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The Roots of American Anti-Semitism

On October 27, a tragic and anti-Semitic act of violence was committed in Pittsburgh. A lone gunman opened fire in a synagogue, killing twelve innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue. The twenty-four hour news cycle was quick to point fingers at both Republicans and Democrats for the atrocity that had just occurred. Out of all of this shouting emerged one main narrative: Trump is cultivating anti-Semitism in the United States.

This is not the first time such accusations have been made towards Trump, but the backdrop of this brutal shooting coupled with his rhetoric over his first two years of presidency give them newfound severity. However, I do not find these accusations to be entirely correct. Trump is not the creator of anti-Semitism in America but rather promulgates this ideology which has always had a place in our society.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries up until World War II, and more specifically the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was almost as prevalent as racism towards people of color in the United States. It was not until the brutal reality of the Holocaust and the advent of William F. Buckley, a news host and conservative thinker who rebranded American conservatism by sweeping “less desirable” ideas under the rug, that anti-Semitism was pushed out of mainstream American ideology. Whether you agree with Buckley or not, he was at least an intellectual; Trump, on the other hand, is not and propagates those ideas which were dampened—but not removed—from American culture. Within this group, anti-Semitism never disappeared, it was only hushed. Now that Trump has been elected, these ideas not only have a megaphone, but also a chance to become policy.

According to Professor Charles Gallagher, the first call to place Jews in concentration camps did not come from Hitler, but rather from an American proto-Fascist named William Dudley Pelley. In 1933, upon the election of Hitler as chancellor of Germany, Dudley founded his Paramilitary group the Silver Shirts. Throughout the 1930s, Dudley wrote in favor of establishing concentration camps in the Midwest in his private newspaper, reaching an audience of 15,000 individuals across the nation.

This relatively small operation, however, was nothing in comparison to Father Charles Coughlin’s national radio show, during which the Roman Catholic priest railed against the invasion of Jews and Communism into American life in the 1930s to an audience of over five million. Father Coughlin championed the idea of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” which took the violence of the Russian revolution and linked it to the global Jewish Community, thereby establishing the Jewish community as the scapegoat for the supposed violence and socialization of America under the New Deal.

Trump’s anti-Semitism did not suddenly appear out of a vacuum, nor do I believe he is truly anti-Semitic; rather, I believe that Trump is once again emulating the ideas that his constituents hold. That is to say, Trump will promise and say anything to a specific group of people in order to get them to vote for him. For example, Trump promised to keep social security for moderate Republicans, promised to bring jobs back for the blue-collar workers, and promised a return to family values for the Evangelicals. This is what allowed him to have such a diverse group of supporters in the 2016 election. Now with Trump’s anti-Semitic statements, he has become a mouthpiece for a significant portion of his base that already holds those views.

Coughlin was on the air not even eighty years ago, and while society has made progress, those views have been entrenched in American culture for decades and will not disappear overnight. By embodying another ideal of his base to secure popularity, Trump is pushing this country towards a future in which racists and anti-Semites feel emboldened and are emerging out from under the rug to rejoin mainstream culture.

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