This country has always had a dark current of anti-Semitism, which ebbs and flows depending on events in the larger culture. Historian David Greenberg has an interesting piece in Politico, where he reminds us that what we assumed to be vestiges of European history, not ours, does in fact have deep and troubling roots in our American story.
“But according to Stephen Norwood, a senior historian at the University of Oklahoma, anti-Semitism in the United States has been “much more deeply entrenched than most scholars acknowledged.” In a startling academic article from 2003, Norwood amassed considerable evidence to refute this sunny picture of America as a sanctuary from brutal violence. In particular, the article tells the story of a right-wing Irish group called the Christian Front, inspired by the wildly popular radio preacher Charles Coughlin, that regularly menaced Jews—especially in Boston and New York—during the final years of World War II. Starting in 1942 and continuing for more than a year, Norwood recounts, marauding bands of Irish Catholic youths stalked and assaulted the Jews of urban communities like Dorchester and Mattapan in Boston and Washington Heights in New York, as police officers and even elected officials looked the other way. Harrowing as this episode was, few Americans know of it; it was even omitted from a very good recent list of anti-Semitic incidents that ran in the Atlantic.
The role of Coughlin is significant, as he was a key figure in fostering a particular strain of angry right-wing populism, especially popular among American Catholics, that would organize the darkest impulses of American conservatism for many decades thereafter. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it went by the name of paleoconservatism. Its exponents were fond of conspiracy theories, eager to mobilize the power of the masses against alleged elites, often isolationist, protectionist, and nativist, and either overtly or subtly anti-Semitic in character. In the 1950s, its avatar was Joe McCarthy, the rabidly anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin. In our lifetimes, it was best embodied by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan aide Pat Buchanan, who despite spouting anti-Jewish and racist sentiments was one of the most visible television pundits of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Its best known spokesman today is probably Steve Bannon—although one could include Trump himself.”
Joe McCarthy was a U.S senator. Father Coughlin was a prominent radio personality. But now we have Trump, speaking with the power of the Oval Office, who invites these dark currents into the mainstream.
We’re not very good at teaching history — many Americans would do poorly at a basic test of even recent U.S. history, never mind at anything that required an understanding of global events going back to ancient times. Iowa’s Congressman Steve King is a good example. King asks who besides white European descendants has ever done anything important for civilization — too ignorant a statement to deserve a response. Trump is an unusually a-historical president, evincing an ignorance and a disdain for the past.
Does it matter, that the ugliness we now see and hear in our public discourse is not a new thing, but an incitement that has long and shameful and powerfully enduring roots? I think it does.