Yesterday (February 27, 2016) was the Democratic version of the South Carolina primary, and Hillary Clinton won big–most likely assuring her the eventual Democratic nomination. A few days earlier, real estate mogul and reality star Donald Trump won the same state on the Republican side, making it much more likely that he’ll be the Republican nominee. Thus, at this writing it seems likely that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election will come down to Clinton vs. Trump. While I obviously support Secretary Clinton and I believe the historical precedents indicate strongly that she will win, the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, however slim, remains an arresting and alarming thought. In considering this grim scenario I was struck by how many and how strong are the reasons why I would dread Mr. Trump’s ascendance to political power, but I also noted the part of me that is most troubled by his candidacy: my identity as a Jew. I felt it was worth a couple of words to explain this feeling, which is an angle on the Trump phenomenon that I haven’t seen much written about in the punditocracy.
Mr. Trump’s ascendance to the top of the Republican polls has been a cynical process based primarily on inciting hatred of others. His entry into the race last summer was accompanied by incendiary statements about Latinos, particularly Mexicans, as being thugs, rapists and criminals whom he wants to keep out of the country by building a wall on the southern border. He’s evinced a similar hostility to Muslims, suggesting they should be monitored or registered by the government, that Muslim immigrants should be barred in all cases from coming to the United States, and using other rhetoric that continually conflates the beliefs, ideology and practices of terrorist groups like Daesh (ISIS) with all Muslims worldwide including those who are loyal Americans. The fact that this scapegoating is not aimed specifically at Jews gives me no comfort at all. In fact, it convinces me that Trump, who I believe follows no recognizable or consistent form of political ideology, is willing to turn his wrath–and, more disturbingly, the anger of his supporters and followers–on any group whom he thinks he can gain political advantage by making them out as a hostile “other.” Trump’s not-so-subtle message is, Vote for me, and I will make your life better–by making theirs worse. Mr. Trump nebulously promises to “make America great again,” but what he really means is that any improvement in our country’s fortunes will be jealously guarded by only a few and deliberately denied to others he deems unworthy. That’s the appeal of his message and it’s why people support him.
Jews were thought of as the “others” in European society for centuries, which was why many of them lived in ghettos–like this one depicted in a 17th century woodcut. Trump’s rhetoric employs the same “othering” process.
If Mr. Trump wins power on this basis, who would be safe from his accusing finger of “otherness”? Even before he ran for President he demonstrated that he was a master at advancing his own brand by “othering” potential adversaries. The notion that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be President is a ludicrous one, so utterly impossible that it requires a total abrogation of rational thought even to entertain it. I don’t think that Mr. Trump really believes Obama was born in Kenya, but by raising the issue in the national press, he signaled to millions of Americans that it’s OK to think there’s something “not quite American” about Barack Obama. Now he says Latinos, millions of whom are literally Americans, are also “not quite American,” and Muslims too. What if he decides someday that Jews are also “not quite American?” Or LGBT people, another group of which I am a member, and who have been famously scapegoated in the past?
I’m unconvinced by arguments I’ve heard that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is just that, rhetoric, and that if he were actually elected he wouldn’t be able to carry out any of his promises to lash out at Latinos, Muslims or others he doesn’t like. Trump’s strategy for gaining power is to promise to hurt people his supporters dislike. Why should we believe his strategy for holding power would be any different? Indeed, if he was elected President the stakes would be much higher, because he would have to deliver at least something on these promises or risk being branded a phony or a loser. The politics of disenfranchisement are especially perilous if you come to power on a “they all failed you, but I won’t” message, because it means your benchmark for political success is that much higher. Congress with its dysfunction would prove, I think, a pretty ineffectual bulwark against the excesses of a Trump administration. So too would the courts–and if Trump was President he could neuter the courts himself, at least on the federal level, by simply refusing to appoint judges (or by appointing incompetent ones). Trump would most likely view the federal government and its agencies–the Justice Department, the INS, the IRS, the Pentagon–as his personal plaything, tools to accomplish the marginalization of people he promised his supporters that he would harm. He could, and probably would, turn this machinery of government against anybody if he thought it suited him.
Millions of Americans–like these U.S. soldiers praying in Afghanistan–are Muslims. Trump promises to marginalize this community. How is that “making America great again?”
I don’t know if Mr. Trump personally believes that Jews are, as they have been viewed in many societies, a hostile elite that’s somehow poisonous to the body politic. But I do know that many of his supporters believe that. One of them, David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard and open neo-Nazi, just this weekend endorsed Trump. The neo-Nazi website Stormfront has reported that since Trump ran for President its own numbers are exploding; they recently had to move to a new web server to handle the traffic. People across what’s called the “alt-right,” including anti-feminists and so-called “Men’s Rights Activists,” also enthusiastically support Trump. The online lynch mob known as GamerGate has expressed support for Trump. Many people within these groups are openly anti-Semitic. Many deny the Shoah (Holocaust) or believe outrageous conspiracy theories about “Jewish world domination.” To people who hate Jews, there’s something very exciting about Trump’s candidacy. This is extraordinarily worrisome.
Furthermore, Trump’s message is totally at odds with a Jewish worldview and Jewish ethics as I understand them. At the core of Jewish belief is the idea that it is Godly to leave the world a better place than you found it. It’s up to each person to decide how best to do this–by strengthening their communities, by helping the disadvantaged, by fighting climate change or any other myriad of potential responses to social and world problems. I don’t think Mr. Trump could even begin to understand this idea. I think that he seeks power for the betterment of only one person: Donald Trump. Whatever his religious beliefs truly are, I see little evidence that advancing an ethical worldview is something he spends any significant time thinking about. His is a world in which his own self-interest is the only value worth advancing, or at least that anyone else’s interests will also be advanced by pursuing his own. Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Is that the America that’s supposed to provide an example for the rest of the world?
The rise of Donald Trump to political prominence has provoked a lot of difficult questions about what America really is and should be. As difficult as those questions are, at least from a Jewish worldview one question is refreshingly simple. Part of my mission as a Jew is to leave the world a better place. It seems increasingly likely that in November 2016 that mission will include casting a vote for Donald Trump’s opponent.