Is Trump really a fascist, or just an ugly capitalist?


You may remember Arthur Chu, the Jeopardy! contestant whose strategies last year kept him in the game for 11 episodes and earned him plaudits and derision alike.

He’s also a political columnist on the liberal side of the spectrum, and in a column for Salon on the Donald Trump phenomenon, he says enough with the Hitler and Mussolini analogies when it comes to the real estate billionaire and candidate for the Republican presidential nod.

“It’s impossible to imagine the effete reality-show billionaire at the head of a Beer Hall Putsch or going to prison as a martyr for his cause. His supporters are violent, frightening, boorish mobs but they’re nothing at all like an army, not even the ersatz army the SA were. And despite how ugly things have gotten in the United States during the War on Terror we are still comfortably the world’s wealthiest superpower; Weimar Germany would be lucky to have our problems,” Chu writes.

Instead, Chu comes up with an American historical analog to Trump: Henry Ford, who also flirted with a GOP run for the presidency, in 1924. Both were extravagantly wealthy media darlings, and both were outspoken about marginalizing a minority — Jews in Ford’s case, Muslims in Trump’s.

He writes: “Ford was beloved by his fans because he was perceived as a straight-talker, a truth-teller, someone insulated enough by his wealth he didn’t have to recite polite fictions. Among serious pundits of the chattering classes, an eccentric billionaire who goes on rants about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate has disqualified himself from being taken seriously for office. Among voters who hate and resent the serious pundits of the chattering classes, those ‘fringe’ views only underscore the billionaire’s ‘outsider’ credentials.

 

“It may well be the case that Ford, had he not bowed out of running for the Republican nomination in 1924, would never have won a general election once enough people blasted the contents of his raving anti-Semitic newspaper the Dearborn Independent to a national stage–indeed, the Anti-Defamation League successfully shut down that newspaper with a boycott in 1927. It may be that historians are correct that Ford would never have made it that far into the election because, like most people who storm into presidential elections with no past political experience, he simply didn’t have the taste for politics.”

Ayn Rand … Rosenbaum?


The first public cause to which Ayn Rand donated her own money was the State of Israel.

I find this little-known nugget fascinating for two reasons.

One, it contradicts the idée fixe of Rand as not really Jewish. And two, it contradicts the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand’s followers often obscure, or quickly pass over, her Jewishness.  The official Ayn Rand Web site, aynrand.org, doesn’t mention it. Neither does the Web site of her most popular book, atlasshrugged.org, nor the hagiographical site, facetsofaynrand.com.

But none of this is exactly a secret. In her excellent 2011 book about Rand, “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” Jennifer Burns tells the story. Alisa Rosenbaum was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on Feb. 2, 1905, to Zinovy Rosenbaum, a pharmacist, and Anna Rosenbaum, the high-strung daughter of a wealthy tailor, whose clients included the Russian Army.  The Rosenbaums were largely non-observant, but celebrated Passover and were by no means completely assimilated—Alisa sat out of class during religious instruction.

[Related: How Paul Ryan will motivate Jewish voters]

Intellectual, withdrawn and immersed in her fantasy worlds, Alisa yearned to leave her country behind. When she was 21, Jewish relatives in Chicago—the Portnoys, of all names—helped her arrange a visa.  Once in America, she grew tired of her relatives’ insular Jewish world, and headed for the source — you could say the fountainhead — of her fantasy: Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the aspiring screenwriter Alisa Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand. An Eastern European émigré who breaks free from the claws of tradition and family, gentrifies her name, assimilates and devotes herself to creating stories about an idealized America — if that’s not the very definition of a 20th century Jew, what is?

Rand was a classic 20th-century Jew in another way as well: she was a devout atheist. She replaced God with her philosophy, just as Freud did with psychology and Einstein with physics. She loathed religion as much as the Communists, whom she loathed, loathed religion. In a 1979 interview, Rand told talk-show host Phil Donahue that religion, “gives man permission to function irrationally, to accept something above and outside the power of their reason.”

All this matters now because Ayn Rand matters now — perhaps more than ever. Gov. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is a self-described Ayn Rand devotee — and not of her early screenplays.

Ryan requires all his staff members to read Rand’s seminal novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” The ideas she developed in these novels, as Burns writes, have become the ideological touchstones of the modern Conservative movement.

“Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action,” Burns writes. “In her work, the state is always the destroyer, acting to frustrate the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals. Her work … helped inspire a broad intellectual movement that challenged the liberal welfare state and proclaimed the desirability of free markets.”

It is hard to read Ryan’s plan for addressing the Federal deficit and not see Rand’s ideological pencil marks.

The Ryan budget, wrote David Stockman, the conservative Republican former budget director under President Ronald Reagan, “shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled.”

In other words, the Ryan budget is Ayn Rand’s philosophy made flesh. 

I understand the origins of Rand’s emphasis on initiative and ingenuity. She was an exceptional individual, an outsider who by sheer force of intellect and will forged not just a life, but a movement. 

I understand her faith in capitalism and the free market. The Bolsheviks shattered her family, and few understood better than she the failure of Communism.

I even understand her rejection of religion — in her day it was most often a force of repression and superstition.

What I don’t understand is how, given these beliefs, Rand also could urge her followers to donate money to Israel.

“Give all help possible to Israel,” said Rand, then in her late 60s, in a lecture in 1973. “Consider what is at stake.”

Rand made clear she loathed Arabs and the Soviet Union, and saw Israel as a bulwark against both — even if it was socialist.

“This is the first time I’ve contributed to a public cause,” Rand said, “helping Israel in an emergency.”

Really, how do you explain such a thing? True, she saw Arab culture as “primitive,” but she acknowledged individuals had no responsibility to help citizens of other countries. She didn’t act out of logic or rationality — she acted because she felt, in dire circumstances—part of a collective. In that time, I believe, she wasn’t The Individual, she was part of a group: The Jews.

That feeling, that impulse, may not be rational, but it is powerful. There is a very real sense, as Jews, as Americans, as people, that we are bonded to one another despite, or even because of, our essential individualism. 

Rand’s religious blind spot is also Ryan’s policy blind spot. The most successful countries on Earth do not just fund defense, police and the courts, as Rand would have it. They invest in research, education and innovation. They provide a safety net to the sick and needy. They keep defense spending in check. They protect the environment from over-exploitation. They make cuts and raise taxes, so that society’s costs and benefits are shared.

Ayn Rand couldn’t see this. I hope Paul Ryan can.

Marty Kaplan: Is luck dead?


The trouble with kids these days is that they think luck counts more than they should.  That’s the diagnosis of America’s young people offered by a New York Times opinion piece this past weekend.  Generation Y has moved back home and given up on gung-ho because in these recessionary times, they’re putting too little weight on the importance of effort and too much weight on the riskiness of risk.

This indictment of “” target=”_hplink”>Thinking, Fast and Slow, the one most startling to me is the power he attributes to luck.  This isn’t a philosophical or theoretical point that he’s making; it’s an empirical observation, based on data.

Stock traders, financial analysts, economic forecasters and CEOs may believe that their results are based on research, experience and skill.  On the contrary, says Kahneman, the overwhelming evidence – and he provides plenty of it – is that monkeys throwing darts would be just as good (that is, as bad) at doing their jobs.  Small businesses fail: that’s the rule.  To believe you’re going to be the exception requires not just confidence, it takes a resolute denial of reality.  (Intuition, by the way, is also wildly overrated.)  Every startup inevitably, and usually fatally, overestimates the brilliance of its own vision and underestimates the genius of its competitors.  Entrepreneurs maintain that success derives from sweat and indefatigability, but in fact it nearly always hinges on random, unpredictable events.

Look at the case histories of the wizards of the digital age, says Kahneman, and virtually all of them are testimony to luck.  Pundits and political scientists who get it right are shockingly rare, and when they do, the reason is luck.  The track record of clinicians and therapists depends more on fortune than is humanly bearable to acknowledge.  How an athlete performs on a given day always involves a roll of the dice.  All of history is driven by chance.  Choose any historic figure you like; the sperm and egg that produced them were brought together by blind odds, not by destiny, design or divinity.

This weekend also brought word of the death at age 87 of ” target=”_hplink”>Chance and Necessity, the book by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod published a few years later, that opened my eyes to the disturbing notion that chance, not a Book of Life written in the clouds, was the name of life’s game.

Back then, when I first entered college, an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Writer discovers California ‘Gold’ in banking ancestor Isaias Hellman


“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Searching for ways to deal with the current economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could take a cue from Isaias Hellman, banker, capitalist and California visionary. More than once during financial panics in the 19th century, when bank runs were a too-frequent and devastating occurrence, Hellman resorted to a dramatic ploy to restore calm and confidence. He stacked massive towers of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles.

Half a million dollars in plain view “was a tonic,” his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel writes in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press). It was a sight that stopped withdrawals cold and even attracted deposits. Everyone, customers and competitors, seemed to trust Hellman’s faith that better times were ahead.

A grand gesture, his towers of gold represented not only Hellman’s keen sense of the public psyche when hard times arose but his own confidence in the opportunities and resources of California. Hellman was an essential part, according to Dinkelspiel, of the generation that built the economic engines and defined the social institutions of California. In that role and company, Hellman was arguably the single most powerful and influential Jew in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1920.

A fifth-generation Californian and Bay Area journalist, Dinkelspiel grew up with little knowledge of her illustrious ancestor. She discovered in the Hellman papers at the California Historical Society “every reporter’s dream: an unknown story about a critical chapter in the country’s history.”

Sifting through extensive correspondence, ledgers, newspaper clippings and diaries, she realized that Hellman was a titan of his time, “California’s premier financier” when the state shed its isolation and became an economic force.

She soon was on a seven-year quest to re-insert Hellman into California history and expand the record of Jewish immigrant success beyond Levi Strauss (who was just one of several pioneer co-religionists helped by Hellman to build unimaginable fortunes).

Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Still more Mexican than American and with a population of less than 5,000, Los Angeles was home to maybe 150 Jews, almost all merchants who belonged to a handful of extended families. Accompanied by his younger brother, Herman, and with less than $100 between them, Hellman went to work as a clerk in a cousin’s store.

Within a few years, Hellman was buying his own store, developing commercial property in the center of Los Angeles and going into business with men “who considered themselves the problem solvers” of the region. Men such as John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant and former governor of California, were eager to capitalize on the sterling reputation and business acumen of the 29-year-old when Hellman invited them to become shareholders in the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Farmers and Merchants proved to be the city’s first successful financial institution. It also became Hellman’s springboard to a West Coast banking empire that by 1915 had resources totaling more than $100 million. The crown jewel in that empire was the Wells Fargo Nevada Bank.

In 1890, Hellman was tapped to save the Nevada Bank, a San Francisco firm that counted the Southern Pacific Railroad among its biggest customers. When capitalist E.H. Harriman decided to spin off the banking business of Wells Fargo, he approached Hellman to take charge of merging two of the state’s oldest establishments and creating one of the West’s largest financial institutions.

While Hellman had family ties to New York and European capitalists (his brother-in-law was Meyer Lehman of the Lehman Brothers commodity house), the roots of Hellman’s success were in his local connections. He persistently partnered with friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. As his success grew, he promoted California investment opportunities to Lehman Brothers and other prominent Jewish firms in the East and increased the wealth on both coasts.

As an investor, adviser and leader, Hellman extended his success and influence over several other major industries in California. He partnered with Collis and Henry E. Huntington to develop railroads and trolley lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He loaned Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny $500 to purchase the land where they sunk the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles.

Hellman was the largest shareholder in the Los Angeles Water Co., a private firm that developed the city’s water system in the 19th century, and personally sold a $14.5 million bond issue for the Spring Valley Water Co. that supplied San Francisco. Having early in his career invested in vineyards, in 1901 Hellman took control of the California wine industry, standardizing the product and elevating the reputation of the industry around the world. In addition, he developed land all over Los Angeles County, owned property in San Francisco and built a vacation retreat at Lake Tahoe that eventually became a state park.

Hellman’s influence on Los Angeles is still evident today. In an instance where capitalism and philanthropy met, Jewish Hellman, Protestant Ozro Childs and Catholic Downey donated 110 acres to the Methodist founders of USC. The land was in the center of the partners’ subdivision at the southwest edge of the city. They also extended the trolley line they owned from downtown to the new campus.

Their generosity gave potential land buyers a destination and a convenient way to get there. The city had a university, and the partners saw their land triple in value.

Hellman helped create another L.A. institution when he advised Harrison Gray Otis to buy out his partner in the Los Angeles Times and then provided the $18,000 loan required to put the paper in Otis’ hands. Otis’ descendants, the Chandler family, sold the massive media company that evolved for $8 billion in 2000.

Hellman’s leadership went beyond the world of finance and business. When Los Angeles’ first synagogue was built in 1872, he was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He served as a regent of the University of California for more than 30 years and endowed a scholarship fund still supporting students. He took a leading role in the recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy ranged from Catholic orphans to World War I Jewish European refugees.

While unquestionably Hellman achieved the immigrant’s dream of success and acceptance in America, there were times when he was the target of anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-Semitic behavior. He and his companies also were subject to the wrath of unionists and socialists, progressive reformers and even betrayal by family members. His wealth, influence and fame brought both friends and enemies.

In its plain sense, the biography of Hellman is a story of nearly unfettered opportunity to apply one’s skills and realize one’s ambition. The openness of the American frontier stood in stark contrast to the restrictions on livelihood and residency most Jewish Europeans left behind. At a deeper level, Hellman’s story is a reminder that it took skill, ambition and connections to transform that frontier into part of the United States and create a state that today has a gross domestic product larger than all but eight countries in the world.

Jews were notably among the diverse contributors of those necessary ingredients, as they have continued to be, for example, the Stern, Haas and Goldman families in San Francisco and the Factor, Taper, Casden and Lowy families in Los Angeles.

To her credit, Dinkelspiel presents a well-developed and even-handed portrayal of Hellman and his extended family. The biography maintains a solid historical context in which to understand the perspectives, philosophy and values of a gilded-age capitalist. His German-American-Jewish sense of responsibility to family, community, customers, investors, competitors and the future comes through clearly. Through the vehicle of one man and his networks of family, friends and associates, the foundational place in California history of Jewish immigrants generally is illuminated, as well.

Well-researched and highly readable, “Towers of Gold” makes an important contribution to both the history of the Golden State and the history of Jews in America. It is a very strong case for the veracity of the volume’s subtitle — “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” — demonstrating the key role of Hellman in the urban and economic development of California.

It also adds a fresh perspective on the Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who in the mid-19th century joined in the continental expansion of the United States and set down roots in emerging communities. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, frontier California was influenced by “Jewish values and sensibility” in ways unprecedented anywhere else in the nation.

Hellman’s life and accomplishments illustrated that influence, and this biography brings attention to its still-unfolding consequences.

Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and curator for the upcoming Autry National Center exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles.

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