TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After linking to an article about the rise of fascism in America, my guest, Jonathan Weisman, became the target of neo-Nazi trolls on Twitter barraging him with anti-Semitic insults and threats. Weisman is a former congressional correspondent for The New York Times and is now deputy Washington editor, handling Time's coverage of Congress as well as some political coverage. In his new book, he describes his encounters with white nationalists, writes about some of their leaders, looks at the connections between white nationalists and the Trump campaign and administration, and examines some of the history of anti-Semitism in America. The book is called "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump."
Jonathan Weisman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Tell us how the anti-Semitic attacks against you started. What did you first tweet out that got the response?
JONATHAN WEISMAN: Well, it was May of 2016. It was a time when Donald Trump was actually kind of marauding through the Republican primaries, but somehow, the Republican establishment still thought there was some way to stop him. And Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar, had written an op-ed for The Washington Post on how fascism comes to America. And I wasn't thinking much. I do this a lot. I just took a quotation from it and put it on Twitter and sent it out there. And I got a reply back on Twitter from somebody identifying themself (ph) as CyberTrump. And all it was was a two-word missive. It said, hello, Weisman. But Weisman was in these three parentheses - surrounded by three parentheses. And, you know, obviously, Weisman's a pretty Jewish name, so I intuited that this notation, my name in brackets, had something to do with my Judaism, my Jewish background.
So I answered, care to explain? And what I got back was this odd response - what ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence. CyberTrump came back with me. He said, it's a dog whistle, fool, belling the cat from my fellow goyim. And that was it. From that moment on, I was kind of under an onslaught on Twitter. It kind of bled into voicemails sometimes and email from anti-Semites. It was - the viciousness of it really took me aback because, of course, we don't really think of this country as overtly anti-Semitic. And the old anti-Semitic tropes, the imagery, the violence really, really shocked me.
GROSS: So these triple parentheses bracketing your name, signifying that you're Jewish, is that a marker so that other people who want to attack you for being Jewish can figure out, get him?
WEISMAN: Well, unbeknownst to me and frankly unbeknownst to virtually anyone in the world, there was a piece of software that was being offered as a Google plug-in. It was very nondescript in its name. It was called the Coincidence Indicator (ph). And what it did was allow people - racist, bigots, anti-Semites and the alt-right - to actually search for those three parentheses. You see, on Google, Google searches don't pick up punctuation. They only pick up letters. And if you had plugged in this Coincidence Indicator, you could go hunt out these three parentheses. So it literally was belling the cat. Anybody who had that, if somebody on the Internet wanted to go find a marked man or woman, he could plug in the Coincidence Indicator and find the mark. And I had been marked.
GROSS: So it's like the Internet equivalent of wearing a Jewish star or, you know, a pink triangle during the Nazi era, in a way.
WEISMAN: Exactly, exactly. I would put it exactly that way. And in fact, a lot of the images that were sent to me were me with a yellow Jewish star sewed to whatever I happened to be wearing in that motif.
GROSS: So give us a sense of some of the hate tweets that you got from the neo-Nazi trolls.
WEISMAN: Well, so much of it was Trump-oriented. There's one meme that they sent to a lot of Jewish journalists with the journalist's face in a gas chamber and a smiling Donald Trump in Nazi uniform flicking the switch for the gas chamber. There were images of my face and other journalists' faces superimposed on a victim of the Holocaust leaning over and about to be shot in the head by a Nazi. There was - one of my favorites was the very famous gates of Auschwitz. But instead of the German, you know, make work - work makes you free, it said, mocking America great again. A lot of - there was a lot of Holocaust imagery infused with make America great or Donald Trump's name or face. It was the first real understanding that there were these shock troops of the Trump campaign who were just flagrantly racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic.
GROSS: Do you think that Donald Trump knew about this kind of tweet using his slogan, make America great, using his name in such anti-Semitic ways?
WEISMAN: Well, one thing I'm very reluctant to do is put anything into Donald Trump's head. I don't know what's in Donald Trump's head. We do know a couple of things. We know that when Trump was confronted once by Wolf Blitzer on CNN during the campaign, he didn't exactly renounce it. He said, I can't control my followers. And a similar thing happened to - with Melania Trump. A Jewish journalist named Julia Ioffe, who was at that time a freelancer, had written a freelance piece profiling Melania Trump and her family back in Croatia. And the Trump supporters did not like this piece. It struck me as a perfectly fair piece. It wasn't very, you know - very negative. But it was denounced. And then the alt-right bigots started attacking Julia Ioffe really viciously. And, again, in an interview, Melania was confronted with that. And she said, you know, that was a very negative story; I can't control my followers. So there were ample opportunities.
GROSS: And she also said she - Julia Ioffe, the journalist - Melania Trump said she provoked them.
WEISMAN: That's right. And that provocation line actually was echoed, in some ways, by Donald Trump himself. There were ample times when they could've renounced, in a fulsome manner, their followers. And they seemed absolutely unwilling to lose a single vote.
GROSS: Well, let's get back to you. So you're getting all these anti-Semitic tweets. How did you decide whether to or not to engage with them?
WEISMAN: Now, this is a very sensitive question because how to engage the alt-right is an argument that is still going on. At that time, I was so blown away by the virulence and ugliness of these attacks that I decided I wanted people to see it. And now, I'm no - you know, I'm Donald Trump. I don't have millions of followers. But I had, at the time, I think, 50,000 followers. So I thought, I want people to see this. And so I would retweet them. I would send them out into the world. And I think in some ways, I only invited more attacks because, hey, somebody who has 500 followers were - was being rebroadcast by somebody who had 50,000 followers. So in some ways, I was empowering these people. But I also really did want people to see how ugly it was out there. So I may have done a bad thing, may have done a good thing. I still don't know. But I certainly wanted to get the point across. And I think I did.
GROSS: So looking back in retrospect, what were the reactions you got from the anti-Semites who were trolling you? And what kind of reaction did you get from other people who were unaware of this wave of anti-Semitism on the Internet?
WEISMAN: I think the anti-Semites who were trolling me really enjoyed this process. I think they actually liked to get the publicity. And I didn't really understand how organized it was at the time. It actually was an organized process, organized by the leaders of the kind of leading neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. Andrew Anglin, who is the editor of that, had actually - he was the one that belled the cat, and he was the one that was trying to sic his Stormtroopers on me. So it was - so they enjoyed it. Now, at the same time, I got a lot of feedback from people saying, oh, my gosh, look at what is happening to this editor at The New York Times. And people were shocked. And the fact is, at that point, there became kind of this crusade to get Twitter to start enforcing its own terms of service.
This really isn't a free speech matter. When you sign up for Facebook or Twitter or any social media platform, you actually sign or agree to a term of service. And the terms of service that Twitter offers says you are not to attack anyone based on race, religion, sexual orientation, et cetera. So it wasn't that Twitter - we were asking Twitter to suppress free speech here. We were asking Twitter to simply enforce its own terms of service. And ultimately, I think that's what happened. I think we did raise awareness. We also surfaced the fact that there was this coincidence indicator and these three brackets. It was because of my efforts that an online magazine, kind of a techie magazine called Mic actually figured out what this thing was. So it had an impact.
GROSS: So did Twitter shut down any of the accounts?
WEISMAN: Absolutely. Now, at first, they didn't. At first, I would report these accounts, and I'd get back this note saying, hey, we looked at this, and we didn't see any violation of our terms of service - which were frankly flabbergasting. At one point, a New York Times public relations person kind of compiled the worst of these attacks on me and sent it in a more formal way to Twitter and again got a note back saying, we don't see a violation of our terms of service. But as people started getting angrier about it, they started clamping down. And you don't really see it as virulently anymore. I mean, you could - you certainly see anti-Semitism and racism on Twitter and on Facebook, but I think that the anti-Semites and the racists are more careful not to make them personal attacks because they know that people are looking now.
GROSS: So once you kind of did a deep dive into anti-Semitism on Twitter and on the Internet and just in the world, in America, who were some of the people who you learned about who are leaders of the most anti-Semitic groups, the most neo-Nazi kind of groups that you hadn't been aware of before?
WEISMAN: Well, one of the guys I'd really focused on is Andrew Anglin. Andrew Anglin is kind of the swashbuckling editor of The Daily Stormer, which is a neo-Nazi website. What interests me about Andrew Anglin is his savvy on the Internet and his ability to organize attacks that go from the Internet, off the Internet. He is very good at finding a target and really trying to destroy that target's life. And it's not just by pelting that person with direct messages or notifications on Twitter, but also getting attacks over voicemails and emails and then eventually doxing, which is putting the personal information of somebody online so anybody could go find that Social Security number or that address and go harass the person, or even swatting. I love these terms. Swatting is when you call a local police person with the address, and you say, hey, I saw a shooter at this address. And lo and behold, a SWAT team lands on somebody's doorstep. And these things can be very dangerous and obviously extremely destructive and disruptive.
GROSS: You write that you hadn't known that virulent anti-Semitism still existed in America, but after these attacks on you, you couldn't avoid it. So what kind of wake-up call was that for you? What impact did that have on you, seeing all the anti-Semitism that does exist in America?
WEISMAN: I mean, just hearing you say that makes me feel so naive. But the fact of the matter is, I mean, obviously, I grew up in the South. I grew up in Atlanta. And some people don't say that's the South anymore, but when I was a kid, it was the South. And, you know, we had obvious racial issues, but I didn't feel the target of anti-Semitism. My Jewish education was almost like a tour of all the evils that have been inflicted on my people, but it all seemed to the past. And I learned about these bizarre anti-Semitic tropes - that the Jew is at once a left-wing radical and a rapacious banker, at once a weak and sniveling human being but also all-powerful and the owner of the media and the puller of the - all the puppet strings.
And I learned all these things because, of course, those were the images that we saw in czarist Russia, in Poland and then obviously in Nazi Germany. And to see those same images come across my computer screen and aimed at me was so disheartening - the idea that these - that this kind of hatred is so difficult to dislodge. And it really jarred me because, in part, I am in some ways so typical a Jew of my generation. I'm not particularly religious. I don't think of myself as a Jew first and foremost in any way. I just think of myself as an American.
GROSS: OK. We should take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a New York Times deputy Washington editor. He formerly covered Congress for The New York Times, and now he has a new book called "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a former congressional correspondent for The New York Times and is now deputy Washington editor, and his job includes editing congressional coverage. He's the author of the new book "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump," and it's about the anti-Semitic attacks that he got on Twitter after linking to an article called "This Is How Fascism Comes To America." And the book takes off from that to talk about this new wave of Internet anti-Semitism and other hate groups on the Internet. There's also a lot about the history of anti-Semitism in the book.
So you write that the far right has tried, with some success, to seize the free speech movement. What do you mean?
WEISMAN: Yeah. I think that this effort on - especially on college campuses, where somebody like Richard Spencer, one of the alt-right leaders, will go on tour to these campuses and try to provoke melees, riots, just basic mayhem and then say, we are the arbiters of free speech. You know, I have this - as I said earlier in the show, I wrestle with this notion of how to respond to the alt-right because, in some ways, I think everybody needs to know what's out there. But I also think that when college students give Richard Spencer exactly what he wants by rioting when he shows up on his campus - on your campus, I think, no, please, just ignore the guy. I mean, the worst thing for a Richard Spencer is if he showed up at Michigan State University and nobody paid any attention to him.
GROSS: But that gets back to the fact that, like, you responded to the tweets when you were hate-tweeted (ph) by white nationalists.
WEISMAN: Right. And I guess this is my ambivalence. You know, I talked to Jonathan Greenblatt, who's the current head of the Anti-Defamation League. And he said, look, I appreciate what you did, but I wish you wouldn't do it anymore. So it's not a black and white thing. And I wrestled it - with this a lot. In fact, it's one of the themes that comes up repeatedly in my book because I talked to one rabbi, Sunny Schnitzer at the Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who said, you know, we really should just ignore these people. They're not that powerful. They should just be denied the oxygen that they seek.
But then I talked to another rabbi, a guy named Daniel Zemel. And he quoted Torah to me. He said, the Jew has to confront injustice wherever injustice is. And I remember when he said it, I was so taken aback because here I was thinking about tactics, and he came back at me with spirituality, with a sense of what is religious or Jewish law. And it was a sense, to me, of how far I have drifted away from religion that I never thought, maybe the answer is in my religion.
GROSS: Well, how do you interpret that answer?
WEISMAN: I think the answer is, you can sit and argue over tactics, but if you believe that an injustice is rearing its head, you have an obligation to fight it. So the idea that we will just bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away, that's not Jewish. And we need to confront injustice.
GROSS: So your book is kind of opinionated, which is unusual in the sense that, like, you're a New York Times editor and a former congressional correspondent. And, you know, The New York Times likes to separate analysis from opinion and everything. Is it OK for you to be this opinionated in your book?
WEISMAN: Well, one thing I really want to emphasize - and I will say this a thousand times as I promote this book - is that I believe that promote - that embracing American institutions and standing up for democratic pluralism, the Constitution, the rule of law is not liberal or conservative. You know, some of the most articulate voices for democratic pluralism in the era of Trump are coming from Jewish conservatives.
And I don't believe that saying I want this country to remain open to black, and Jewish, and Hispanic and Muslim voices is a liberal position. I believe it is an American position. And I hope that other people come to that conclusion because, yes, I can be pretty hard on Jews in this book and particularly hard on Republican Jews who have stuck their heads in the sand and just decided that the rise of white nationalism isn't happening. But I also really do believe that the voices of conservative Jews for democratic pluralism have been a real revelation and a real positive response to the last year or two.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Weisman, deputy editor at The New York Times - deputy Washington editor. After a break, we'll talk more about his new book "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Weisman. He's deputy Washington editor at The New York Times and a former Times congressional correspondent. His new book, "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump," is about how he was barraged by anti-Semitic tweets after linking to an article titled "This Is How Fascism Comes To America." The book is also about the larger white nationalist movement and its connections to the Trump campaign and administration.
I have a language question for you. When we're talking about this, do you like to go with the word anti-Semites, nationalists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis? What do you...
WEISMAN: I like...
GROSS: ...Prefer, and why do you prefer it?
WEISMAN: I like to use the term white nationalism or white nationalist because, first of all, what we are seeing in the United States is a global movement. We've seen it in France with the rise of Le Pen. We have seen it in Hungary with the rise of Orban. We just saw it in Italy. It is all over the place. And regardless of who the target is - Muslims, Syrian immigrants, Jews - the one common denominator is this sense of white nationalism. So that's my preference because, look, Jews are a target of the alt-right but certainly not the target - probably not the biggest target. So I like to keep it broad.
GROSS: You say about Donald Trump - whether he knew it or not, Trump ran the most anti-Semitic presidential campaign in modern American history. What would you use as examples of that to back that up?
WEISMAN: Note - Donald Trump's closing advertisement talked about global bankers or internationalists. And when he said those words, the image of Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, went over the screen. I'm sorry. Maybe Trump didn't mean it. Maybe even the people who put the thing together didn't mean it. But I will tell you that advertisement screamed out to the alt-right followers of Donald Trump that he was with them. And the fact of the matter is these kind of things happened over and over and over.
There was at one point Donald Trump Jr. had tweeted out an image of the deplorables - the leaders of the campaign. And one of the deplorables was Pepe the Frog. At that time, Pepe the Frog was so obviously the mascot of the alt-right movement. How he couldn't know that he was sending out a bell - I wouldn't even call it a dog whistle. It was a claxon. How he couldn't know that is beyond me. And since then - even since President Trump was elected, he has been retweeting anti-Semites. He has been broadcasting the message. It just keeps coming. And it's hard to ignore it at this point.
GROSS: You described Donald Trump as the perfect vehicle to carry the white nationalist movement. Why is he the perfect vehicle?
WEISMAN: Well, whether he meant to or not, his notion of nationalism is infused with notions of race. And the first thing he said was that Mexicans were rapists or that the Mexican government wasn't sending us their best. Race, religion, orientation - it keeps coming up. And in those words, whether they're vague or explicit, the alt-right has achieved and received sustenance. They see him as doing their bidding.
GROSS: Donald Trump's slogan is America First and make America great again - and now keep America great again. So compare how Donald Trump has used the word America First - has used that expression to how it is used in the years leading up to World War II.
WEISMAN: Now, it's interesting. The origin, in some ways, of that - maybe I'm giving The New York Times too much credit. But during the campaign, Trump sat down for an interview with a couple of our reporters. And David Sanger, one of the foreign policy reporters, was talking about his foreign policy. And it was David Sanger who said, so is this an America First policy? And Trump said, yes, yes, it's an America First policy. And he latched on to it, and he began using the phrase over and over.
And, of course, a lot of people pointed out that the America First Committee, which was started before the entry of the United States into World War II, was a Nazi-sympathizing organization that was trying to keep the United States out of the war to facilitate the Nazi rampage through Europe. And at first, I could say, well, Trump probably didn't know about the America First Committee. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. But he certainly learned in the aftermath of his first using the phrase that that was the origins of those terms. And he keeps using it. So there's either a willfulness or an explicit embrace of terms that bigots and white nationalists see as their own.
GROSS: One, he's been asked about anti-Semitism. He's pointed out that he has two Jewish grandchildren. He's claimed he's the least anti-Semitic person you've ever seen in your life. How do you respond to that?
WEISMAN: I respond by saying, first of all, I'm not saying that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite. I don't know what's in Donald Trump's mind. I know that he has a lot of Jewish grandchildren. I know that his beloved daughter Ivanka is a Jewish convert and his - I guess - beloved son-in-law Jared Kushner is an Orthodox Jew. So I am not going to accuse him of anti-Semitic hatred. I only talk about the signals that anti-Semites receive from his White House because they aren't shy about it. They aren't shy about saying that they believe they have a kindred spirit in the White House.
GROSS: You write that you think many Jewish people support the Trump administration in spite of its ties to white nationalism because the administration is seen as pro-Israel. Would you elaborate on that thought?
WEISMAN: I actually devoted an entire chapter to what I call the Israel obsession. And it will be very, very unpopular among American Jews. My view is that Jews in the United States have become singularly obsessed with the Jewish state. Jews, we love to argue. We love to argue with each other. We have J Street now. We have AIPAC. We have the American Jewish Committee. We have the New Israel Fund. They sit, and they argue about Israel. They don't - it's remarkable how American Jewry has lost sight of what's happening actually in the United States. And I would argue that the reason that many American Jews, myself included, were so taken aback by the sudden - what looked like the sudden emergence of alt-right - was because all we're sitting around doing is arguing over Israel. And I think that there was a lot of willful blindness to the white nationalist sentiments in the Trump campaign because of all he said about Israel.
GROSS: All right, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's the author of the new book "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump." He's also a deputy Washington editor at The New York Times where he formerly covered Congress. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He is a deputy Washington editor at The New York Times. He edits congressional coverage and some political coverage. He's a former congressional correspondent at The Times. His new book is called "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump." And he writes about anti-Semitism now through the lens of having been trolled by many, many anti-Semites after he tweeted a link to an article that was headlined "This Is How Fascism Comes To America."
So among the things I've learned from your book is some of the current slang used by white nationalists. You use the word special snowflake. First of all, describe what snowflake means. And did that word originate with the white nationalists?
WEISMAN: I'm not sure if it originated with the white nationalists, but it was captured by it because the white nationalists use it as a way to defend their right to say whatever they want, no matter how bigoted or hate-filled. So anyone who is a snowflake is somebody who would melt in the light of actual free discourse.
GROSS: Right - so somebody who just, like, can't take it because they're just, like, so vulnerable and need to be so protected by the world. They can't - they're so thin-skinned, they just can't handle it.
GROSS: So you write about an Internet meme - the numbers 1-4-8-8. What does that mean?
WEISMAN: Yeah. This is code that nobody in their right mind should know (laughter). The 14 in 1488 are the 14 words of an obscure neo-Nazi credo - we must secure the existence of our people and the future of - for white children. There you go - 14.
The 88 is a reference to a single paragraph in Hitler's "Mein Kampf." What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood, the freedom and independence of the fatherland so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe. Every thought and every idea, every doctrine and all knowledge, must serve this purpose, and everything must be examined from this point of view and used or rejected according to its utility.
That is obscure 88 words, but 1488 is something that you see all the time in the alt-right, white, nationalist movement.
GROSS: Where do you see it? Like, on tweets, on...
WEISMAN: Yeah, on Twitter...
GROSS: ...Internet, on websites?
WEISMAN: On Twitter handles, on names. Dylann Roof, the killer who gunned down all the black parishioners in Charleston, used 1488 in his own sign-offs online. It's something that pops up a lot, and it's just so ugly. But, of course, nobody knows what it means.
GROSS: So what do you think the nature of the threat is from the white nationalist movement?
WEISMAN: I think that the nature of the threat has changed in the last six months dramatically. You know, when I first started looking into this, it really did seem to be an Internet phenomenon.
But there were two incidents that happened while I was writing this book. One was a person who claimed to be an acolyte of the alt-Reich (ph) - in the German version (laughter) - stepped up to a black college student outside College Park, Md. And when this college student wouldn't move aside, he stabbed him to death. Then there was an incident in Portland, Ore., on the light rail where another acolyte of the alt-right was confronting two young women. One of them was a Muslim who was wearing a hijab. And two men stood up for the women and were stabbed to death right on the light rail.
Those were shocking incidences. But, of course, nothing compares to what happened in Charlottesville, Va., in August. And since Charlottesville, I think there is a recognition that this white nationalism is real and is threatening. It's not just something that you might stumble on if you happen to be on 4chan or 8chan. So I think that there is a real threat, and I think that we need to be forthright about it and confront it.
GROSS: I'm wondering how your exposure to anti-Semitism and now your study and analysis of it has affected your own life as a Jewish person. You grew up very secular. Your parents were from New York, but they moved to Atlanta. You grew up in Atlanta. You say your mother joined the synagogue not out of great religious conviction but because it was a synagogue connected to the civil rights movement, and she wanted to be a part of that.
WEISMAN: That is correct.
GROSS: So have you become more Jewish, so to speak? Have you become more observant? Have you become more self-identified, you know, in your mind, as Jewish culturally or religiously?
WEISMAN: Yes (laughter). When this first came about and I started getting noticed for standing up to the alt-right, I suddenly became a spokesman for the American Jews. And I laughed about it. I would actually joke and say, look at me, spokesman for the American Jews. But I have become, I think, more identified Jewish - slightly more religious, although I think my rabbi would differ (laughter). And I have tried to imbue more of a sense of Judaism on my two daughters.
But it's one of these things that a lot of Jews took notice of during the Nazi era - that, you know, you can hide from your Judaism, but they won't let you. It will catch up to you. And it caught up to me, and I realized this is something to embrace, and I will embrace it.
GROSS: So the last time we spoke, you were covering Congress, and that was back in 2013. And now you're a deputy Washington editor at The New York Times, and you edit coverage of Congress. So I want to quote something that you've said. In the era of Trump, congressional reporters have a responsibility, one that in the 20 years I've been in Washington I have never felt so keenly. They must cover the legislative branch through the prism of the Constitution - to see Congress not as a bumbling backwater of policymaking but as a co-equal branch of government, designed as a check on the power of the executive. Would you elaborate on that?
WEISMAN: One of the great failings of this Congress is to assert itself in the face of an executive branch that takes it for granted.
GROSS: Give me an example of Congress not asserting itself.
WEISMAN: Well, look. I mean, if the Republicans were in power, and President Obama was funneling money into his own private organization through a hotel that he owned, I think that there would be hearings on that. I think there would be questions about whether or not certain elements of the executive branch were abusing its power. And the fact that we just don't have hearings like that - especially with, you know, some fairly aggressive people like Trey Gowdy heading the House Oversight Committee - it's flagrant. And the fact is we are not seeing an aggressive Congressional response. I mean, the House intelligence committee just shut down its Russia investigation without actually calling significant witnesses, without looking at significant leads. That's not what oversight is. And I'm not saying that were going to find collusion with - between the Trump campaign and Russia. But to end a probe so quickly and abruptly after you spent 18 months looking at an attack on Benghazi, it's not subtle.
GROSS: So the tweet that you sent out that started the whole anti-Semite hate tweet storm against you was your tweet linking to an article by Robert Kagan called "This Is How Fascism Comes To America." Are you concerned that fascism is coming to America?
WEISMAN: I would say that fascism is too hard a word. But I think that there is an authoritarian impulse on the part of Donald Trump that's very difficult to ignore. I mean, the fact is that Xi Jinping, the president of China, has just been basically elected for life. And we have heard no criticism. We have seen Donald Trump embrace authoritarians around the world, like the president - the current president of the Philippines. And we have not obviously seen a whole lot of pushback from Vladimir Putin by name. So are there authoritarian signals? Absolutely.
GROSS: Jonathan Weisman, thank you so much for talking with us.
WEISMAN: Well, thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Jonathan Weisman is the author of the new book "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish In America In The Age Of Trump." He's deputy Washington editor at The New York Times. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This season, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 175th birthday with a 65-CD set, dating back to its very first recordings a century ago. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been doing a lot of listening and has this review.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: In January of 1917, members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Josef Stransky went to the Columbia studio in New York's Woolworth Building to make the orchestra's very first recording. The Philharmonic had already been around for 75 years. And six years before this recording session, Stransky had succeeded the orchestra's most celebrated music director, Gustav Mahler. That first recording was Ambroise Thomas' charming "Raymond" Overture. Through the scratchy din of time, you can hear qualities we still associate with the New York Phil, a crisp brilliance of attack balancing an elegant, unschmaltzy lyricism.
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SCHWARTZ: Less than a week after that first recording, the orchestra was back in the studio recording a drastically abbreviated version of the famous Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony, maybe the most beloved work introduced by the Philharmonic, using a score annotated by Dvorak himself. The Philharmonic has many milestones. In 1846, this fledgling orchestra gave the American premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. 1926 marked the release of the very first silent feature film to coordinate music and other sound effects with the action - "Don Juan" starring John Barrymore. And the orchestra on the soundtrack was the New York Philharmonic. Besides Dvorak's symphony, the Philharmonic's notable commissions include George Gershwin's "An American In Paris," Stravinsky's postwar Symphony In Three Movements, his first work to be composed in the United States, and John Adams' 9/11 memorial "On The Transmigration Of Souls."
The 65-CD set includes some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, like the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, who in 1928 made a landmark recording of Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," which Strauss dedicated to him. Mengelberg was succeeded by Arturo Toscanini, whose recordings with the New York Phil combined his customary exhilaration with more spacious timing than his better-known later recordings when he was well into his 70s and 80s. Released here for the first time from 1936 is a thrilling live Toscanini performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.
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SCHWARTZ: Well-represented in this set are two of the most famous but radically contrasting New York Philharmonic conductors - the exuberantly irrepressible Leonard Bernstein and the precise, probing Pierre Boulez. Six of the 65 discs here are devoted to Boulez and 25 to Bernstein. It's also good to be reminded of New York Philharmonic music directors who aren't so well-remembered. The Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski in the 1940s significantly raised the level of the playing but alienated the orchestra and the board with his autocratic ways. In the 1950s, the distinguished Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos commissioned 50 world premieres. He was especially admired for leading the first complete recording of Alban Berg's chilling opera "Wozzeck" and for his memorable recordings of Russian music.
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SCHWARTZ: Opinions about a huge set like this are bound to vary. Some people have wished for more live broadcasts than commercial recordings, though the orchestra has now released nearly a hundred historic radio broadcasts for streaming. Could there have been more guest conductors instead of devoting more than a third of this entire collection exclusively to the much-recorded Bernstein? Still, this set takes a satisfying long view of the great orchestra. Next season, the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden takes over as music director. I wonder how secure his place will be on whatever the orchestra chooses to release 25 years from now to celebrate its 200th anniversary.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed the New York Philharmonic's 175th anniversary box set.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be religion scholar and bestselling author Bart Ehrman. His new book is about how early Christianity expanded from a small group of believers to the religion of the Roman Empire. We'll also talk about Ehrman's own doubts that led to his transition from being a born-again Christian to being a self-described Christian agnostic. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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