Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump faith adviser Robert Jeffress, Trump’s no-apologies policy, and Tom Wolfe’s legacy.
The opening ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem included a prayer led by Robert Jeffress, the Dallas pastor and Trump faith adviser who has spoken out against Islam and Mormonism, and infamously said that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew.” Did Trump use Jeffress’s invitation, and the rest of the ceremony, to send a message?
Yes, Trump was sending a message with the horror show he orchestrated in Jerusalem. But the message had nothing to do with his administration’s purported goal of seeking peace in the Middle East — a cause that has been set back indefinitely by his provocative relocation of the American embassy. Trump’s message, per usual, was for his own selfish political aims. It was targeted at his base, whose most loyal members are right-wing Evangelicals. And so the ceremony included not only a prayer from Jeffress, whose disdain for Jews is matched only by his loathing of Mormons and Muslims, but a benediction from John Hagee, an Evangelical crackpot notorious for telling NPR’s “Fresh Air” that God created Katrina to punish New Orleans for hosting “a homosexual parade.”
For this segment of Trump’s base, bigotry (including against Roman Catholics, in Hagee’s case) is a Godly virtue and anti-Semitism is not inconsistent with Zionism. Israel is the presumed site of the Second Coming, after which everyone who refuses to give themselves up to Christ will be subjected to another Holocaust. Some of this base is grateful for the previous Holocaust as well, which is why Hagee has said that Hitler was “part of God’s plan” for the Jews and for Israel. This is the theological brand of anti-Semitism whose secular expression could be found in Charlottesville where white-supremacist thugs among what Trump called “very fine people on both sides” could be found chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Of course Jeffress and Hagee were only a small part of the hideous spectacle in Jerusalem. Some 40 miles away Palestinian demonstrators were being mowed down en masse, an image juxtaposed on split screen by the sight of Ivanka Trump smiling, as Michelle Goldberg has written, “like a Zionist Marie Antoinette.” The most prominent Jews in attendance besides her and her husband were Sheldon Adelson, Steven Mnuchin, and “Bibi” Netanyahu, who (along with his wife) is under criminal investigation in tandem with that of his ally in the White House. This Jersualem “ceremony” will live on not as a positive step in Israeli history but as a shabby rogue’s gallery panorama of mobsterism at the top of both the American and Israeli governments.
The only thing missing from the picture was a sanctimonious Jared Kushner evocation of his grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust. You may recall he wrote at length (in the New York Observer, which he then owned) about that piece of his family history during the 2016 campaign when his father-in-law was accused of anti-Semitism after sending out a “Crooked Hillary” tweet decorated with a six-pointed star on top of a pile of $100 bills. (He subsequently deleted it.) Many American Jewish families are the descendants of Holocaust survivors. They don’t merchandize that legacy to justify the alt-right, and they don’t embrace anti-Semites praying for the mass conversion and/or mass extinction of Jews.
Nearly a week after White House aide Kelly Sadler joked behind closed doors that John McCain’s opinion on political affairs “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway,” both Sadler and the White House have yet to apologize in public. Is their no-apologies principle worth the crisis it has created?
There is something preposterous about the whole premise of this doomed chase for a Kelly Sadler apology. If Trump himself never apologized for his own slur of McCain during the campaign, what does it matter if this crass underling apologizes now or not? The most interesting aspect of this incident is that even as McCain is dying few Republicans in Congress are asking for a Sadler apology — let alone a Trump apology — and none have the balls to do so to the president’s face. (They have no such problem excoriating the comic riffs of Michelle Wolf.) Do any of these jokers have an inkling of how posterity will view this week’s videos of them skulking away from reporters in the Capitol’s corridors or making mealy-mouth statements while staring down at the floor? Their cowardice will be remembered just as surely as McCain’s wartime heroism.
The writer Tom Wolfe died on Tuesday, leaving behind a world of letters in which, in large part thanks to him, longform journalism has grown to rival the novel for prestige and attention. What do you think were his biggest contributions to the field?
It is really hard to overestimate the revolution Wolfe brought to journalism. By marrying a glorious literary style and hard-driving narrative to meticulous, indefatigable reporting, he rehabilitated the very notion of print journalism in the 1960s when it was deadly gray and, like much of American culture, having difficulty fending off the behemoth of television. It’s impossible to imagine many of our best nonfiction writers, from Hunter S. Thompson to Michael Lewis, without his having paved the way.
There had been strong narrative journalism before Wolfe’s so-called New Journalism — some of it in the William Shawn–era The New Yorker, the subject of a merciless Wolfe takedown when New York was still an insert in the New York Herald Tribune. Later he would eventually publish an even bigger bombshell, “Radical Chic.” But Wolfe’s range, ambitions, and moxie left them in the dust: He wanted to understand and capture nearly every strata of American society, from stock-car racers in the South, where he grew up, to the swells in Leonard Bernstein’s apartment in his adopted adult home of Manhattan. And so he did.
For me, Wolfe’s career as a novelist is something of a sideshow to his great work as a journalist. He strenuously argued — with John Updike and Norman Mailer, among others — that American fiction had grown too inward and proposed that it be infused with the kind of broad societal reportage that informed the epic canvases of Dickens and Balzac. Nothing wrong with that: There is room for both categories of fiction (and many more). But the problem with Wolfe’s was not the ambition but the execution. The first and by far the best of his novels, Bonfire of the Vanities, is rightly prized for its wise and often hilarious reportage — an excoriating portrait of late-1980s New York City on the brink. But unlike as in, say, Dickens, most of the characters are less memorable than the seething backdrop; the people in Wolfe’s fiction, unlike in his journalism, tend to evaporate from memory even as the big setpieces around them remain indelible.
Go read or reread the anthologies of Wolfe’s astonishing magazine pieces, including the earliest from Esquire, as well as The Right Stuff, his book-length masterpiece about the early history of America’s space program. Though many writers learned from him and more than a few have imitated him, he is an American original and remains one of a kind.