We’ve got Steve Bannon wrong.
Among American Jewish progressives, the consensus is that Bannon, Donald Trump’s “strategic adviser,” is anti-Semitic. The website he managed, Breitbart.com, called itself “the platform for the alt-right,” and the “alt-right” contains within it some extreme anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and so forth. And besides, according to court documents, Bannon didn’t want his child going to school with “whiny Jews.”
This assessment is incorrect. It misses what Bannon is really about (which is far more dangerous than anti-Semitism), bespeaks an overly self-absorbed Jewish community and continues the left’s self-defeating tone-deafness when it comes to Trump and his associates.
Bannon is a populist. Well before the current iteration of Trump burst onto the scene, before Sarah Palin, even before the Tea Party, Bannon was promoting a seemingly new form of American nativism. Listen to the speech he gave at a Tea Party rally in 2010. Three-quarters of it sounds like stuff that Bernie Sanders would say: elites are ruining America; the 2008 financial bailouts rewarded only the wealthiest few. “In the last 20 years,” Bannon said, “our financial elites and the political class have taken care of themselves and led our country to the brink of ruin.”
But that other 25% was quite different from Sanders’s stuff. Bannon’s “elites” include not just Wall Street insiders and their Republican minions — that is, Trump’s incoming financial team — but also cultural elites: Hollywood, New York, the “liberal media.”
This is what election analysts do not seem to understand. Trump’s victory among the “white working class” was both economic resentment and racist-nativist conservatism, because for American populists — from Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan to Donald Trump — the two are intertwined with each other.
On the one side: the Jeffersonian, rural values of Middle America. White, Christian, straight, male dominated. The men were men, the girls were girls. Honest pay for an honest day’s work. Never mind Jim Crow, or genocide of Native Americans, or violence against women. Focus on the Norman Rockwell paintings (as unironically perceived, not as actually painted), the small-town values, the steel mill.
On the other side: Hamiltonian, urban values of the coasts. Not white, not really Christian, not quite manly (“cosmopolitan”). We coastal elites think we oppose the malefactors of wealth, one-percenters and corrupt politicians. But from the outside, to populists, we look like two sides of the same coin.
Structurally speaking, “Jews” — not real Jews, but the fictive Jews who populate the writings of Henry Ford, Father Coughlin and Breitbart commenters — are obviously part of the latter camp. But we are worse, because, while we appear white, we are in fact traitors to the white race. We don’t make anything real; we are parasites, middlemen, capitalists.
George Soros — again, not actually, but as depicted by bigots — is the perfect exemplar of this type. He’s foreign, he’s made his fortune as a money trader (not a builder like, say, Andrew Carnegie or Trump himself), and now he’s poisoning the well of America (anti-Semitic pun intended) by undermining “real” American values with liberalism: multiculturalism, non-patriotism, disrespect of cops, human rights, political correctness.
But it’s also possible to have populism without actual Jews — even, if you like, anti-Semitism without Jews. All the slanders against Soros also apply to Barack Hussein Obama: foreign, multicultural, liberal, et cetera. Obama isn’t Jewish, of course, but he is “other”: African American, deemed “Muslim,” called “not an American citizen.”
And, of course, the slanders apply to Hillary Clinton, too.
By engaging in a kind of weird witch-hunt against Bannon, sifting through his garbage to find scraps of anti-Semitism, Jewish pundits are misunderstanding and misrepresenting Trumpism itself. Because, here’s the most important thing: It is not about Jews.
Sometimes, yes, Jews are among the foreigners hated by populists. But other times, it’s women, or Muslims, or African Americans, or Mexicans. If Jews are going to oppose this revanchist populist demagoguery, then we need to get over ourselves and stop acting as though “anti-Semitism” is what it’s all about. It isn’t.
Consider Bannon’s string of nine ludicrous, low-budget, mostly-straight-to-video documentaries, exhaustively watched and summarized by Adam Wren at Politico. You won’t find a single anti-Semitic theme in the whole bunch. Rather, you’ll find what Wren called “red-meat conservative” politics and imagery.
“Western Civilization as we know it is under attack by forces that are demonic or foreign,” Wren wrote, “and people in far-distant power centers are looking to screw you.” Illegal immigrants are destroying America. Woodstock and the hippies are destroying America. So are narcissistic secularism (“where we become our own gods”), crony capitalism, Clinton scandals and the Wall Street bailout.
Now, is Bannon just being cagey here? Is it that he really hates Jews but is carefully concealing the animus behind all this other stuff? Come on.
Yes, the “alt-right” is filled with anti-Semites. And to reduce the “alt-right” to anti-Semitism totally misses the point of what the “alt-right” is.
This is the paranoid style in American politics. This is right-wing populism. This is racial nationalism, which ironically is the same all over the Western world. This is why Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin and Avigdor Lieberman and Steve Bannon all sound so similar — because they are.
It is also how Bannon can love Israel’s nationalist far right, give his Jewish employees Shabbat off and have Jewish friends. Because what he is preaching is not anti-Semitism; it is nativist populist nationalism — which is, in fact, much more dangerous.
The claim of anti-Semitism is particularly non-credible to Trump’s supporters. Not to the deplorables, of course, many of whom really are anti-Semitic, but to the vast middle of white America that pushed Trump over the hump in swing states. Go to a Trump rally (conveniently, they’re still going on) and you may find one or two deplorables there, but you’ll find thousands of disaffected white folks who supported the Tea Party and now support Trump for populist, nationalist reasons.
Of course, there’s racism, sexism, Islamophobia and occasionally anti-Semitism there, too, but they exist as part of an overall populist worldview, not as expressions of individual animus. That is the point: that these are systems, not personal prejudices. The “whiny Jews” thing is totally irrelevant.
Populist bias is a lot like the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Only a quarter of Trump’s supporters see those words (approvingly) as a racist dog whistle. For the great majority, their white, Christian privilege is so invisible that it just seems like a great idea. And when we simply say it’s bigoted, we sound stupid.
My fellow Jews, I’m sorry to let you down, but this is really not about us. Steve Bannon doesn’t hate us; he hates what we typologically represent. He doesn’t hate Jews; he hates “foreigners,” liberals, secularists and elites. Even “hate” isn’t the right word, since Bannon sees himself in (literally) a holy war against them, a battle to save America’s soul. And that is a hell of a lot scarier.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @JayMichaelson