The mass hysteria and fear-mongering that are part of a contest that is more tribal culture war than an election is getting out of hand.
By Jonathan S.Tobin, JNS
According to one Jewish news website, a Canadian immigration lawyer’s business is booming thanks to the U.S. presidential election. While talk of moving to the Great White North if the candidate you don’t support wins is a staple of pre-election chatter every four years, it may very well be more than that this time around. The lawyer is quoted as saying that many of a record number of inquiries she’s been fielding are coming from American Jews.
Chalk it up to the impact of a steady diet of over-the-top hysteria and fear-mongering masquerading as political commentary that Americans have been consuming for the past four years.
Most of the Jews heading for Canada or Israel believe that they are living through the moral equivalent of the last days of the Weimar Republic before President Donald Trump installs a dictatorship. But some on the other side of the political aisle are just as apocalyptic about their future if a Democratic Party, which is allied to the radicals of the Black Lives Matter movement and left-wing anti-Semites, seizes back the reins of power in November.
Suffice it to say that if Trump somehow wins, Democrats—Jewish or otherwise—are going to be extremely unhappy. The same is true for Republicans if former Vice President Joe Biden retains the lead he’s currently holding in the polls. Many Americans are starting to think that one of the basic elements of democracy—the obligation to grin and bear it when your opponents win an election—may not be something they are willing to accept. More importantly, many on both sides are increasingly convinced that their opponents won’t respect that principle and are succumbing to dark speculations that heretofore have been limited to the imaginations of those who dwell in the fever swamps of American politics.
Ours is an era in which politics has largely replaced the role that religion once played in their lives for many, if not most, Americans. That means political opponents are now largely viewed as not so much friends, relatives and neighbors with different points of view, but as bad people without morals or ethics who want to destroy the country. As a result, the angst of the losers about what their opponents will do once in power is no longer mere partisan hyperbole but genuine terror. The dread that so many people feel is all the more pitiable not only because their worst fears are largely unfounded, but because they are insensible, if not completely unaware, of the fact that their counterparts on the other side of the political divide are feeling just as threatened.
The first to write in a serious way about this sense of panic was Michael Anton, whose pseudonymous essay “The Flight 93 Election” appeared in The Claremont Review of Books in September 2016. In it, he explained why so many Republicans were willing to fall in line with Donald Trump. A critical mass of conservatives believed that another four years of Democratic rule would not only be disastrous for the country. They feared that the left’s continued conquest of the administrative state, as well as popular culture, would undermine individual liberty and the rights of religious believers in ways that would transform the United States into something unrecognizable and alien to basic republican principles.
Anton tapped into the metaphor of the plight of the passengers on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, who made the determination that they had to rush the cockpit of their hijacked plane. Simply allowing the terrorists to continue on their course to crash into the White House was unacceptable. Though their chances of success or survival were slim since they were doomed anyway, they had no choice but to fight back. Conservatives therefore embraced Trump in the same manner as the last resort in order to save the country.
Though the analogy was deeply offensive, Anton’s essay explained as well as anything else that year why, despite his flaws, Trump could retain enough Republican votes in order to be elected. Anton, who subsequently briefly served in Trump’s National Security Council, now sees the 2020 election in the same way since he believes that Democrats are plotting a coup to win in November one way or another. As one critic of his work noted, in the mind of many on the right, “Flight 93 did not end with the 2016 vote; we are forever on the plane, endlessly in danger, no matter who has seized the controls.”
Liberals dismiss Anton’s current views, just as they did his 2016 analysis, as conspiratorial ravings. But it’s painfully obvious that most Democrats now feel the same way about the 2020 election.
They have been predicting that Trump would destroy democracy and install an authoritarian racist regime the moment he won the Electoral College. Their rage, frustration and anxiety have only grown as every magic bullet—whether it was the myth of Russia collusion or a partisan impeachment—that they thought would make the bad dream of 2016 go away proved a bust. Characteristically, Trump has fueled their fury with his constant trolling and inappropriate statements, even though in terms of actual governance, the policies that his administration has pursued have been largely normative conservatism, as well as unprecedented support for Israel.
Though their rights are still very much intact, that hasn’t stopped many liberal Jews from continuing to engage in hysterics about Trump. His opponents blame him for everything terrible that has happened on his watch, like the coronavirus pandemic, which goes with the territory for any president. They have also striven ceaselessly to link him to every act of extremist violence on the far-right. And despite his many condemnations of such extremism, they seize on every time that he refuses to be cajoled into yet another such pronouncement as proof that he is plotting tyranny or worse. While some of this is his own fault, it still doesn’t excuse the over-the-top calumnies that are now flowing.
In any normal year, Jews who understand that the Holocaust is not a political football would condemn Biden’s analogizing of Trump to Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Sadly, even otherwise sober observers like Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt approved of this calumny because it fits in with her liberal political worldview. Lipstadt and even former ADL director Abe Foxman appear to think there’s nothing wrong with an ad from the Jewish Democratic Council of America comparing the Trump administration to the rise of the Nazis. While there is plenty of room to criticize Trump, the Jewish Dems, as well as Lipstadt and Foxman, should be ashamed of themselves for cynically playing the Holocaust card in this manner.
At the same time, many conservatives look at the Black Lives Matter riots, the willingness of Democrats to wink at the violence and those extremists taking part, as well as threat of court-packing, in the same way, liberals view Trump and the right. The open threats of violence in the streets from the left if Trump wins or the outcome of the election is in doubt from even respected outlets like The Atlantic is triggering the same sort of Flight 93 fears on the right.
The stakes in this election are very high. But, neither four more years of Trump, or of Biden and Kamala Harris, are going to turn America into either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. That’s why responsible people—even those with strong convictions about the outcome—ought to be discouraging the storm of fear-mongering about the election, which is starting to resemble an exercise in mass hysteria, rather than encouraging it.
As bad as Trump or Biden may seem to you, we are not passengers on Flight 93 or, for that matter, German Jews who were insufficiently alarmed about the rise of the Nazis. No matter how fervent your political opinions, now is the time to stop “unfriending” people who disagree with you on Facebook. And unless you are really interested in making your future in either the Jewish state via aliyah or are so enamored of cold weather and ice hockey that you feel impelled to move to Canada, stop talking about moving there next year.
Let us instead listen to rather than demonize each other. And let’s realize that if we care about the country’s future, the way to save it is to not succumb to the siren calls of tribal culture war that—no matter where their origin—are a greater threat to democracy than either political party.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Jewish News Syndicate.