Donald Trump’s legacy, “the most terrible, horrific thing he has left us in America, is the destruction of truth… And a democracy can’t survive if there is no truth.”
That is the warning sounded by Abraham Foxman, who has spent his life fighting racism and anti-Semitism, leading the Anti-Defamation League for decades, in the wake of last week’s deadly assault on the Capitol and with the US on alert for more violence.
Speaking to The Times of Israel a week after Trump fired up supporters some of whom then invaded the Capitol, and amid growing concern that extremists will again gather in DC and across the United States to try to disrupt the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Foxman said Trump was a demagogue who had emboldened legions of bigots.
He said it was vital that Trump leave office “tarnished” — punished for his behavior — and barred from a future second presidential term. And he pleaded for a return of civility and respect in American discourse.
But the biggest challenge left by Trump’s toxic presidency, and the one for which Foxman acknowledged he had no definitive solution, was the salvaging of truth. “This man lied as if it was the truth,” he said of Trump.
“I don’t know what the answer is. I know it’s a strong media. I know it’s strong, democratic institutions and judiciary, but it also needs the courage of good people to stand up… I just saw a video of 15 minutes of interviews of Trump supporters,” he said. “It’s scary. It is scary what they believe.”
The following is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place via Zoom on Wednesday. The video (below) was initially made available Thursday to members of the Times of Israel Community. (You can join the ToI Community here.)
The Times of Israel: After the events of last Wednesday, I hope you can give us some sense of perspective and context. Maybe the place to start is with the comparison made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who invoked Kristallnacht: He said last Wednesday was America’s Day of Broken Glass. What should we make of that comparison?
Abraham Foxman: Well, I’m not comfortable with comparisons to the Holocaust. I worry that Holocaust trivialization is as serious as Holocaust denial, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Kristallnacht should have been a wake-up call to Germany and beyond. It wasn’t. I hope there is a significant difference. I hope that what happened at the Capitol is a wake-up call to America.
We had a wake-up call on 9/11. It brought to America’s attention that we’re not as secure, not as immune, as we think we are. And America did take action, to protect its borders, to protect its citizens. We changed our way of life. We gave up some liberties.
More recently, the American Jewish community had its wake-up call — in two parts. In Charlottesville, it woke up to see how deep the anti-Semitism is. And Pittsburgh was really the wake-up call — that we need to be concerned, that we need to be vigilant, that we need to secure ourselves.
I hope that what happened in Washington is a wake-up call to the American people — that there is a threat, and the threat is domestic, and the threat is hate. And the threat is much bigger, deeper, wider, than most Americans believe and accept.
It’s important for us to realize how many vigilantes, racists and anti-Semites this country has
Sad to say, there are still segments in America, in our society, that are still fighting the Civil War, so it is very, very deep.
I don’t think, god forbid, that what will happen here is what happened in Germany in World War II. I also see signs of America taking action. I am an optimist. But I think it’s important for us to realize how many vigilantes, racists and anti-Semites this country has.
For the many years that I was at the ADL, we took the pulse of hatred in this country. I don’t think there are 70 million racist bigots in this country who supported Donald Trump, but there are millions.
Every time we took polls, we found 10 to 12 percent of the American people deeply infected with anti-Semitism. That’s 30 million people. When our polls indicated that 30 percent of the American people still believe we’re responsible for killing Christ, that’s 100 million Americans; or that 30 percent believe the Jews are not loyal to this country, that’s a hundred million Americans. So it is there. It’s deep.
We need to recognize that it exists before we can seriously deal with it.
If you’ve now called attention to it, and you’ve told everyone to recognize it, what is it that America should do? Do you have this sense of some very dangerous extremists and then maybe a somewhat muddled mob behind them? People whose heads have been filled with foul lies?
What happened was a perfect storm.
We had in this country this underlying, brewing, simmering frustration, anger, hatred. It would erupt from time to time, but nothing like the way we’re seeing it today. They also began to be frightened because of the changing nature of the United States. We became a multi-racial society, which was anathema to them.
This anger, this frustration, that was there, needed some instigators, which for many years they didn’t have. They didn’t have the means to communicate successfully. Came the internet, and came social media, and this was a gift to all the bigots, because all of a sudden they were able to interact, communicate, recruit, reinforce each other. While social media and the internet were a gift to most of us, in the sense that it gave us better education, information, communication, interaction, it also provided a superhighway for bigots.
The other thing that was missing was a leader. In all these years, they had many leaders, but nothing serious. They woke up one morning to find the president of the United States as a leader.
The coming together of the ability to interact, to communicate, to recruit, and the fact that they had in the White House someone who sent messages that were akin to their beliefs, brought about this explosion.
We also need to understand that removing the leader does not necessarily remove the lies
So, okay, we need to change the leader.
But we also need to understand that removing the leader does not necessarily remove the lies. You remove the liar, but that doesn’t mean that the lies aren’t still there.
After 9/11, American society struggled: How do you balance security with our freedoms? We need to begin to struggle with: How do we protect freedom of speech but protect our civility?
Our first challenge is to get rid of the leader who is the liar.
Number two is there need to be consequences, because if there are no consequences to that behavior then it becomes acceptable. I think we’re seeing signs in America today that there are consequences. They may not be as dramatic in the global sense, but when they take away the PGA tournaments from the Trump empire, when corporations say they will no longer support candidates who supported this effort in Washington, this is the beginning of America coming to terms with the hatred and the lies.
Then we’re going to have to deal with social media, to see where the balance is, so that it does not overwhelm us and it is not a superhighway to feed and fuel the hatred and the animosity.
What do you mean by “get rid of the leader”?
One needs to deliver a message that there are consequences to this kind of behavior. One needs to tarnish him.
He may still have aspirations of leadership… Whether it’s impeachment, there are all kinds of vehicles. The American public needs to show that this behavior is not acceptable, will not be tolerated.
There must be a safeguard that ensures he cannot return?
Explain for us the degree to which you think he is culpable. When we spoke after Pittsburgh, in October 2018, you talked about his unintentional anti-Semitism — that he would be horrified at the notion that he was an anti-Semite, but he was emboldening that mindset. The same goes for emboldening the kind of deadly extremism that we saw a week ago?
He’s a demagogue. And a demagogue is a danger to democracy.
When we talked a year or two ago, I said to you that anything that threatens democracy threatens the Jewish community. We are protected by democracy, but we saw that his words and actions undermined democracy.
He’s an authoritarian, with all kinds of psychological issues which I won’t go into, but what’s important to us is he emboldened the bigots. The Charlottesville 200 existed before Donald Trump, and all these bigots and racists and white supremacists were there before Donald Trump and they will be there after Donald Trump.
But what Donald Trump did is he gave them the chutzpah, he gave them the license, he emboldened them, that it’s okay now. The Charlottesville 200 didn’t become anti-Semites or racists or white supremacists overnight with the election of Donald Trump. But he sent the message that it’s okay, and therefore they surfaced.
Look at this phenomenon of rallies: he was building, encouraging, he was empowering them
And here, it’s the same thing: he said it’s okay; he said it in all his rallies. Look at this phenomenon of rallies: he was building, encouraging, he was empowering them. He said from the beginning — how quickly we forget — he said in 2016, if I don’t win, it would be a rigged election. When he didn’t get the third Emmy for his TV show, he said it was rigged. And he announced here too, that if he doesn’t win this election, it’s rigged.
So, he fueled it, he built it, he encouraged the lying. And the attacks on the judiciary and the attacks on the media all undermined elements of our democracy. So yeah, he needs not only to go, but he needs to go tarnished.
I’m speaking to you from Jerusalem, and the last couple of sentences that you said cannot fail but echo a little bit in Israel. Our prime minister has been battering away at some of the hierarchies of our democracy. Do you see echoes, do you see dangers, in Israel?
What we’ve come to realize is that we’re none of us as perfect as we’d like to be or think we are. We are not immune. The Jewish people woke up to realize that words matter. And we witnessed the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, by the Jewish people, in the Jewish state.
So, no, Israel is also not immune. The forces, the frustrations, the anxieties exist by you too in Israel as well. And we see manifestations which are global, which are an attack on basic democratic institutions and values.
Are you confident that the next few days will pass relatively smoothly?
I think we’re ready. It will be a sad sight to see Washington under positive siege, but under siege. We already see the National Guard flowing in, tens of thousands. There’ll be no people in the streets. Wow, what a sad moment in our history.
We’ll have a peaceful transition, but it will be marred by the visual of an armed camp, of a country under siege. That too, hopefully, will be part of the wake-up call. We have to rebuild civility, we have to rebuild respect.
Probably the most difficult thing to rebuild is respect for truth. I worry about truth, and not only in the general term. Anti-Semitism is a lie. And our defense has always been the truth. When you say “the Jews this” and “the Jews that,” our answer was, you tell them the truth. We’ve destroyed that element of truth and I don’t know how we begin [to fix that].
This is his legacy — the most terrible, horrific thing he has left us in America is the destruction of truth. There is no truth. This man lied as if it was the truth. A democracy can’t survive if there is no truth. I don’t know what the answer is. I know it’s a strong media. I know it’s strong democratic institutions and judiciary, but it also needs the courage of good people to stand up.
We need to bring back civility, and we need to bring back respect for truth
Senator Romney said it. It was almost too simple. He said, Well, you have to tell the bigots the truth. (An apparent reference to this speech — DH.) Well, that’s easier said than done.
I just saw a video of 15 minutes of interviews of Trump supporters. David, it’s scary. It is scary what they believe.
How one begins to undo this is a major challenge, but we have no choice: We need to bring back civility, and we need to bring back respect for truth.
Israel’s leadership has been very openly allied with the Trump administration. Israel consensually sees itself as having benefited hugely from many of the administration’s policies, even though Israelis have been very divided always about Trump the person and Trump the president. So now we have this disgraced, iniquitous president leaving office. Where does that leave Israel in terms of bipartisan support in America? Are we tarnished? Have we lost half of the American political spectrum?
I don’t think so. Where does one stand? Where one sits. I saw the difference between the American Jewish community and the Israeli community: Where Israel sat, it made sense to stand with a president, with all his foibles, with all his faults, who stood up for Israel. The American Jewish community, which sits here, was worried about America, about American democracy. And so based on where it sits, it stood with the Democratic Party and against Donald Trump.
I think everybody at this point is interested in healing and coming together.
At the end of the day, the interests of the United States and Israel are so tied, so close, that I don’t think this is going to be a period of vindictiveness.
There are Americans who voted for Donald Trump not because they’re bigots — because of the pocketbook, because of evangelicism, because of all kinds of other issues. And they too will have to come to terms with a different America, at least for the next four years.
Do you want to end with some room for optimism, as an American, as somebody Jewish, and as somebody who loves Israel?
Golda Meir once said Jews don’t have the luxury of being pessimists. You’re talking to somebody who is a child survivor of the Holocaust. A million and a half Jewish children perished. I don’t have that luxury to be pessimistic about democracy, or Jewish life. So yeah, I am an optimist.
We’ll overcome this, but we’ll have to work on it. We can’t take things for granted. We can’t say, It won’t happen here, or, It’s not that serious. We need to take hatreds more seriously. We need to take our democratic institutions and values more seriously. We’re going to need to be vigilant.
But I think the better parts of us — as Jews, as Americans, as Israelis, and citizens — will come forth. We’ve faced very serious challenges, and we’ve come out ahead.
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