“Loser.” Donald Trump has called many people this word, and synonyms for it, over the course of his many careers. His adolescent name-calling has degraded our political discourse, and even if he fails at his new chosen vocation (as seems increasingly likely), the damage will be hard to reverse.
Ironically, Trump himself is the candidate of losers — real, not rhetorical ones. As is now well known, his core supporters are white, undereducated men who have been left behind by technology, globalization and the attendant erosion of America’s manufacturing base. Moreover, their days of white supremacy are coming to a close, and they’re mad as hell about it.
In other words, Trump’s supporters are the losers of the new economy on the one hand, and of multiculturalism on the other.
And like losers from across history, rather than confront their pain, they become bullies, finding other people to pick on. Not quite weaker people, in this case, but vulnerable ones: immigrants, minorities, women, the disabled.
It’s interesting writing about bullies and losers for a Jewish newspaper, since Jewish tradition is almost obsessed with the phenomenon — and almost always casts Jews in the position of the bullied, not the bully.
Biblical literature, composed at a time when Israelites were a small people surrounded by bigger ones, is full of such episodes, with the smaller, bullied underdog ultimately getting revenge. The older Ishmael teases the younger Isaac. The brawnier Esau is favored over the more “effeminate” Jacob. Goliath looms large over David, Sisera over Yael.
Of course, in each case, the “loser” wins, enacting ancient Israel’s fantasies of triumph. But along the way, these biblical stories also instill a keenly felt sense of the injustice of bullying. As Nietzsche and the Nazis would later critique, they are part of the “slave revolt in morality,” which elevates goodness over strength, justice over power. Indeed, the Israelites were slaves, and are commanded to remember that they were. As God puts it in the Book of Zechariah, value comes “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”
This biblical preoccupation, part of the invention of ethical monotheism, resonates throughout Jewish history, when once again the Jewish people found itself a small, powerless minority. Talmudic law protects the weak against the predations of the strong. (It even tries, at times, to protect women against men.) Liturgy exalts the notion that our morality, not our strength, ultimately determines our fate. And of course, the Jewish social justice traditions, secular and religious, found solidarity with other oppressed groups long before “intersectionality” became a byword.
Jews have also failed. The converse of intersectionality is the pathology of victimhood. Like Trump’s supporters, we, too, have often been trapped by our persecution complexes, seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, believing the whole world stands against us — and persecuting an “even” weaker people, without a state of their own, somehow imagining them in the image of our persecutors, casting them, somehow, as the stronger ones.
Alas, often the Jewish state is not so different from what Trump’s would be, particularly in the past few years, as ugly racism has become mainstreamed in Israeli society, as Islamophobic rhetoric insists that “they” are unlike “us,” and as permanent occupation has become government policy. Like Trump’s supporters, many Jews also transmute insecurity into anger, with disastrous results.
Sometimes, persecution leads not to forming solidarity with the oppressed, but to bullying them.
As polls increasingly favor Hillary Clinton, I find myself less concerned with Trump the candidate than with the movement he has crystallized around him. Trump is not different in kind from past populist demagogues, but he is different in degree. Never in recent memory has such a mean, nativist message attracted the support of a hundred million Americans. Never before has it been egged on by such a large, right-wing media machine, led by Fox News. And never before were its adherents armed to the teeth.
None of that goes away on November 9, even if Trump loses. And even if Trump’s wall is never built, and his fascistic plans for Muslims never come to pass, the meanness he has unleashed will not disappear.
It didn’t start with Trump. It’s convenient to blame Trump for everything, but the modern Republican Party, its apparatchiks in the Murdoch empire, and its Koch-funded populists in the Tea Party all sowed what Trump has lately reaped. When a congressman can hiss “You lie” in the middle of a presidential State of the Union Address and be richly rewarded for doing so, something terrible has happened to our nation’s sense of comity and respect.
And no, this was never due to “Washington” or “government.” It was due to the right wing. There is no left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party, with its know-nothing nativism, its extremism, its vitriol and its massive funding from the 0.01% (read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” for all the sordid details). There is no liberal Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And while Trump is an extreme manifestation of right-wing bullying, the logic of the bully is intrinsic to conservative ideology. Let the strong survive. Let the weak wither. Shred the social safety net, let the market decide.
That logic would let Isaac be bullied by Ishmael, and Esau gain the blessing over Israel. It is, indeed, often how the world works. But “is” does not dictate “ought,” as the majority of Western religion insists. And as the Torah says many times, “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Judaism is proudly the religion of losers. It is a faith, and now a culture, of people who remind themselves every year — every day, even — that they were slaves, that might doesn’t make right, and that while it is human nature for the weak to bully the weaker, it is our divine nature to rise above it.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson