SIMON SCHAMA. On the battle for America (Financial Times 2.11.2018)

Nov 3, 2018

Ten days before the midterm elections in America, murder came to the Tree of Life. Shouting “all Jews need to die”, a neo-Nazi gunman with an animus against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society slaughtered 11 Jews gathered at their synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. Two days earlier, pipe bombs had been sent to 14 critics of Donald Trump by a man who had turned his van into a rust-bucket shrine to MAGA and its great apostle. One day previously, Gregory Bush, thwarted in his attempt to enter a black church in Louisville, Kentucky, had shot and killed two African-Americans at a local supermarket. Before he was arrested, he shouted “whites don’t kill whites”. All three perpetrators believed they were engaged in saving white America.  

This onslaught of actual and attempted killing, along with Trump’s unanticipated revelation that he would like to abolish birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, has decisively changed the character of what was in any case a midterm election like few others. At the last post it has come down to a conflict between two mutually hostile visions of national identity. Battles like this are presently raging worldwide, from the removal of Indian citizenship from Muslims in Assam, to the Brexit debate over just what it means to be British. But because the US has historically been seen, generation after generation, by those who have dreamt of getting there as the immigrant haven par excellence, this battle between a heterogeneous and a homogeneous patriotism has been engaged with unforgiving intensity.

It can all be summed up in two contrasting scenes from contemporary American life. On the one hand there is Squirrel Hill, where Tree of Life synagogue sits between two Protestant churches; where a Palestinian street food truck sells falafel outside the orthodox Jewish Shaare Torah synagogue; where Irish and Italian Catholic families share the neighbourhood with Asians and African-Americans, and where Taylor Allderdice High School has been one of the most integrated institutions in the city.

Like many other Jewish organisations in the US and around the world, HIAS — which began its career helping to resettle destitute Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in the 1880s, and went on to assist Soviet Jews making the same odyssey — has helped resettle asylum seekers, overwhelmingly Muslim, from war zones in the Middle East and elsewhere.This has been deemed a mitzvah, a duty.

Mourners near the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, scene of the October 2018 shooting © AFP/Getty Images But for Robert Bowers, as he prepared to point his AR-15 at elderly worshippers, this was, as he put it, “sugar-coated evil”; “genocide”; participation in an “invasion” bent on slaughtering “my people”. As far as he was concerned, Trump, with a Jewish son-in-law and converted daughter, was in thrall to the “kikes”. But Bowers’s poisoned beliefs were nonetheless the fruit of accusations about Jewish complicity in immigration. From the phobic obsession with George Soros, who has replaced Hillary Clinton as the object of punishment chants at Trump rallies, it has been a natural progression to blame Jews generally for the racial adulteration of America.

Soros is regularly described, not just in alt-right ravings but on Fox News media, in terms out of the classic literature of 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism: the secret manipulator of money and men, plotting the destruction of Christian civilisation. In Connecticut, a Republican candidate for Congress, Ed Charamut, sent out a mailer with the face of his Jewish opponent on it, a crazed look in his eyes, hands stuffed full of dollar bills.

Mourners follow the hearse after the funeral of Tree of Life synagogue shooting victim Jerry Rabinowitz in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 30 © Reuters In particular, Soros has been described as the financier and mobiliser of the immigrant caravan moving north through Central America. When asked whether he believed Soros was behind it all, Trump replied: “I wouldn’t be surprised.” So the scene that might be pictured as the symbolic opposite of Squirrel Hill would be trucks full of troops being sent to the Mexican border to repel the “invaders”.

Setting aside, for a moment, the comically gratuitous mobilisation of up to 15,000 soldiers to face a sad procession of families, many of them mothers and children, fleeing terror and violence in Honduras, almost a thousand miles away from the border and rapidly dwindling in number, the gesture is controversial since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 disbars regular troops from any kind of domestic police action. Even Fox News anchor (albeit a rogue for the facts) Shep Smith felt it necessary to say straight out that the “invasion is coming” panic along with the troop movement was a crude pre-election stunt. “There is no invasion,” he calmly declared; “there is nothing at all to worry about . . . we’re America, we can handle it.”

The contest between two definitions of American nationhood — one embracing immigration, and one insisting on white, principally Protestant homogeneity — has been a constant in the history of the US. The Know Nothings of the 1850s based their party on animosity towards Irish and Italian Catholics. The charismatic leader of the Populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tom Watson, began his career by attacking eastern bankers and the gold standard in the name of the rural poor, both black and white. But by the second decade of the 20th century, Watson had turned anti-negro and bitterly anti-Semitic. It was his animus against the Jews which, in 1915, encouraged a mob to lynch Jewish factory foreman Leo Frank, wrongly convicted of murdering an Irish girl, Mary Phagan, at the Atlanta factory where he was foreman.

Trump is too lazy to succeed as a tyrant, his authoritarian instincts tempered by his indolence and impulsiveness That same year, 1915, was another climactic moment in the battle for American identity. DW Griffith’s cinematically inventive but historically grotesque The Birth of a Nation, with its caricatures of goggle-eyed blacks polluting white America in the Reconstruction years, was the overture for the re-founding of the Ku Klux Klan on Stone Mountain near Atlanta.

Meanwhile two publications encapsulated anti- and pro-immigrant visions of American nationhood. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race was an elegy for racially pure America steadily contaminated by diseased, criminal hordes swarming off the boats. The other was an article published in The Nation by the philosopher Horace Kallen: “Democracy versus the Melting Pot”. His essay coined the term “cultural pluralism” and argued against a cookie-cutter version of American identity.

Instead of uniformity, Kallen argued that American exceptionalism lay in its capacity to reconcile patriotism with the preservation, not the erasure, of cultural identity. Trump is betting that a majority of voters disagree with Kallen. Startling even to his own party, he has, at the last minute, sought to capitalise on white grievance by raising the possibility of depriving the children of undocumented immigrants of their “citizens’ birthright” under the provisions of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. Those, including George Conway, the husband of Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway, who have taken strenuous issue with this proposal have reminded the public that the 14th amendment was passed after the civil war expressly to erase the legacy of the Dred Scott decision of the antebellum Supreme Court denying the possibility of citizenship to slaves or the descendants of slaves. But it is also Trump’s gleeful discovery (as he imagines) that he can bring about this radical alteration by executive order that has turned the immigration debate into one concerned with the abuse of executive power.

The possibility of a Yankee Duce has been a perennial anxiety in history. In the first number of The Federalist Papers in 1787, Alexander Hamilton cautioned that “those men who have overturned the liberties of republics . . . have begun their careers by paying obsequious court to the public, commencing as demagogues and ending as tyrants.” Nine years later, in his farewell address, George Washington warned not only against the blandishments of an authoritarianism stoked by “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms [which kindle] the animosity of one part against another” but also, with shocking clairvoyance, the “foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions . . . ”.

A man at a Trump rally in Elko, Nevada, on October 20 © Ken Light/Contact/eyevine Whether Trump has had any part in “facilitating access” is for Robert Mueller’s investigation to determine, but (admittedly a small consolation) the president is too lazy to be a successful tyrant, his authoritarian instincts tempered by the alternation of indolence and impulsiveness. All he truly craves, aside from endless rounds of golf, is the gush of flattery delivered by his cabinet, the obliging parrots of Fox News, and the rallies to which he is addicted: those overloaded cheeseburgers of his psychic engorgement.

Put those anxieties together — self-promotion posturing as protection from immigrant invasion, and the demonisation of opposition, especially the media, as “enemies of the people” and you have Trump’s unrepentant script in this most fateful election. But will it catch fire with the voters as it did two years ago? Will history look back on the cult of Trump as no more than a hot flash in the pan? Or does the Republic risk mutating into the illiberal state which Viktor Orban and his admirer Steve Bannon have proclaimed to be The Future?

Richard Ojeda (left), a Democratic candidate who stands a chance of winning West Virginia’s deep-red third congressional district in the upcoming midterms © New York Times/Redux/eyevine If the Democrats hope to put a brake on this lurch towards illiberalism, they will have to flip 23 seats in the House of Representatives. Until very recently, the dream of a “blue wave” has been looking just that. A switch of majority in the Senate seems out of reach, but it’s a different story in the House of Representatives. Republican seats that once looked safe, such as Utah fourth and New York 19th, appear to be turning bluer as election day draws near. Across the country, and away from their bicoastal citadels, the Democrats have been able to mobilise a range of fresh, articulate talent which has bitten into red strongholds. The “elite” in many of these contests are Republicans on the defensive. In the deep red state, Utah, Republican Mia Love is struggling against the popular mayor of Salt Lake County, Ben McAdams. In West Virginia third, which went for Trump by 50 points, Richard Ojeda, a veteran from a mining family who voted for Trump but has turned fierce Democrat, is now in a close race with the Republican candidate Carol Miller.

The re-localisation of politics back to material concerns such as healthcare is good news for the Democrats, a way for them to reboot their connections with middle- and working-class voters and move away from the white noise of the culture wars. It’s even more marked in the all-important gubernatorial races, where the Democrats may pick up as many as seven state houses: among them Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan, all of which went to Trump two years ago. But for any or all of this to happen will depend on the turnout of Hispanic and millennial voters, habitually missing in action from midterm polls, matching or exceeding Trump’s core, who are likely to show in 2016-scale numbers.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race. If elected, she would be the first African-American woman governor in US history © Reuters There are other obstacles in the way of blue-tinting the electoral map, not least strenuous efforts by the Republicans to minimise or suppress the vote. Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Kemp, the party’s candidate for governor, who has refused to step down from overseeing the arrangements for voting, was caught on audio worrying about losing the race should all those entitled to vote actually do so. He has the substantial African-American population of the state especially in mind, since his opponent Stacey Abrams would, if elected, be the US’s first African-American woman governor in history. Kemp is doing his best to see this doesn’t happen. It is thought that as many as a million and half voters may have been purged from the electoral rolls on the grounds of not having recently exercised their vote. Needless to say, most affected potential voters are black.

There are other ways, too, in which a democracy can be hobbled, not least through an assault on truth, leaving voters at sea about whom to believe or else cynical that the facts of the matter can ever be securely established — the “he said; she said” courtroom conundrum applied to an election. The arbitration of discoverable truth has been a bedrock of the liberal tradition from its founding. But Bannon’s answer to John Milton’s optimism in Areopagitica — “whoever knew truth put to the worse in free and open encounter?” — or Jefferson’s version in his draft Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error” has been, in his own confident instruction: “flood the zone with shit”.

A supporter at a rally for Andrew Gillum, Democratic candidate for governor of Florida © In the hands of the president, it has worked a treat. Trump inaugurated his political career with the claim that Barack Obama was no American at all, having been born in Kenya, a falsehood that for a long time no birth certificate could gainsay. When DNA evidence exonerated the African-Americans wrongly convicted of raping and assaulting a Central Park jogger, Trump continued to insist on their guilt. For him, whether a matter of law or the fate of the Earth’s climate, science is just another opinion. It is, to be sure, a truism that most politicians treat the truth as a matter of convenience.

Will history look back on the cult of Trump as a flash in the pan? Or does the Republic risk mutating into the illiberal state which Orban claims as the future? But there has never been a president for whom the falsification of fact has been to such an extent the driving engine of allegiance. In the past two weeks alone, by way of bolstering the notion that the caravan of migrants is a national security threat, Trump insisted there were “Middle Easterners” among their numbers, before conceding that there was no evidence to support any such thing. On the stump, fantasies have cascaded down: non-existent riots in California against sanctuary cities; a tax cut for the middle class to be acted on “before November” — which is news to Congress since it is out of session.

So will the sensationalist strategy used to stunning effect in 2016 work again, or could it have worn out its electoral welcome? Instead of taking fright at the phantom army of invaders, the Democrats are hoping Americans are more worried about decent healthcare. If that turns out to be the case and large numbers of voters act on the hunch that perhaps it was not such a good idea entrusting all the branches of government to one party, then the Founding Fathers can rest easy in their tombs, and democracy in America, as they wisely devised it, will yet have a robust future.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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