Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Plot Against America

In 2004, the great American writer Philip Roth published what, looking back from 2017, was a prescient novel, The Plot Against America.  It is the fictional story of how America Firster Charles A. Lindbergh won the presidency.  Roth grew up in Newark New Jersey.  My siblings and I followed him in attending the same high school.  Some of his famous novels including this one are set in the community where we all grew up.  While a work of fiction, he injects a good number of historical figures into the narrative including my father, a Hitler refugee and American civil rights leader who was rabbi of one of city’s largest synagogues.  He was among those leaders opposed the Lindbergh administration.  Roth story, set in the 1940s, focuses particularly on anti-Semitism, but his underlying message is that it could happen here.  Substitute Muslims and immigrants for Jews (and we have seen signs of renewed anti-Semitism since the election) and you will know that not only could it happen, it feels like it has.

The well-worn anti-Semitic trope is that Jews are bent in the most sinister way on controlling the world.  A clear echo of that can be seen in statements and speeches by Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, key members of Trumps inner circle, suggesting that Islam is some kind of spreading cancer.  I am not saying that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite, his daughter married Jarred Kushner and converted to Judaism.  His son-in-law is perhaps his closest advisor in the White House, but then one of Roth’s key Lindbergh supporters was a fictional rabbi named Bengelsdorf.  What I do believe is that whatever community pushes back on the new president can expect a harsh reaction including name calling a mischaracterization.  This administration is sure to systematically caricature and question the loyalty-to-country of any and all who challenge its policies or actions, including elected officials and, just wait and see, the judiciary.

I’m still waiting for some positive action coming out of the retooled White House, something that commends itself to bi-partisan support.  I’m waiting for some words that can’t be seen as some sort of dog whistle.  I’ve already written about Trump’s attack on the free press and now we can add their “get with the program” or get out threat to career public servants.  One only has to hope that they will grit their teeth and hang on because the onslaught is meant to drive them first to despair and then out the door.  If the civil service is undermined, we will be all the less protected.

In a stunning development, EU President Donald Tusk has added Donald Trump to Radical Islam, Russia and China as principal threats to the Union.  Fair assessment or not, this is the EU, membered by our closest allies.  Considering the president’s support of Brexit and having expressed the opinion that other EU members should follow suit it’s not surprising that Tusk is concerned.  For sure, the threat posed by Trump is quite different than those of the other three – Tusk is not concerned about military action against it by the US – but the very fact of this fear could have serious consequences.  We’re not in a go-it-alone world and can’t afford the luxury of dissing friends.  But then collaboration with others is not part of the Trump playbook.

In an unprecedented way, the Republican controlled senate blocked even the most rudimentary consideration of Merrick Garland nominated for the Supreme Court by Barack Obama, with still almost a year left of his presidency.  Now they are complaining about the due diligence being exercised with regard to Trump nominees and what will clearly be a major fight over his court appointee.  Normally new presidents have somewhat of a honeymoon period with congress but most importantly with the American people.  Trump has a historically low 36% approval rate coming into his presidency.  He continues to talk about a mandate, which is hard to argue with such numbers.  Other presidents have used executive power upon entering the White House, especially when taking over from a chief executive of the other party, including Obama.  The question here is when Americans writ large and their elected representative will start considering his moves as an abuse of power.  From a legal standpoint that may not have happened yet, but it’s hard to believe we’re not headed in that direction.  Meanwhile, while Philip Roth hardly needs me hawking his books, you may want to pick up a copy of the Plot Against America.

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