most anti-Semitic presidential campaign in modern American history. At this time, in November of 2017, I still maintain that he didn’t know it. But haplessness is not a defense. When grainy visages of Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein and Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen grace the television screen on your closing campaign ad as the narrator darkly denounces the “global special interests,” someone on Trump’s campaign knew. His audience in the alt-right certainly knew. At one point, after Trump retweeted a put-down of Jeb Bush by “WhiteGenocideTM,” the neo-Nazi who had previously professed his admiration for Hitler, another white nationalist, “TheNordicNation,” approvingly proclaimed, “You can say #WhiteGenocide now, Trump has brought it into the mainstream”—white genocide being the risible notion that the increasing power of Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities, not to mention the mingling of racial blood, constitutes a planned threat to the Caucasian race.
When Donald Trump was finally asked to his face about the rise of anti-Semitism, he launched into an incoherent screed on his political strength among some unspecified groups that hadn’t liked Republicans in the past, his Jewish daughter, and his Electoral College margin. The questioner, Jake Turx, a Hasidic journalist with Ami Magazine, picked by Trump as a friendly face, didn’t disappoint. Clearly, he had not intended to offend the president.
“Despite what some of my colleagues may have been reporting, I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We understand that you have Jewish grandchildren. You are their zayde,” Turx said gently, his skull cap on, his payot tucked behind his ears.
Trump nodded slightly and murmured, “Thank you.”
“However, what we are concerned about, and what we haven’t really heard being addressed, is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report out that forty-eight bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts and threatening to—”
For the president of the United States, that was enough.
“Sit down,” he commanded. “I understand the rest of your question.”
He then assured us all that he was “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your life.”
“I hate the charge. I find it repulsive,” he sputtered as he shouted down the sympathetic reporter in the White House’s ornate East Room. “I hate even the question because people that know me…” And with that, his verbiage spun into nonsense. He never answered the question: When are you going to address the uptick in anti-Semitism?
* * *
By now, we are all wondering if it was the right question. Anti-Semitism is a pestilence that has survived millennia, raging at some times, retreating at other times into carriers that have passed it on in silence through the generations. The questions, then, are what triggered its latest outbreak, how were we again caught unawares, and what are we going to do about it?
Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Weisman