by Akim Reinhardt
My Jewish maternal grandparents came to America just ahead of WWII. Nearly all of my grandmother’s extended family were wiped out in the Holocaust. Much of my grandfather’s extended family had previously emigrated to Palestine.
My maternal family history illustrates why many modern American Jews continue to view Israel as their ultimate safety net. After two millennia of vicious anti-Judaism, many Jews believe they can eventually be run out of any country, even Untied States. American Jews’ sometimes uncritical support for Israel is underpinned by a wistful glance and a knowing nod; if it does happen here, we can escape to there.
Even though I am only half-Jewish, my familial immigration history is more recent than most American Jews. Their ancestors typically arrived here a full generation or two earlier than mine, and most of them did not lose a slew of close family members in the Holocaust like my grandmother did.
But unlike most American Jews, I can counter the fear of “It can happen here” with a sense of American belonging that stems from deeply rooted Southern WASP family history. Depending on which of my paternal branches you follow, we’ve been here upwards of about three centuries.
Or so they tell me.
Exactly how long ago the Reinhardts, Lowrances, Younts, Dunkles, and Hollers I’m descended from first arrived here is besides the point. In fact, not having an exact date actually helps; it was long enough ago that no one really knows. And that feeds into the one common thread binding deeply-rooted white Protestant Americans, despite their many differences in class, education, geographic region, and religious denomination. It’s the unassailable sense that you belong here because you’re from here. That you’re not really the sons and daughters of immigrants. Rather, you’re descended from the people who took this land from Native Americans, and who fought to gain independence from the British. That you’re part of the group who really “earned” it. America’s your inheritance. You own it.
This is also the core of Trumpism: believing you have a better claim to being here than other people do.
That you belong here more than anyone else. And that you, not them, gets to decide how your country is run: who gets to stand at the front of the line, who’s at the back, and who’s not allowed in at all.
The economy was never the driving force behind Trumpism; that was just a convenient vehicle for Donald Trump’s right wing, ethnic nationalist populism. It’s no coincidence that his economic attacks were always aimed at non-white nations, particularly China and Mexico, instead of say Germany or Great Britain. Furthermore, if the blue collar economy really was that important to Trumpism, then the message would’ve resonated much better with economically vulnerable, dark-skinned blue collar voters. But of course Trump’s base is overwhelmingly white. And a lot of it is comfortably white collar middle class, with the poorer Trumpers mostly yapping about flags, guns, Black Lives Matter, AntiFa, and abortion, not jobs.
Trumpism is centrally built around race, nativism, and the answer to the question: “Who’s fuckin’ country is it, anyway?”
Trumpists answer: It’s mine.
It’s like that scene in The Good Shepherd (2006). Joe Pesci’s mob boss character goes on a racist rant about each American ethnic group’s special trait, the thing that’s just their own. Italians have family and the church, he says. Blacks have their music, the Irish their homeland, the Jews their history. What about you people, he asks Matt Damon’s very WASPy CIA agent, what do you have?
“The Untied States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
The best moment in an otherwise mediocre film, it gets at something that’s second nature to many White Protestant Americans: the profound sense of I belong here more than anyone else. This is the heart of Trumpism (and right wing populism generally). It also explains why most Trump supporters do not have rigid, doctrinal ideas about the economy, the pandemic, or other large, complex issues that are mostly just platforms for expressing that national ownership and white identity politics. Trump is their avatar for that ownership and identity. If he says we need a trade war with China and to never wear masks, those are the marching orders they follow in pursuit of their Promised Land. If he says we need unfettered free trade and mandatory vaccines upon penalty of prison, then most will eagerly about face.
Donald Trump is not the champion of this or that issue. He is the embodiment of a dream. And that is why he will remain such a dangerous force in American society and politics even after he is dragged kicking and screaming from the White House. We are not out of the woods just because Joe Biden won and Trump is, as of this writing, 1-for-48 in his frivolous election lawsuits. He has many different types of arrows in his quiver, and he will continue to fire all of them in the years to come. Things can still go very, very wrong.
As a severely mentally ill demagogue, Trump has no loyalty to anyone or anything. Not the body politic, the constitution, his political party, Americans generally, or even the throbbing masses shouting his name. And those most ardent followers likewise have little loyal to or respect for the GOP, the constitution, democratic norms, their fellow Americans, or even reach other. They have joined his cult of personality, and their political loyalties are (at least for now) only him, one man above the law who helps them build and define something no human can live without: a personal identity.
While this all sounds quite a bit like fascism, there’s an obvious stumbling block to that conclusion: Trump himself is far too stupid and ignorant to be an actual fascist or adherent to any other complex ideology. However, at some point labels just don’t matter in the face of process. And this is one of those moments. Trump possesses none of the characteristics that typically lead politicians to at least nominally respect the political system. He will, without hesitation, damage or destroy the republic to get what he wants. Meanwhile, his loyal followers use him to define their personal identity as pure Americans. They have joined Trump’s cult of personality and jumped into the swirling brew of right wing populism and ethnonationalism. Call it what you want. That many of his followers eagerly believe Nazism was a form of communism and that the real American Hitlers are Jews like Bernie Sanders and George Soros, tells you all you need to know about how it functions.
The wrong man is in power, and enough people have drunk the Kook-Aid. As Trump desperately flails and yells, whines and wails, and looks for ways to remain in power despite losing an election, he will not go gently into that dark, political night. He will rage, rage against the dying of his cultish light. Just as he now threatens to destroy the republic so he can remain in power, he will spend the next four years undermining the republic so he can regain the top spot.
Donald Trump is a natural, full blown authoritarian striving to be dictator-for-life. His mechanism for achieving that is serving as the head of a grotesque cult of personality built upon angry, exclusivist ethnic nationalism, steeped in racism and patriarchy.
Two-hundred and thirty-two years in, it should go without saying that Donald Trump is hardly the first racist and/or sexist president. Frankly, he’s not even the most racist or sexist. During the 19th century we had presidents who personally owned slaves and/or murdered Indians in the name of white nationalism, and none of them thought women should vote. By the early 20th century, slavery and “Indian wars” were a thing of the past, the U.S. overseas imperialism was in full bloom, and avowedly racist presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson forged a global empire grounded in white superiority. America’s great social reckoning did not come until relatively recently in its history, after World War II.
Yet that’s precisely what makes Trump’s racism and sexism so dangerous. Not that it’s the worst of any president. But that it’s by far the most anachronistic. He reeks of a pre-civil rights, pre-women’s rights America where it was still commonplace and completely acceptable for a white man to hate and fear black people who did not suck up to him; to resent brown skinned immigrants who were not servile to him; and to view women as little more than whores and maids.
I suspect this is what Joe Biden was clumsily trying to get at last summer when he stupidly claimed that Donald Trump is our first racist president. Obviously he’s not. But his racism and sexism are so profoundly anachronistic for a modern president that they inevitably divide the nation and its people in startlingly fundamental ways. Racism was once so thoroughly woven into America’s social fabric, that even most white opponents of slavery were very racist; they just thought slavery was bad, often for economic reasons. But that great social reckoning did in fact begin after World War II. It did not end racism or sexism, of course, but it did make enough headway that bigotries are now at least divisive. That’s actually progress. But those divisions are precisely what Trump has seized upon, openly and unapologetically.
Trump’s odious values do more than merely reflect his sad, backwards persona. By parading them from his bully pulpit for all to see, he rallies the nation’s worst instincts, revives and spreads its most hysterical fears, inflames its bitterest jealousies, and promotes angry and even violent resistance to the modern, multi-ethnic nation that we could and should be.
Trump has channeled the most perverse elements of American masculinity and whiteness y through fear mongering and angry pandering to xenophobia, racism, and even elitism in the form of faux populism. Trumpist hatred, fear, and selfishness defies our shared reality: the United States is a modern multi-ethnic republic.
Whether as a candidate, the president, or ex-President, Donald Trump attacks the dream of modern America and divides Americans in firm and practical ways. And once those divisions are entrenched, as they now seem to be, he can effectively erode constitutional norms. With Americans at each other’s throats in his name, Trump’s open threats and concrete efforts to upend government and install himself a ruler-for-life carry more heft than anyone dreamed possible just a few years ago.
My unusual genealogical alchemy alerts me to just how much horror Trumpism can wreak if it finds ultimate triumph.
The deeply-rooted WASP in me hears the dog whistles and recognizes Trumpism’s clarion call to White America: This is your home more than it’s anyone else’s, the place where you’re really from; no one can run you off, and everyone needs to get behind you. It’s a newfangled version of the White Man’s Paradise that my long ago ancestors sought, and which Donald Trump pedals to voters like a phony university, a frozen steak, or a gleaming luxury condo full of tacky accouterments.
And as the grandson of Eastern European Jews who fled the rise of fascism, I sense that absolutely anything’s possible. That it is not hysterical to have a deep sense of foreboding, because no matter how well things seem to be going, they can turn horribly wrong and you can be driven from any place, or worse.
When I was young, this mixed heritage created a tension within me. I sorted out in my early twenties. Even though I had a bris and a bar mitzvah, and grew up much closer to my Jewish family than I did to my faraway WASP family, I eventually decided that I’m not going anywhere, and I’m certainly not fleeing to Israel, trading the heritage of one colonial settler state for another. If shit ever does go sideways, then fuck it. I’m gonna make my stand and fight. For America, not simply as it is, but as it could be. America as it should be. And against the dated, hazy fears of millions of white Americans who use Trump to express their insecurities, fears, and desire to remain on top in this way or that, to claim this nation’s soul as theirs and theirs alone. I stand against those who do not want to share, much less come together. And I will refuse, at all costs, the nightmarish inheritance Trump would foist upon this nation’s white people.
This is my real home. Not because I’m white, and not nearly as much as it is the real home of Indigenous peoples. America is not mine to claim. But it’s all I’ve got. I’m as much a guest here as I am a host. I strive not to own America, but to be one of its caretakers. And now is the time for all of us to take care.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com