The Origin of 'Scapegoat,' Donald Trump & Ta-Nehisi Coates: A Thought for Progressives on Yom Kippur

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Along with many Jews sitting in synagogue this Yom Kippur, I read what I consider to be one of the more fascinating biblical narratives: that of the scapegoat. And as I read, seated in a cavernous sanctuary, analyzing rabbinic commentary in the shadow of stain-glass-adorned walls, a strange thought surfaced. Or rather, a name: Donald Trump.
Allow me to explain.
First, for those unfamiliar with the biblical origin of the ‘scapegoat’ concept, hold on to your hats. This is fantastic. Here’s my synopsis:

The Israelites are camped in the wilderness, and Aaron, Moses’s brother who serves as the High Priest, is instructed to select two goats to be sacrificed. These “sin offerings” are meant to somehow spiritually atone for the collective transgressions of the entire nation. Only, something strange occurs. Aaron is commanded to hold some type of lottery for these two goats, with one being sacrificed as normal, and the other becoming the ‘scapegoat.’
So what happens to this scapegoat? Aaron places both hands upon this goat’s head and verbally confesses the collective sins of all the Israelites, with the goat metaphorically becoming the embodiment of everyone’s individual and collective transgressions. This ‘scapegoat’ is then cast into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

Now, we didn’t cast lots on two goats this morning in synagogue, watch our rabbi hold its head while articulating our unsavory deeds, and then send one of them into the streets of Pittsburgh. Thankfully, that Yom Kippur ritual no longer holds. Instead, we verbally articulated some of the things we’ve done wrong – both as individuals and as a community.
No matter how fascinated I am by the ‘scapegoat’ narrative, I look upon it as conceptually archaic, and am glad it no longer exists. However, I realized while reading the narrative this morning that I have not escaped the narrative’s grasp. Indeed, I unknowingly enact the ritual constantly, creating scapegoats in my political life. A principle one at this moment is Donald Trump.

Let me be clear: I find his racism repulsive, his Islamophobia dangerous, and his policy positions (such as they are) hurtful. And I also view it as a political and social imperative to publicly castigate him when, for example, he gives sanction to the idea America should get rid of all Muslims.
That said, I’ve come to realize that too often I select political figures, such as Trump, and use them as dumping grounds for problems which extend much deeper than their tiny heads. They become the receptacle, a target of scorn, as though hitting such a target is enough. But it’s not enough. Sure, it can be self-satisfying and minimally productive to grill Trump for his racism. To use him as our nation’s scapegoat. But doing so doesn’t change the fact that Trump’s racism is merely the reverberation of a systemic bigotry upon which our country was founded, a bigotry which still sustains and maintains its power structures.
One of the most powerful moments during my reading of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates was when he expressed a similar sentiment. There he was, a young father, when a black man he knew from college, a devout man named Prince Jones, was murdered by police. This murder shook him, and while at the funeral, as people around him called to forgive the offending officer, as people focused on this one cop, Coates was unmoved.
He explains:

The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
Forgiving the killer of Prince Jones would have seemed irrelevant to me. The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs … For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back.

Even more than his agnosticism, I identify with Coates’ understanding that a single officer cannot contain within him a nation’s devaluing of black lives for hundreds of years. Just as Trump’s devaluing of black and brown lives, while ugly, is merely the expression of the American people.
The challenge, ultimately, is to take on America and its unrealized promise, not to take on individuals as though doing so is the same thing. But how? Am I naive to believe that placing Black Lives Matter signs in my front yard means something? That it can fight systemic racism in ways targeting individual politicians cannot?
Perhaps I am.
Regardless, it seems to me that ‘scapegoating’ Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal is, as Coates suggests, somewhat irrelevant when they are merely reflecting back to us what we ourselves have created.
Should that stop us from calling them out? No. But it should also prevent us from confusing a rant against Trump with enacting real change.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.