Oct 5th 2018

The Trump Whisperer 

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 

 

NEW YORK – There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.

Miller plays to all of Trump’s worst instincts: belligerent chauvinism, vindictive loathing of liberals, and hostility to minorities. His partisanship is extreme. In his own words: “Everything that is wrong with this country today, the people who are opposed to Donald Trump are responsible for!” He may actually believe this.

What is odd about Miller, among other things, is the seeming clash between his views on immigrants, refugees, and minorities and his personal background. He is a descendent of Jews who came to the United States after fleeing pogroms in Belorussia. He grew up in California. His parents were Democrats. But he was already reading far-right literature (anti-gun control magazines and the like) in high school and has since consorted with ideologues whose ideas are often hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism. Trump’s speech last year commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day failed even to mention Jews; some believe that Miller was the author.

Miller calls himself a patriot. There is of course nothing unusual about Jews being American, French, British, Russian, or indeed German patriots. Nor is there is any reason why Jews should not be conservative. Margaret Thatcher appointed several Jews to high office, prompting the former prime minister Harold MacMillan’s sniffy remark that her cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians.”

There are other Jews around Trump, too, apart from Miller. Trump appointed Gary Cohn as Director of the National Economic Council and made Steven Mnuchin his Treasury Secretary. Neither is a nativist. Cohn almost resigned last year when Trump defended violent white-supremacist mobs in Charlottesville, Virginia. He did resign this year, but in protest against the introduction of tariffs on steel imports. Like Mnuchin, Cohn believes in low taxes and unfettered free enterprise. (Jared Kushner can be left out of this discussion, because the only reason for his presence in the White House is his marriage to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.)

What is unusual is to be Jewish and a nativist (at least outside Israel). The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported recently that a number of Jews had joined the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Many of them seem to be of Russian descent. An exaggerated fear that Muslims are about to destroy the West appears to be their main motive for joining the far right. Miller is haunted by a similar apocalyptic vision. And there are others of this ilk: the casino magnate and major Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, for example.

But there are sound reasons why Jews in the diaspora normally do not become nativists. Nativist movements that insist on the special privileges of blood and soil have invariably been bad for minorities, especially Jews, leading to the kind of violence that drove Miller’s great-grandparents out of their country.

Some people find it puzzling that anti-Semites have accused Jews of being either archetypal Bolshevists or archetypal capitalists. Historically, most Jews, living in poor villages, were neither. But the attraction of left-wing ideas for Jewish intellectuals is hardly mysterious. Karl Marx himself hoped that once the workers of the world united, ethnic and religious distinctions would cease to matter. And Voltaire, who was no great friend to the Jews, once remarked about the London stock exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan, and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt...” Capitalism, as we know, transcends borders.

Emigration, by no means always voluntary, has been the fate of Jews since the 8th century BC. Open societies, religious tolerance, and freedom of movement have been rare blessings. Hence the traditional appeal of places like Amsterdam, or indeed the US. It explains why American Jews continue to vote largely for the Democratic Party, even after they became more prosperous. Norman Podhoretz, a conservative American intellectual, once wrote a book entitled Why Are Jews Liberals? He was baffled by the idea that, as his fellow conservative Milton Himmelfarb famously quipped, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

But it isn’t baffling at all. Distrust of nativism is the result of long and bloody experience. And now it underpins a growing disenchantment among American Jews with Israel. Nativism, stressing Jewish rights at the expense of the Arabs, is on the rise in the Holy Land, too. Although Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invokes the Holocaust whenever it suits him, he is ideologically closer to evangelical Christian zealots and hard-right nativists like his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, than he is to most Jewish Americans.

This is why, despite much talk of powerful Jewish lobbies in Washington, most Jews will continue to vote against Trump, even though he is an almost slavish supporter of the Israeli government and openly hostile to the Palestinians. It is also why Miller remains an oddball. Celebrating the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, last month, Miller’s former rabbi, Neil Comess-Daniels, denounced Miller’s politics as “completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism.” I am not sure Jewish theology supports such a vehement assertion, but his sentiments are clear.

When William Kristol, a neo-conservative commentator who once flirted with the hard right, expressed his disgust with Trump, David Horowitz, one of Miller’s mentors, called Kristol a “renegade Jew.” Sigmund Freud would have called this “projection.” In fact, the concept goes back at least as far as the Babylonian Talmud, which warned: “Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have.”


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
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