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Essay: Pittsburgh & Our Inner Devils

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Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
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The scene of a mass hooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The economy is humming along. Pick any measure — GDP, employment, wages, even stock prices, recent hiccups in the popular averages notwithstanding — and things look rosy. President Trump has a great story to tell, even if questionable policies like his deficit-exploding tax cut are a reason for the good news.

A prospering economy usually smooths off the rough edges of social discontent. But this time, not so much. In recent days, the forces of hatred have become emboldened. Jobs may be plentiful, but according to Trump, a menacing horde of evil invading aliens is trying to seize them from worthy Americans.

Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” are not for Donald Trump. No, our current president prefers to cultivate the worst devils residing in each of us, seeing in them political success and ego gratification.

As the president promotes this world view, those most threatened by change and the supposedly invading “others” he vilifies are using pipe bombs and assault rifles to express their frustrations.

So it is notable that Robert Bowers, the man accused of storming a Pittsburgh synagogue with firearms, killing elderly Jews while yelling anti-sematic slogans, is said to be upset with Trump, too, believing that Jews have too much influence on the president.

Trump has Jewish grandchildren and takes many positions that play to a particular part of American Jewry, especially in his coddling of the right-wing government in Israel. That codling also plays well with his evangelical Christian supporters, who see a strong Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ. So there is a twisted logic to Bowers’ belief that Jews control Trump.

Of course, that begs the question of which Jews are pulling the strings. We Jews are no more monolithic in our politics and beliefs than are Muslims, African-Americans, Lutherans or any other ethnic or religious group. Indeed, the building attacked in Pittsburgh was home to three different types of Jewish worship and many American Jews, I among them, are appalled by Trump’s playing to our inner devils. But to a man like Bowers, that makes no difference. A Jew is a Jew, a person defined by the group to which he belongs.

As I noted at the start, all of this is happening during good economic times. But good times always end. When they do, the rough edges of social discontent find it easier to emerge, with the worst devils of our nature rearing their evil heads looking for scapegoats.  Everyone who could be considered an “other” will be a candidate. But as a Jew, I am particularly concerned.

Let the economy turn on Trump’s watch, and it will be easy for those of Bowers’ ilk to blame the Jews whom they believe control the president. Then how many more of their guns will be aimed at synagogues?

Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank is a former writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later the Journal Sentinel.  He's also author of the book The Man Who Painted the Universe.

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