By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania has turned out to be a crucible for the pivotal choices to be made in the coming midterm election. The contest between Democratic former Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman and Trump-backed Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz could decide whether authoritarians take control of the U.S. Senate.
The governor’s race, pitting the state’s Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro against a right-wing Republican state senator, Doug Mastriano, is a microcosm of the nationwide struggle to preserve democracy.
Josh Shapiro is running on a record of fighting for the people of his state. During his tenure as attorney general, he has taken on Big Pharma CEOs for their perpetuation of the opioid crisis; successfully prosecuted a construction company for stealing its employees’ wages; and led a coalition to create a statewide police misconduct database.
Shapiro supports a woman’s right to choose, and successfully litigated Pennsylvanians’ right to vote all the way to the Supreme Court, ensuring all legal 2020 Pennsylvania votes were counted and the results certified.
Doug Mastriano, on the other hand, is a persistent proponent of Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. He chartered buses for supporters to go to Washington for Trump’s January 6, 2021 rally, and, although he did not enter the building, Mastriano took part outside at the Capitol during the insurrection.
Mastriano has declared that if he wins the governorship, he will require all voters in Pennsylvania to re-register. If Mastriano wins, he may be able to carry out this threat because he will be in a position to appoint Pennsylvania’s secretary of state—who oversees the state’s elections.
As if Mastriano’s authoritarianism was not bad enough, he has solicited the support of extremist organizations and is doing his best to use their antisemitic tropes against Shapiro, who is Jewish.
Worse yet, national Republican party leaders continue to support Mastriano or remain silent, making the acceptance or rejection of antisemitism not only an issue for Pennsylvania voters, but a bellwether, along with racism, for the future of the nation.
Is Mastriano an Antisemite or Fellow Traveler?
In July, it was revealed that Mastriano paid $5,000 to the ultra-right-wing social-media platform Gab, to promote his candidacy.
Gab was the platform on which Robert Bowers posted antisemitic rants before committing his 2018 slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. That mass murder of 11 people is believed to be the deadliest antisemitic violence in U.S. history.
Gab’s founder and chief executive, Andrew Torba, a proponent of Replacement Theory, has promoted Mastriano’s candidacy to his followers by advertising Mastriano as also being against the Jews. Replacement Theory is the white nationalist conspiracy charge that white people are being demographically and culturally replaced with nonwhite people. Jewish “elites” are accused of conspiring to accomplish this.
Torba’s statement initially brought some bipartisan condemnation of Mastriano. In response, Torba livestreamed on Gab that he and Mastriano “are going to build a coalition of Christian nationalists” and that Shapiro was a “Soros puppet” who participated in voter fraud in the 2020 election. (The reference is to liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros.)
After much pressure, Mastriano released a statement saying that he rejected antisemitism and that Torba did not speak for him. Nevertheless, a late September campaign finance report showed that Mastriano had accepted a $500 donation from Torba in July. His campaign did not respond to the New York Times when asked whether he planned to return the money.
Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Mastriano promotes Christian power and “disdains the separation of church and state.” Without explanation or evidence, Mastriano has accused Shapiro of holding a grudge against the Roman Catholic Church.
Mastriano has repeatedly attacked Shapiro for having gone to a Jewish day school himself and sending his children to one. Despite Mastriano’s proposal to defund public education by cutting property tax to zero—essentially privatizing Pennsylvania’s school system with inadequately financed vouchers—he characterized the Jewish day school as “privileged, exclusive, elite,” and claimed that it showed Shapiro’s “disdain for people like us.” Ironically, it is Shapiro who supports greater funding of public schools.
Shapiro has avoided calling Doug Mastriano an antisemite, but has emphasized that his opponent’s antisemitic actions are indicative of his overall extremism. This month, Shapiro said, “There is no question that he is courting antisemites and white supremacists and racists actively in his campaign,” and that “unless you think like him, unless you vote like him, unless you worship like him or marry like him, then you don’t count in his Pennsylvania.” In contrast, Shapiro asserts that he wants to “be a governor for all 13 million Pennsylvanians.”
While Shapiro may not wish to call Mastriano an antisemite, I do not feel so constrained.
Though some Jewish Republicans may busy themselves attempting to parse whether Mastriano is himself antisemitic or just has supporters who are, this is a distinction without a difference. It does not matter how Mastriano personally feels about Jews. His actions—his use of fascists and of antisemitism to gain power—is even more cynically malevolent if he is not a true believer.
Being cozy with antisemitic hate groups cannot be dismissed as merely ruthless politics, whether done publicly or behind a veil. And given the well-known negative stereotype of Jews as “rich, elite, with too much influence,” and Mastriano’s contrast with “people like us,” not to mention his statements about George Soros, Mastriano’s language is not even a dog whistle. It’s a megaphone.
Where Does the Republican Party Stand?
While a few Pennsylvania Republicans have tried to counter Mastriano by endorsing Shapiro, most of the state GOP has either supported Mastriano or stood silent.
The New York Times reported on October 10 that former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has campaigned for Mastriano, called him a “strong Christian Zionist,” and said he did not see any “antisemitic concerns at all.” Santorum, of course, ignores the divide between right-wing Christian attitudes towards American Jews and their "Christian Zionist" support of Israel, not to mention the theological reasons for that support.
As few as two years before her 2020 election, Marjorie Taylor Greene shared a video that stated “an unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists, and Zionist supremacists has schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands.”
Speaking recently at Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally in Mesa Arizona, Greene again raised Replacement Theory.
All of this pales in comparison to the history of the former president. Trump, the big Kahuna of bigotry, may do business with Jews, and may have a Jewish son-in-law, but he is still a man who has consistently used and promoted negative antisemitic stereotypes in every way possible.
In 2016, Trump tweeted an image using a Star of David to symbolize Hillary Clinton’s “corruption.”
The Trump campaign then ran a demagogic ad claiming that a global power structure has “robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The ad accompanied this language with images of Janet Yellen, Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein — financial figures all of whom are Jewish.
At a Hanukkah event at the White House in 2018, Trump referred to Israel as “your country” while speaking to American Jews. And in a 2019 Oval Office meeting he declared that “any Jewish people who would vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
True to form, on October 16, Trump threatened, in a Truth Social post, that American Jews need to “get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel before it is too late!” After claiming “No president has done more for Israel than I have,” Trump wrote that “our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.” In making these various statements, Trump was promoting the antisemitic trope that American Jews are loyal to Israel rather than the U.S., or that Israel is the Jew’s real country, not the U.S.
In response to Trump’s comments, Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt issued the statement: “We don’t need the former president, who curries favor with extremists and antisemites, to lecture us about the US-Israel relationship. It is not about a quid pro quo; it rests on shared values and security interests. This ‘Jewsplaining’ is insulting and disgusting.”
No major Republican leaders have spoken out against Trump’s statements.
Misleading Republican Jews
A portion of the orthodox Jewish community became staunch Republican voters because of right-wing evangelical support of Israel and because they have been persuaded to associate far left opposition to Israel (not only to some of its policies, which can be fair game, but to its existence) with the Democratic party.
But the mainstream Democratic Party has been as supportive of Israel as the Republican Party. To quote White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: “Here’s the difference between Democrats and MAGA Republicans. When a Democrat says something racist or antisemitic, we hold Democrats accountable. When a MAGA Republican says something racist or antisemitic, they are embraced by cheering crowds.”
The hopeful news for Pennsylvania is that, thus far, Mastriano’s tactics do not seem to be working well for him. U.S. News and World Report reported in September that according to Republican strategists, Mastriano’s fundraisers were not well-attended. Meanwhile, Shapiro was drawing crowds when he appeared in Mastriano’s red territory.
And as of October 6, a Monmouth University poll reported Shapiro still had a strong lead over Mastriano (54 percent to 38 percent). Shapiro also has a significant fundraising advantage and so has been able to run more than $20 million worth of TV ads, while Mastriano has only begun running ads in October, a $1 million investment on TV and digital platforms.
But the cynical Republican use of antisemitism is emblematic—part and parcel—of the party’s wider extremist bigotry towards gender, race, and various national origins. This resort to bigotry demonstrates once again that the party lacks any true intention to improve the everyday lives of the voters it is courting. Hate is its major strategy.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.