Donald Trump’s surprising success thus far in the Republican presidential nomination race is based in part on his bullying bravado and his loud rebuke of the political establishment, and partly on the power of fear. In Trump’s campaign, it is about the fear of illegal immigrants overwhelming the United States and Muslims, who whether they were born in the United States or not, are collectively portrayed as potential Islamic State recruits and terrorists.
Such targeted scapegoating, which uses propaganda and the exaggeration of tragic events to smear millions of people who also happen to be Muslim, is an old political trick that dates back to ancient Rome and attacks on Christians. Jewish history, too, is rife with such examples, from medieval Spain to Nazi Germany, but also nearly a century ago in the United States when the spectre of the “International Jew” was conceived by American nationalists, Trump-like supporters of the nativist and racist 100 Per Cent Americanism movement.
As in Canada, anti-Semitism that excluded American Jews from a range of professions and jobs, universities, social clubs and resorts was common from the 1880s well into the 20th century. During and after World War I, as the fear of left wing radicalism spread, all Jews were seen to be Russian revolutionaries, Bolsheviks who put the American way of life in peril. These attitudes were given more credence during the Red Scare hysteria of 1919.
The Red Scare coincided with the dissemination of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. An alleged blueprint for a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world, the tract with its 24 “protocols” was published in Russia in 1903 and 1905. It was, as the London Times later showed, “a clumsy plagiarism,” stolen from a variety of French and German sources which had nothing to do with Jews. Nevertheless, after the 1917 revolution, it was translated in many languages and widely distributed by a group of pro-Czarist immigrants, and is still referenced today by hate groups on the Internet.
In the United States, the Protocols were championed by automobile innovator and pioneer Henry Ford, an “American First” supporter. Influenced by Social Darwinism and eugenics, Ford had long believed that Jews, especially those who were bankers and moneylenders, were the curse of civilization, who “encouraged the breakdown of the family, of morality, of order.” Starting in May 1920, Ford’s journal, The Dearborn Independent, ran a series of 91 articles on “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” based on the nonsense in the Protocols.
The Independent had a weekly circulation of a million readers and every customer who purchased a Model-T Ford also purchased a subscription. After the series was concluded, it was reissued as a pamphlet entitled, The International Jew and reached millions more across the United States, Canada and Europe. It was particularly popular in Germany, where the Nazis, still a fringe party in the early ’20s, distributed many copies. Adolf Hitler regarded Ford as “great man.”
American Jewish groups condemned Ford, who really never understood what all the fuss was about. He truly believed that international Jewish financiers were behind World War I and were plotting to take over the global economy. In the spring of 1924, the Independent ran a new series about “Jewish exploitation of Farmers’ Organizations” that slandered Aaron Sapiro, a Jewish lawyer who was involved in organizing farm co-operatives in Canada and the United States. He filed a libel suit against the Independent, which after several years Ford agreed to settle with a public apology.
In 1923, Ford was touted as a possible presidential candidate. His anti-Semitism, paternal attitude toward assembly-line factory workers, moralizing about the evils of liquor and tobacco and the fiasco of the trip he financed to Europe aboard his “Peace Ship” in 1915 to try to stop the war did not initially count against him. “To millions,” as historian John Higham wrote, “he embodied the old pioneer virtues: a farm-bred simplicity contemptuous of elegance or intellect, a rugged individualism, a genius for practical achievement.”
But unlike Trump, he did not have the requisite “big” personality for the political arena, stage presence and ability to fend off his critics with insults.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.