In Nathan Englander’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a Jewish couple explains the Anne Frank game to their house guests. It’s not a really a game, the narrator says. “It’s dead serious. It’s ‘Who Will Hide Me?'” He explains how it works: first, they imagine that there’s an American Holocaust. Then they talk about which of their Gentile friends would hide them. “Would the friend do that for you? Risk it all?” he wonders. They discuss a couple that lives across the street. “The man would, but that wife of his… When her husband is at work one day, she’d turn us in,” the couple agrees. I know I’ve run through a similar mental exercise plenty of times even before I read Englander’s story some years back. I think most Jews play some version of the Anne Frank game, whether they realize it or not, especially if they grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 70s almost entirely among Catholics and Protestants who had very little understanding that they might be interacting with people of other religions or beliefs. Sometimes their ignorance erupted into cruel remarks and stereotypes, often from the mouths of children, so that you knew they heard this from their parents. Sometimes their attempts at being magnanimous were laughable, such as when one neighbor introduced me to a new neighbor by saying, “And these are our wonderful Jewish neighbors.” Subtext: one of the “good” Jews.
With the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been thinking about the Anne Frank game again, only now the game’s players needs to be expanded from Jews to include Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, and LGBTQ people. There have been disturbing news reports about Trump’s appointees. First came the appointment of Steve Bannon, a noted anti-Semite and white nationalist–even though Newt Gingrich assured us that Bannon can’t be anti-Semitic because “he was a managing partner of Goldman Sachs… [and] a Hollywood movie producer.” There are rumors Trump disseminates personally or through his surrogates about “creating a registry” for Muslims. There was a televised interview on Fox with Carl Higby, a prominent Trump supporter, that included an actual discussion of how the internment of Japanese people during World War II could serve as a model for what the Trump administration might do to Muslims on the registry. For months before the election, we heard Trump talk about the anti-immigrant policies he plans to implement. Unsurprisingly, hate crimes are up all over the country as people who have long harbored hate and resentment now feel they have permission to put their feelings into action and words. Swastikas have appeared on buildings and have desecrated graves. Video footage showed hundreds at an “alt-right” conference celebrating Trump’s election, with prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer declaring, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” as the crowd gave enthusiastic Nazi salutes. The daughter of my late stepfather-in-law, who fled Nazi Germany in 1940, said that she was glad her father didn’t live to see this going on in his beloved adopted country, the United States of America.
Donald Trump won the election. Roughly half the voters think what Trump says and does is acceptable: that sexually assaulting women is acceptable, that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, that all Muslims are terrorists, and that disabled people can be mocked. Many people say that this nasty stuff was just pre-election rhetoric, that he will lead differently. That sounds remarkably similar to what one of my landlords once said. He let his nephew live in one of his buildings, and he beat his girlfriend. A woman in that building confronted the landlord about his nephew, and she told us the landlord’s response was, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be ok! They’re getting married!” Soon they got married and then moved upstairs from us, and one day the wife came to my door with sunglasses on to hide the black eyes he had given her and begged me for as many garbage bags as I could give her. She put all her possessions in the bags and never returned.
So I’m playing the Anne Frank game, wondering about my neighbors and the owners of the businesses I have long patronized. Did they vote for a man who espouses these beliefs? A man who retweeted racist and anti-Semitic images and connected them to Hillary Clinton, who fomented hatred of Muslims and Syrian refugees, and even made fun of a reporter with cerebral palsy? Who was silent when David Duke endorsed him?
This feeling of being a stranger in your own land is nothing new to African Americans and other minorities, of course. I recently heard an African American comedian on the radio recount how she called her mother the morning after the election to check on her because she thought her mother was going to be anxious about the results. Instead, she found her mother to be disappointed but calm. Her mother said, “Why are you surprised? You know where we live.” We live in the United States of America.
A few days after the election I was eating lunch with a friend at a diner on the grounds of a small private airport near our studio in a fairly rural part of New Jersey. The three white men at a table next to me were talking loudly enough for me to hear them, taking turns extolling Trump’s cabinet appointments, and saying that now things were really, finally, going to change for the better. America was finally going to become great again for them. One of them had flown there in his private plane, so I doubt America was treating him all that badly. He complained that he was tired of all the whining about Trump’s cabinet appointments. “They’re making everything out to be about anti-Semitism!” he said dismissively, referring to the controversy about Bannon. He then said that we would have “law and order” in this country again, which has always been code for targeting African Americans.
We live in the United States of America, where enough people voted for Trump that he was able to win the Presidency. With their votes, those who voted for Trump confirmed that his repellant views are fine with them. And that is a truly terrible thing to process. How many times in the last few weeks have I heard, “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a….[fill in the blank]; I voted for Trump for other reasons.” In this supposedly “post-racial” age, people seem to think they’re not racists or anti-Semites if they never use certain expressions or epithets in public, or if they are able to work in the same office as African Americans, Latinos, Jews, or Muslims. They say voting for Trump was just a whole separate issue, that it nothing to do with misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia.
I won’t forgive or forget what was said. I’m not going to go along to get along. The Republicans spent Obama’s 8 years in office resisting and obstructing every thing he proposed and said, so I’ve learn that the “high road” is not always the right road. In times like this, you have to resist in order to stand up for what’s right.
“The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” —Ian Kershaw