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Subverting democracy and the fate of the Jews

Jews uniquely thrived in America because of its exceptionalism and rule of law. The prosecution of former President Donald Trump could mark the end of the era of safety.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to press before the start of a civil fraud trial brought by New York State Attorney General Letitia James in New York on Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.
Former President Donald Trump speaks to press before the start of a civil fraud trial brought by New York State Attorney General Letitia James in New York on Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The last eight months have shaken the faith of many American Jews in the future of their community. The surge in antisemitism, especially on college campuses, has shattered any illusions we might have had about ensuring that Jew-hatred would be confined to the fever swamps of the far right and left in U.S. society. But as grievous as that threat to their safety may be—and the gravity of that peril cannot be overestimated—the Jewish community should also be pondering just how secure they can be in an America whose democratic norms and the rule of law can no longer be relied upon.

The prosecution and now the conviction of former President Donald Trump in a New York City courtroom on dubious charges and via a judicial process that is, at best, questionable, forces us to ask that question.

Breaking norms and precedents

To broach this topic and consider the consequences of a partisan prosecution of both a former president and the choice of the Republican Party for the 2024 election, one needn’t be an admirer of Trump or even be planning to vote for him in November. Trump is a singular figure in American political history and has broken all sorts of precedents with his behavior and speech—before, during and after his presidency. But at this point, the same can be said of his opponents, who seem to believe that his allegedly unique awfulness not merely permits but obligates them to break rules and precedents in their efforts to stop him from governing while he was president, to prevent his re-election, and now, to thwart him from gaining a second term in 2024.

Any discussion of which side is worse in this debate can be attributed to the type of “whataboutism” that involves justifying things that shouldn’t be justified. But suffice it to say that when he took office in 2017, he rejected the idea of having his administration pursue criminal charges against his opponents, in particular, his 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. In what for him was a relatively rare instance of rising above feuds, Trump rightly understood that following up on the irresponsible rhetoric about “locking her up” that was heard at his campaign rallies was the last thing the country needed, regardless of whether a partisan prosecutor could have resurrected charges about her violating the rules about the handling of classified information.

But his opponents, outraged at the thought of Trump sitting in the White House, did not reciprocate. They promoted the Russia collusion hoax—a conspiracy theory about Trump being a Russian agent for whom Moscow supposedly stole an election—for years and then impeached him on a partisan charge of withholding foreign aid to Ukraine. Silicon Valley oligarchs that control the virtual public square and major media outlets then conspired to suppress stories about corruption charges against the family of his 2020 opponent.

All of this was done because of the conviction that Trump was an opponent of democracy, though there was no evidence of any efforts on his part to behave in this manner while president. But his reaction to the 2020 vote seemed at least in part to confirm the claims that he was not prepared to accept an election loss. While he can be blamed for the events that led to the disgraceful Capitol Riot on Jan. 6, 2021, it was no insurrection, and, though he behaved recklessly and without grace, he peacefully left office that month.

It is possible that the Republican Party might have been prepared to choose an alternative to Trump in 2024, but once Democrats began efforts to confiscate his income, throw him off the ballot and then jail him on a raft of charges that were not just flimsy but politically motivated, the chances of the GOP moving on from him were over. Convinced—and not without reason—that what was going on was a campaign of lawfare, akin to the sorts of bills of attainder (in which the British parliament and crown had historically legislated against specific individuals) specifically prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, his party rallied around him.

Burning down democracy to save it

Undaunted by the idea that they were essentially burning down democracy to supposedly save it, Democratic prosecutors, cheered on by their party base, moved ahead. The most dubious of those charges was the case brought against him in a New York state court. In this instance, a prosecutor who had gained election by promising to jail Trump conjured up an unprecedented indictment involving not only murky legal theories but also a state trial on federal election law. It did involve a disgraceful (though not necessarily illegal) hush money payment by Trump to a former porn star. While designed to humiliate the ex-president, it was also conducted in such a blatantly unfair manner that it did nothing to undermine support for him. The pre-ordained guilty verdict is unlikely to be sustained in the appellate courts but, like the trial, it constitutes a form of election interference that both parties would denounce as the stuff of banana republics or President Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime if it were happening elsewhere.

None of this represents a reason to vote for Trump or President Joe Biden. Still, the effort to imprison an American political leader, no matter how controversial, in this manner is a crossing of the Rubicon that could have devastating consequences going forward. At this point, it no longer matters who did what to whom first. The only thing to be considered is that Democrats are trying to imprison the leader of the GOP and that it is unlikely that Republicans will refrain from playing the same game in the future, especially if, as the polls currently indicate, they return to power in January 2025.

What does this have to do with the fate of American Jewry?

Like all Americans, Jews have a stake in the preservation of their country’s democratic form of government. What made the United States a haven in the history of the Diaspora was its particular brand of constitutional democracy based on the ideal of equal justice under the law. That allowed Jews to ascend to leadership positions in virtually every sector of American society, secure in the belief that there were no religious tests to constrain them and that the rule of law protected them in a way it had never consistently done elsewhere. America wasn’t a Jewish utopia, but it did provide an opportunity for freedom without requiring Jews to give up their identity, faith or interests.

On the surface, the Trump drama and the backlash it is causing may not seem to have anything to do with the Jews. But if the United States is, as it might be, on the verge of no longer being a place where we can count on the rule of law as well as one with a political culture in which the major parties will seek to jail each other’s leaders, then even a cursory knowledge of Jewish history, would teach us that Jews will no longer be safe from persecution.

A surge in antisemitism

The post-Oct. 7 surge in antisemitism has already shaken confidence in the Jewish future. A form of left-wing Jew-hatred—rooted in toxic ideas like critical race theory and intersectionality—has created a new orthodoxy in academia by which Jews and Israel could be smeared and delegitimized as “white” oppressors and undeserving of rights. The willingness of mainstream corporate media outlets to normalize this new antisemitism remains deeply troubling. Their willingness to treat prejudicial canards about Zionism being a form of racism—a blatant lie that has its roots in Marxist and Soviet propaganda of the past—as something that decent people should agree to disagree about has resulted in Jews being marginalized, shunned and endangered.

If you add this factor of newly fashionable antisemitism to a toxic brew of political instability caused by the anti-Trump lawfare campaign, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where the sort of Jew-hatred on college campuses spreads with unimaginable consequences. The strife at academic institutions, which is part of a broader battle over the future of America and the West, again illustrates that the Jews are always the canaries in the coal mine. We can’t know where all this will end, but in an atmosphere of this sort of political strife, it isn’t unreasonable to wonder about scenarios in which American Jews will be targeted in ways that seemed unimaginable not that long ago.

The only reason I can give for optimism is that I’m reasonably sure that the vast majority of Americans don’t want any of this. They may be bifurcated in their politics and distrust people on the other side of the political aisle. But if there is anything that I’ve learned in my travels around the country in the last eight years, it is that most Americans don’t want their politicians to be at each other’s throats and oppose extremism of all kinds. The talk of “civil war,” which was given full expression in a recent dystopian film of the same name, seems easy to imagine among the chattering and governing classes yet abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of people they hope to influence and rule.

The conviction of Trump on the most unreasonable and openly partisan charges against him may mean that there is no turning back. In spite of that, reasonable people must urge their political leaders to step back from the abyss. The surge in antisemitism is a warning to Jews and non-Jews alike that ideas essentially at war with American exceptionalism pose an immediate danger to our society. If we are now to add a new political norm whereby those who lose elections must fear prosecution, regardless of their actions, then it is entirely possible that the era when Jews could regard America as a safe place could well be over.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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