Losing the Election Makes Trump More Dangerous for American Jews
Out of office, but unrepudiated, Trump will now be unconstrained, letting loose the extremists in his base, his own tribalistic nationalism, and his contempt for American democracy.
Election day is over. Finally.
At this point, even though Trump is frantically trying to shut down the count, Biden is likely to win. Nevertheless, right now, only one thing is clear: Trumpism is alive and well.
On the one hand, the good news: for only the third time in the last century, the American people have risen up and ejected a president from office after a single term.
It was not a surprise, exactly. Donald Trump is shallow, lazy, incompetent, and bigoted. Ignorant of America’s history and contemptuous of constitutional norms, he spends his days not on policy or governance, but in indulgent golfing and divisive tweeting. His legislative record was exceedingly thin. There was really no chance that he would succeed as president.
And yet, he came very close to being reelected.
True, he lost the popular vote and got an assist from the Electoral College, which favors the heartland over the coasts.
Nonetheless, the assumption was that, this time, middle America would switch sides. They, like the rest of us, were exhausted by Trump’s lies and deceptions; sick of his pettiness, shoddy management, lack of empathy, and love affair with himself. At least this is what the Democrats thought.
And they were surely appalled by his reckless handling of COVID-19, which was surging in precisely those states most essential to his campaign. Had he not failed in his most fundamental responsibility, to protect Americans from harm? COVID-19, Democratic leaders agreed, had done fatal damage to his campaign.
And so, Trump was finished, would lose “bigly,” and Americans would overwhelmingly put an end to one of the darkest periods in American history. This was the consensus of not only the Democrats, but of the pundits, the pollsters, and most of the Jewish community, which supported Biden over Trump by a ratio of 3 to 1.
But then the result was different altogether: a nail-biting, blood pressure-raising finish. And the pollsters, again, were wrong about everything.
What in heaven’s name happened?
The first thing is that, incredibly, Democrats again underestimated Trump as an ignoramus and a buffoon. And while he is that, he is also a talented demagogue; in 2016, after all, he was also dismissed, but then shrewdly read America’s mood and rode to office on a populist tide.
The second is that Biden was simply a weaker candidate than many were willing to admit. Yes, he was “decent,” the term most frequently used, and generally likeable. But he was often insufficiently tough on Trump, and lacked the charisma and drive that might have drawn in more voters and excited the Democratic base.
But most important was the tribalization of American politics, and of Republican politics in particular.
Trump did not invent tribal politics. They flow from deepening economic inequalities, the baleful effects of globalization, the dizzying pace of cultural change, and an information society that marginalizes the less educated.
But what Trump did was stoke the anger and resentments that resulted, and not only among the white working class. Like no other modern president, he scapegoated minorities, promoted conspiracy theories, engaged in racist taunting, and stirred up contempt for government. And while serving the interests of the wealthy, he did nothing whatever to address the problems of stagnant wages and diminishing job security that are devastating the working class.
And yet, it worked. Aided and abetted by Fox News and building on Tea Party precedent, he brought into being a Republican tribe that sought a retreat into the past and always preferred its own group to others.
Democrats were taken aback by the ferocity of this tribe, and by its loyalty to Trump. But they should not have been. Actual economic anxiety played a major role here, and so did the presidential reality show he ran from the White House. Important as well was deep-seated racist sentiment, long dormant but now made respectable by the president.
How powerful are our political tribes? Consider the following: According to a poll quoted in The Economist, 40 percent of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.
With this as background, one can now understand why Trump did so much better than anticipated in the election. If “Republican” is not a party label but a tribal identity, then Republicans are not likely to respond to rational argument and normal political calculations. Tribes are about belonging, rejecting “the other,” and loyalty to a leader.
How could Republicans not be repulsed by Trump’s arrogance and ineptitude on COVID, leading to 230,000 American deaths? In political terms, it makes no sense; in tribal terms, it does.
But with Joe Biden as President, will any of this matter any longer? And the answer is, probably.
As Anshel Pfeffer has written here, a Biden landslide would have discredited Trump and his out-of-control politics. And, just perhaps, it might have shaken the tribal loyalties of his followers.
But that did not happen, leaving the possibility that Trump will remain as tribal head and cult-like leader, dominating the party while bemoaning the “stolen election.” At best, the result will be total political deadlock; at worst, his malignant narcissism will infect the entire political system with a partisanship even more toxic than what has been experienced until now.
Will elected Republican office-holders, particularly in the Senate, be prepared to stand up to him? Almost certainly not. For four years, with a few exceptions, no Republican Senator or senior elected official offered anything other than pro forma protest of the president’s conduct. Now that Trump, despite his pathological compulsions, has delivered a respectable electoral performance, there is little reason to think that the Republican minions will find their voice.
And what does this mean for American Jews? Nothing good.
As an oppressed and persecuted people for nearly two millennia before making their way to America, Jews have more experience than most other Americans with demagogues and autocrats. They also have a fuller understanding of precisely how fragile modern democratic governments are.
And this they know: Tribal politics are dangerous and often deadly. Subjected to the murderous intentions of tribalistic nationalism in both Europe and the Middle East, American Jews prefer American nationalism as it has always been, rooted in classical liberalism. And this means not race and DNA but a foundation of common democratic ideals, cultural union, and compelling national rituals.
But this is not Donald Trump’s vision. His contempt for Black Americans, immigrants, and Muslims is not a secret, and American Jews fear for their fellow citizens and for their country.
On the one hand, the unruly coalition of Democrats has problems of its own, with antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments present on the fringes. Biden and Harris, solid centrists with strong ties to Jews and Israel, may or may not be able to stop their spread.
On the other hand, President Trump has a bizarre relationship with American Jews, loving and hating them at the same time. Still, as President, despite his disruptive tendencies, he was subjected to certain constraints. But out of office, both empowered and embittered by the election outcome, Trumpism, in all its tribal vitality, may take on new and ugly forms.
Will the former president, unleashed and unrestrained, give free reign to the extremists who look to him for inspiration? Will antisemitic incidents, which increased dramatically during his term in office, continue to rise? Will he encourage public violence, as he has repeatedly done in the past? Will attacks on a free press and democratic legitimacy be resumed?
American Jews wait, and worry.
And then there is the issue of those in the Jewish community who have joined the Trump camp, and just how far they will debase themselves to show their allegiance to its leader. They, too, have been caught up in the tribal mindset that trades in critical and rational thinking for a twisted version of groupthink, shaming the Jewish people in the process.
Take Bethany Mandel, for example. A conservative pundit, Mandel announced in a recent Haaretz article that she now supports Trump because “white nationalists no longer see a friend in the president,” and she gives a single example.
And then there is the Orthodox and Haredi camp, which by embracing Trump has desecrated Torah values in a dramatic and unprecedented way.
Not all Orthodox Jews are Trump supporters, of course, but in a poll taken before the election, Orthodox Jews favored Trump over Biden, 83 percent to 13 percent. And Mishpacha Magazine published what was, in effect, an endorsement of Trump by America’s leading Hasidic and Yeshiva figures shortly prior to the election.
How, exactly, can you be a religious Jew and support a man with lecherous inclinations who boasts of his sexual conquests? How do learned rabbis embrace a leader who is a liar, a bully, a cheat in business, and a sexual harasser, and who shows wanton disregard for fundamental moral teachings?
In Jewish religious tradition, leaders are expected to be moral paragons (Deuteronomy 17), and there is no separating issues of character from issues of policy. Immoral conduct leads to immoral actions, both political and personal, either now or in the future. Averah goreret averah, it says in the Talmud — one transgression leads inevitably to another.
Is this why children study Torah day and night, so they can sing the praises of Donald Trump? Or turn their eyes from the transgressions that all can see? The praise for Trump has been so enthusiastic that one must ask: What exactly would it take for these eminent rabbis not to support him? If he were to execute illegal immigrants in the public square, would that be enough?
Donald Trump is not simply another conservative politician. He is a would-be tyrant who has undermined the norms and civility of our democratic system, replacing constitutional ideals with tribal fanaticism. It would have been far, far better if he and all that he stands for had been repudiated in the election. Then he might have slunk away and disappeared.
But that was not the outcome. And that being so, American Jews must join with allies and friends in confronting the threat that he represents — to themselves, to the U.S. Jewish community, and to all Americans.