(((Multiple Parentheses))) and Burning Flags: 
Antisemitism and Media Coverage of the 2016 American Presidential Election

Ben Cohen

Keywords: American antisemitism, American philosemitism, US media antisemitism, 2016 Presidential election antisemitism

The following paper was delivered as the introductory speech to the Second Bristol-Sheffield Hallam Colloquium on Antisemitism, held at Sheffield Hallam University in September 2016. It is republished here in largely unaltered form for the purpose of emphasizing the important thematic and demographic shifts that became increasingly visible in manifestations of antisemitism during the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. A postscript added in January 2018 offers a brief analysis of how the issues discussed in the original paper have evolved during President Donald Trump's first year in office.

At the outset, I want to ask for your understanding when it comes to making predictions. My subject here today is a moving target, one that is moving with a rapidity that has consumed the news cycle covering the political developments that I will discuss, as we enter the final phase of a presidential election involving the two most unpopular candidates - Donald Trump for the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party - for the last ten presidential cycles.

I want to first contextualize my remarks with a brief summary of where the election currently stands. As you will know, Donald Trump's campaign endured a miserable summer, marked by angry exchanges over his provocative statements and declarations; a glaring split within the Republican Party, many of whose senior officials are openly opposed to their own nominee and are more concerned with protecting down-ballot candidates for the House and Senate from the negative effects of Trump's outbursts; and, finally, a spate of hirings and firings among his senior campaign staff - including campaign manager Paul Manafort, a consultant with close ties to the Russian regime whose involvement has spotlighted concerns about Trump's fawning attitude towards Moscow [1] .

And yet, as we marked the end of the summer months - traditionally a time when an election campaign enters its final and most aggressive phase - successive polls showed that Trump was again closing the gap on Clinton. This was a blunt reminder of a key election characteristic that cemented in March, when the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie threw in his lot with the Trump camp. Namely, that it is a grave mistake to underestimate Donald Trump, and to assume that when he is down, he is also out.

Trump's strengths, of course, cannot simply be reduced to his undoubted abilities as a showman. His Republican rivals for the nomination made the critical strategic error of assuming that he would be out of the race before January, enabling him to craft his narrative of a popular (and populist) outsider taking on an out-of-touch, corrupt political establishment on behalf of an angry, alienated electoral swathe.

In terms of the Democratic Party, the continuing association of Hillary Clinton with corruption and a cavalier approach to national security, along with the enduring bitterness of many supporters of her defeated rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, over her nomination, has enabled Trump to make strides that perhaps would have been denied him had he been facing a different opponent.

Still, the mathematics of the electoral college have long favored the Democrats, and in that regard Hillary Clinton is no exception: whereas Trump starts at the number 180, Clinton starts at the number 242. Assuming those numbers remain stable, Clinton could win just one of the ten major battleground states - Florida, with its 29 votes - and cross the finishing line into the White House. But, as I indicated at the beginning, predictions in this race are the preserve of the very brave or the very foolish.

Let me now turn to the atmospherics of this campaign. It has, even by American standards, been extremely ugly. Among the highlights: Trump's depiction of Mexican undocumented immigrants as overwhelmed by criminals and rapists; Trump's initial proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US until - as he put it - "we can figure out what the hell is going on"; Clinton's abject failure to persuade her peers and the public that she told the truth before a congressional committee investigating the irregularities over her handling of emails during her tenure as President Obama's Secretary of State. These issues are, formally at least, all matters of policy, but you will know that there have been other scandals and other clashes more becoming of a reality television show than an election for the most powerful office in the world.

So it is not surprising, in that regard, that antisemitism, and rows over antisemitism, have been a consistent feature of this election, in much the same way that there have been rows about anti-Latino racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and sexism and misogyny. While it's true that these periodic antisemitic incidents have not inflicted the kind of structural and reputational damage that the Labour Party here in Britain has experienced, many Americans - and not just Jewish Americans - would not have expected even a year ago that David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan or Students for Justice in Palestine would make appearances in the campaign cycle, prominently reported by the major media outlets. Certainly, no-one expected that the term "alt-right" - an abbreviation of the words "alternative right" ­- would so quickly become a part of America's political lexicon and media landscape. 

Before I talk further about antisemitism and the election specifically, and how that's been reflected in media coverage, some general observations about the history of antisemitism in America are in order. In making these observations, I will admit that it is difficult to overcome my personal perspective as a British Jew who has lived in America for more than a decade, and who therefore feels compelled to compare the character of antisemitism on one side of the Atlantic Ocean with that on the other side. Modern antisemitism, after all, crystallized in Europe in the decades following the French Revolution, seeing in the specific struggle against Jewish emancipation a broader struggle against the rights, liberties and forms of reasoning that emerged from the Enlightenment. In America, by contrast, there was no such battle; political emancipation was from the beginning an established reality.

Unlike Europe, America has always lacked the following:

1. Major political parties and movements whose platforms are founded upon antisemitism, and who present as their mission the banishing of Judaism and Jewish influence from society and its institutions.

2. A tradition of state-sponsored discriminatory legislation against Jews. Indeed, to find even an example of such legislation, one has to go back to December 1862, just over a year into the American Civil War, when the Union Army General and future President Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which described the Jews as "a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department," and thereby banned the physical presence of Jews over a large stretch of land across Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. But Orders No. 11 was revoked after just a month because of the outcry it generated. It was President Abraham Lincoln who said, "I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners." One might argue that Lincoln's principle has defined popular American attitudes to Jews.

3. Philosemitism - reverence for Jewish history and the place of the Jews in the Judeo-Christian pantheon - has been a greater factor in American history than antisemitism. George Washington famously promised the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that "bigotry would be given no sanction, persecution no assistance." Mark Twain wrote with admiration, "All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains." In our own time, those near-mystical attitudes persist, particularly among certain demographics like Evangelical Christians - among, I want to underline, white and black and Latino believers alike. An ADL global poll two years ago [2] found that just 9 percent of Americans harbored antisemitic attitudes - and I would add that among the remaining 91%, there is an abundant presence of philosemitism, in the sense of regarding the Jewish contribution to society as positive and welcome.

None of this is intended to deny that antisemitism has been a consistent presence in America, often at levels which European Jews, fixated upon their own environment, have tended to play down. There has been discrimination in private institutions from universities to country clubs. We have seen prominent figures in business and the media, like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin, push some of the most noxious myths about Jews during the interwar period. We know that today, Jewish students on many campuses face antisemitic incitement in the form of anti-Israel protests - a story that continues to receive national media exposure.

Over the last decade, especially, the motif of dual loyalty ­- that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America - has become clearly visible in both the media and academia. Perhaps most painfully of all, many Jews are discovering that their natural political home - the civil rights movement ­­- has become increasingly inhospitable because of the penetration of anti-Zionist discourse into the Black Lives Matter movement [3] .   

Yet the fundamental point here - that American antisemitism is a phenomenon that manifests primarily in attitudes and ideas rather than hard political structures - is not compromised by the challenges I've just listed. As Neil Kressel has noted [4] in a recent paper on the polling of American attitudes to Jews, the empirically-oriented study of antisemitism in America has involved "a preoccupation with the state of American sentiments." That helps explain why, as Kressel says, the main American Jewish organizations have invested significant resources into polling American popular attitudes towards Jews, Israel, antisemitism "and other matters deemed essential to Jewish safety." Kressel's conclusion - that there are areas of concern, particularly when it comes to the attitudes of other minorities towards Jews, but that the vast majority of Americans "have no problem voting for Jews, living near Jews and supporting the Jewish state" - is one that is hard to fault.

If what I have described is, indeed, the foundation for the Jewish life that has flourished in America, why then bother to analyze the antisemitism that has emerged in this election cycle - particularly when both candidates have expressed, on numerous occasions, their feelings of warmth towards the Jewish community and the non-negotiability of support for Israel as a fixed plank of American foreign policy? I want to offer two reasons why this is a discussion that needs to be had.

Firstly, the demographics of America are changing - a fact, of course, that has spurred Trump's position on immigration and his insistence that a wall will be built, at Mexico's expense, along the Mexican border. If Jews are to retain their self-confidence as a community, both culturally and politically, they cannot assume that past attitudes will remain stable amidst these transformations of the very fabric of American society.

Secondly, the study of antisemitism tells us that its core ideas and attitudes adapt and mutate, so we are compelled to consider whether the instances of antisemitism we have witnessed in this campaign are the harbinger of a new movement that objects to Jews as an organized collective engaging in ethnically or religiously-grounded political advocacy. And the media - starting at the lowest level, with the personal feeds that are the basic units of the online networks that coalesce around a set of beliefs - is the terrain for these objections to be articulated.

So do we come to the first part of the title of my paper: the multiple parentheses depicting an echo which have, over the last few months, become a symbol for outing individual Jews or putative Jewish interests on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit. Doubtless, you will all have seen it - a Jewish name, or a name associated with Jewish causes, with three opposing brackets on either side, or a word like "surprise" surrounded with the same brackets, to convey the assertion that what is being said is not actually a suprise, because the speaker is part of an echo chamber pushing Jewish tribal interests.

Several observers have charged that the practitioners of this form of Jew-baiting are diehard supporters of Donald Trump. We should not conclude, however, that all supporters of Donald Trump engage in Jew-baiting, or that Trump himself is an antisemite. He is not. He is, if anything, a selective bigot, vulgar in his attitudes towards the Latino and Muslim communities, contemptuous of women, but at the same time quite relaxed, after a fashion, in his campaign outreach to the African-American and LGBTQ communities.

The precise problem with Trump is that he is an enabler of antisemitism. He is an enabler because, to cite one example, he pointedly refused to condemn David Duke's endorsement of him, claiming at one point not to be familiar with the Klan leader; or, to cite another, his tweeting of pro-Trump statements from openly-identified white nationalists; or, to cite yet another case, his judgement that the Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe invited the antisemitic invective piled upon her after she penned an unflattering portrait of Trump's wife, Melania, for Esquire magazine.

When the point that Trump is an enabler is put to him, as it has been periodically by reporters, he or his advisers deflect the charge with the "some of my best friends" technique: he has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism, some of his most trusted employees are Jews, so how can he possibly be an antisemite?

This is a disingenuous response, because it denies the distinction between the calculating enabler and the true believer. But it is also, in the American context, a natural response, because antisemitism in America is regarded as a problem for psychology more than politics. Since there are so few instances of concrete legal or political outcomes rooted in antisemitic attitudes, particularly in the post-war period, there is a widely-shared conclusion that instances of antisemitism may be regrettable, but they have no enduring significance. In this American context, antisemitism is understood as mentally conscious, explicit, and socially deplorable prejudice towards Jews, rather than an adaptive ideology originally founded upon opposition to Jewish political emancipation and focused on political action.

To put this in more simple terms, Trump's new campaign chair, Steve Bannon of the alt-right website Breitbart, may or may not have said that he didn't want his children attending school with spoiled, whiny Jews - but what impact, in any case, would a slur expressed in private have on the decisions made by a Trump administration?

The policy influence of the alt-right, in fact, has been far more pronounced on the immigration debate than upon anything related to American Jews - a reality that is easy to forget when one has been trolled on social media by pseudonymous individuals raving about Jewish inbreeding, gas chambers and the like.

This offers us a useful window into understanding the nature of the alt-right, which is not a centralized political movement, but an exotic collection of websites, blogs, social media feeds and provocateurs. In essence, the alt-right is grievance politics fashioned for the white community, rooted in the belief that aliens masquerading as Americans are deliberately undermining the national interest, and using electronic media as a forum to refine and promote its ideologies. Domestically, it dovetails with racism in its nineteenth century form, in which racial differences are, or should be, determinants of political and social status, as was the case during slavery and then the "Jim Crow" era of segregation. 

In terms of its global outlook, the alt-right is isolationist, loudly proclaiming the principle of "America First" - a slogan of Lindbergh's now adopted by Trump. In this framework, the first concern of national security is to insulate, in a physical sense, America from the human traffic that brings with it illegal labor, suspicious refugees, Islamist terrorism, poor trade deals, and un-American ideas like shari'a compliant finance. At the same time, this position shares with the leftist anti-war movement an extreme aversion to regime change in authoritarian, theocratic and totalitarian states, a hatred of nation-building abroad, and a willingness to allow other world powers, most obviously Russia, to intervene militarily in the Middle East and create regional spheres of interest more widely.

The alt-right reflects the sensibilities of a more established tradition within the Republican Party. "Nothing can destroy this country except the over-extension of our resources" - that is a sentence that sounds like it could have been lifted from a scripted Trump speech, except that those words were uttered by Sen. Robert Taft, an Ohio Republican who was attacking NATO as a waste of money when Trump was still a schoolboy.  

These venerable conflicts over foundational principles have emerged again in the twenty-first century Republican Party. But whereas Sen. Taft's criticisms were primarily directed against Democratic politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, today the targets of Trump's ultraloyalists are fellow Republicans - and specifically the neoconservative intellectuals and political operators who exercised a powerful influence over the administration of George W. Bush. For the media outlets of the alt-right, as with the far left, neoconservatism is primarily a Jewish-Zionist movement: its core thinkers, like the late philosopher Leo Strauss, are depicted as advocates of an assertive Jewish identity in harmonious partnership with a powerful American empire; its policy prescriptions, especially as regards the Middle East, are deemed to serve Israel before they serve America; its adherents are pejoratively called "chicken hawks," happy to send young, less advantaged Americans to die in foreign wars while their own children sweep up university degrees at Harvard and Yale; its leading figureheads, like William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, are said to have betrayed their true, "rootless cosmopolitan" colors in rejecting Trump.

One cannot exclude the possibility that this complex of prejudices will influence a future Trump administration. Imagine a situation in which American Jewish leaders object to Russia's Middle Eastern overreach as a mortal danger to Israel, and yet Trump disagrees strongly: given what we have seen in recent months, is it a major leap of the imagination to conclude that the smear of dual loyalty will develop a new, more dangerous dimension in the hands of the alt-right media? I do not think so.

Those few Jews who support Trump will say that much the same fear can be expressed with regard to a Clinton Administration - a contention that is not entirely unreasonable. This is where we come to the second part of my paper's title, the "burning flags". At this year's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, there were a handful of cases of Israeli flags being burned by activists who, much of the media assumed, were supporters of Bernie Sanders.

Again, there is a danger of overstating the significance of this spectacle, which was widely shared on Twitter and other platforms, and highlighted in agency and newspaper reports. The Democratic Party in America has not become the Labour Party in Britain, and Hillary Clinton has directly confronted antisemitism when Jeremy Corbyn has either ignored or colluded with it. At the AIPAC conference in March 2017 in Washington, Clinton congratulated the Jewish students present who were standing up to the BDS movement. When the antisemitic writer Max Blumenthal, son of Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal, engaged in an obscene Twitter rant against the author and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel within minutes of Wiesel's death being announced, the Clinton campaign issued a strong condemnation within 24 hours. When it comes to the Middle East, it is clear that Clinton regards the war in Syria and Iran's nuclear ambitions as graver challenges than the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and there is an expectation that her relationship with the Israeli government will be less fractious than that of her predecessor.

But one can ask, does Clinton represent the last gasp of the Democratic Party's traditional pro-Israel stance? At the base of the party, anti-Zionism and tolerance, if not outright support of, BDS is growing in influence. At several of Bernie Sanders' rallies, individuals on the podium were spotted wearing Students for Justice in Palestine T-shirts - this is an organization whose supporters have engaged in numerous acts of open antisemitism, as patiently documented by American civil rights groups like the Amcha Initiative and the Brandeis Center. Sanders even appointed a young liaision to the Jewish community, Simone Zimmerman, who was swiftly removed from that position after expletive-laden posts about Israel on her Facebook page were brought to light in the Jewish and general press.

So there can be no doubt that anti-Zionism - viewed not as a form of antisemitism, but as an integral component of the intersectional campaigns intended to confound the discourse of "white privilege" - is now a distinctive presence within Democratic ranks. Moreover, and notwithstanding my caveat about predictions, a weak Clinton presidency could spur the next stage in the transformation of the Democratic Party begun by Sanders, and with it the abandonment of positions on Israel that reflect the identification with Israel that is still felt by the majority of American Jews.

Additionally, when you consider the attraction that some left-wing Democrats have to the US Green Party, which explicitly supports BDS, then that is another strategic rationale for the Democrats to pivot away from both Israel and the emotional and political identification of American Jews with Israel. Lastly, and most importantly, the Black Lives Matter movement, which is ostensibly focused on very real and very legitimate concerns about the policing of black communities, has almost uncritically adopted the memes of anti-Zionism: that Israel is an apartheid state, that Israel is guilty of genocide, that Israel is a drain on the domestic resources of the United States.

Let me end by drawing some tentative conclusions. The historically benign environment enjoyed by Jews in America is not immune from the influence of antisemitic ideas, even if it has resisted explicitly antisemitic political movements and legislative proposals. With either a Trump or Clinton Administration, American Jews will face the same trials by media that have percolated over the last decade - over their ultimate loyalties, over the material benefits gained by America through its alliance with Israel, over their willingness to submit to the president's authority and judgement even when they profoundly disagree. If those fears are far greater in the case of Trump, it's because of what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called, in a different context, the "unknown unknowns" - the things we don't know that we don't know. But what we can, with some confidence, say that we do know is that the fissures over Israel and Jewish political orientation, within and outside the Jewish community, are likely to intensify whoever wins on November 8 - as will the accompanying media coverage.

A Year of Trump: Postscript - January 2018

One year after Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, both the atmospherics and the institutions of American politics have become even more disrupted than was the case during the 2016 election campaign. At every turn of this administration's trajectory, basic questions about Trump's integrity and suitability for the post have overshadowed the debates over policy.

To properly assess the various impacts of Trump's first year in office would likely require a separate volume.  The FBI inquiry into possible electoral collusion with Russia that has dogged his administration continues to be regarded by Democrats and other Trump opponents as the key to the President's eventual undoing. That impression has been reinforced by the extraordinary hemorrhaging of key administration advisers (including some of those mentioned in my original paper) over the course of the year.

Still, there are some important general observations to be made concerning the developments around the issues on which I reported to the Sheffield colloquium in 2016.

Despite the changes in the dramatis personae of the Trump White House, the consistencies between key aspects of the election campaign and the first year in office are all too apparent. In my original paper, I noted the profound influence of alt-right leaders on Trump's immigration policies. Even with the departure from the White House of right-wing nationalist influencers like Steven K. Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, that ideological influence remains decisive. Consequently, immigration is positioned as perhaps the most polarizing of all the domestic issues in which Trump has intervened. His decision to withdraw the anti-deportation protections of the "Dreamers" -  approximately 700,000 individuals who came to the United States with their undocumented immigrant parents as children - resulted in a shutdown of the federal government in January 2018, marking the first time such an event has occurred when one party has control over both the White House and the Congress.

The harsh, often ugly, tone of the debate over immigration has been accompanied by a corresponding war over identity politics that Trump himself has reveled in. The administration's callous response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, replete with swastikas, confederate flags and Neo-Nazi thugs assaulting anti-fascist demonstrators, reinforced two distinct images of Trump in the eyes of his adversaries.

First, that he is nakedly opportunistic, playing to whichever constituency hails him at any given time; and intellectually too shallow, and over-eager to break with past precedent, to grasp the moral stain that accompanies the endorsement of white supremacists and other assorted racists. Second, that his term in office heralds the birth of a new phase of white, male, Christian dominance in America, in which the executive office will offer backing to legislation on immigration, on healthcare, on equal opportunities, and similar social policy areas which reflect the cumulative agendas and sensibilities of the Christian religious right, the Tea Party movement and the alt-right.

Many in the American Jewish community - particularly those exposed to the antisemitism of Trump's social media trolls during the election campaign - view the President through these or similar filters. One of the more intriguing consequences of that view of Trump among American Jews relates to the profound disconnect over the President's favorable policies towards Israel, and his approach to international relations generally.

A September 2017 poll by the American Jewish Committee found that 77 percent of American Jews disapproved of Trump (by comparison, the figure is approximately 80 percent for Hispanic-Americans and and approximately 85 percent for African-Americans - numbers consistent with such polls under previous Republican administrations). However, not even on the issue of Israel was the President given any reassurance, with only 40 percent of American Jews rating his performance favorably. By contrast, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has variously described Trump as "courageous," "bold" and a "true friend of Israel," neatly illustrating the perceptive gulf between Israel's elected leaders and an American Jewish community that has rarely wavered in its historic support for both the State of Israel and the Democratic Party.

However, American Jews are not the only demographic on which support for Israel depends, and their overall importance in that regard may be said to be declining. As I emphasized in my original paper, Israel's major strategic advantage lies in the fact that regardless of the administration in power, broad sympathy with its cause in the American public square has been firmly established in successive opinion surveys. What is happening now, as a Pew Research Center poll released on January 23 detailed, is that support for Israel is breaking down ever more along partisan lines. Yet if Israel, through its government's embrace of Trump, continues to falter in the affections of American Jews, that deficit is at minimum compensated for by the gains Israel continues to make in non-Jewish communities, particularly in political and religious circles connected to the Republican Party, where support for the Jewish state is at its highest level in forty years. Such a calculation on Israel's part may be regarded by some as crude and insensitive, but as a matter of statecraft, it is not necessarily wrong.

[1] Along with his business partner Rick Gates, Manafort was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in October 2017 as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian manipulation of the 2016 election. In June 2018, Manafort was jailed by US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson on charges that he tampered with witnesses while on bail. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/manafort-ordered-to-jail-after-witness-tampering-charges/2018/06/15/ccc526cc-6e68-11e8-afd5-778aca903bbe_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.843d9b39408b

[4] Neil J. Kressel, "How to Interpret American Poll Data on Jews, Israel and Antisemitism," in Antisemitism in North America: New World, Old Hate (Brill 2016, eds. Baum, Cohen, Jacobs, Kressel)