Assuming we and the Republic survive the candidacy and possible presidency of Donald Trump, we will be debating and trying to understand the meaning of it and him for years to come. But it isn’t too early to start making some observations about what’s turned out to be one of the most surprising and scarier dimensions of this particular election cycle, namely, Trump and the Jews. No matter how it goes, Trump has already changed the shape of Jewish politics in our time. He has made the personal into the political, in ways the Women’s Liberationists of the ‘70s who first coined the phrase never imagined (though in their worst nightmares, they might have).
Usually Jews figure in American elections in terms of Israel, which rings together geopolitics, old-fashioned interest-group politics, America’s own sense of mission and the shape and meaning of Jewish identity.
And that is pretty much about it. Since the 1920s, Jews have reliably supported the Democratic Party, standard bearer of the urban liberalism that paved their and other minorities’ way, and they’ve stuck around through the last decades of Democratic identity politics. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives who have provided much of the intellectual firepower of the GOP and most, though not all, of its Jews, had carved out for themselves a stable, respected place at the GOP table. And that’s been pretty much the state of play, for decades.
This time around we are seeing a wide-scale demagogic Jew-baiting that American politics hasn’t witnessed since 1930s and the days of Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin. In some ways it’s not surprising since Trump is the candidate who has whipped and now rides waves of fear of the kind that led FDR famously to tell Harry Hopkins that Huey Long and Douglas MacArthur were the most dangerous men in America. The armies of trolls and anti-Semites, White Supremacists, and even Nazis, feeling they can at long last come out from under the rocks thanks to their strongman savior, now actual head of the GOP, is by now commonplace, and frightening.
All the more incredible is that all this Jew-hatred is being sparked by a man from, of all places, New York – and whose daughter is an Orthodox Jew. Indeed one suspects that it is precisely Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism that gets Trump himself off the hook from thinking about some of what he’s doing here. You can almost hear him say, “How can I be an anti-Semite and my daughter, so fabulous I’d date her myself, is Jewish. The Jews love me.”
And that is exactly the point. Trump is an authoritarian and, as Robert Kagan has brilliantly written, an incipient fascist – and that means it’s all personal. It’s not about policies, and scarcely about interests. It’s all about this one man aspiring to be leader, all and always about him. We know, of course, that only deeply insecure people think that way. And one of our two major parties is now submitting to the grip of a man whose gargantuan insecurity threatens to devour us all.
The utterly personal politics of Trump threatens to reshape, among other things, the very form of modern Jewish politics, and set it back a century and a half.
Before the modern age, Jewish political survival depended on good personal relations with kings, bishops, feudal lords. Jews were not as powerless through history as is often thought, and exercised a good measure of communal autonomy and limited self-government. But the limits were clear and ran up against the goodwill of the local sovereign, and it was the local communal lobbyists, so-called “Court Jews,” armed only with their wits and whatever interested parties they could muster, who managed these delicate personal relations as best they could.
Starting in the 19th century and in the wake of the new forms of civic equality opening up to them, a new Jewish politics began to appear, of mobilization, advocacy, making common cause with ideological and political allies to shape public policy on issues from humanitarian relief to political and economic reform and, eventually, Zionism.
Jewish activists, liberal and conservative alike, have exchanged the bobbing and weaving and purely transactional politics of the Court Jews for the attempt to shape the public sphere on the basis not only of interests, but also principles and values. They have, in other words, become full-fledged participants in democracy.
In just a few months Trump has managed to threaten that to the core. We’ve returned to the days when our ancestors would reassure each other in the shtetl synagogue courtyard, “Not to worry Moshe, they say the Baron’s daughter is in love with a Jewish boy! Everything will be alright.”
It may still be alright. But not because the Baron happens to like us. It will be alright if the body politic comes to its senses and rejects the bullying con man who enjoys playing on people’s worst impulses – and will surely sell out his supporters in the end. That will be the Trump phenomenon’s deepest and perhaps most dangerous disappointment, once people realize their savior was selling them a bill of goods.
If anything good will come out of Trump’s candidacy – and by extension of Bernie Sanders too – it is better public understanding of the sheer pain, disappointment, confusion, and fury besetting so many people, the white working class in particular, amid cascades of powerful social and economic change. We Jews have in many ways been the beneficiaries and advocates of change – of feminism, civil rights, of the rise of the information society, and more. We need to recognize just how jarring and dislocating those changes have been for many people and work with other people of goodwill not to cower under the table or beat up on some other group or two, but by working together – in concert, debate, civil contention and compromise – to shape a better, fairer, more decent American public. Because that is what believers in democracy do.