Why Jewish Conservatives Fear Donald Trump

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Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan.
Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan.Credit: Eric Thayer, Reuters, wikipedia

George Will once wrote that Barry Goldwater actually won the 1964 presidential election. It just “took 16 years” — until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 — “to count the votes.” It’s time to update that line. Pat Buchanan actually won the Republican nomination in 1996. It just took 20 years — until the nomination of Donald Trump — to count the votes.

Although it’s been largely forgotten, the early 1990s were a period of intellectual crisis inside the GOP. For much of the 20th century, conservatives had urged “the West” to resist Soviet communism. But when Soviet communism collapsed, two different groups of conservatives realized that they meant two different things by “the West.” The party’s “neoconservative” intellectuals — many of them Jews — defined the West ideologically: as the bastion of democratic capitalism. Buchanan, by contrast, along with many rank and file conservatives, defined the West ethnically: as the bastion of white Christianity.

These two different interpretations led to radically different foreign policies. The “neocons” wanted take advantage of the USSR’s collapse to spread democracy and free markets, if necessary by force. The Buchananites, quoting John Quincy Adams, wondered why Americans should go overseas “in search of monsters to destroy.” And they wondered whether global capitalism really benefitted ordinary Americans anyway. The neocons defended the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); the Buchananites denounced it. Neocons like William Kristol and Robert Kagan urged the United States to take up arms to defend Bosnia and Kosovo against Serbian aggression. The Buchananites asked why, exactly, the United States should wage war for Muslims fighting Christians.

The divide culminated in 1996, when Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary. GOP elites, he gleefully declared, “are in a terminal panic. They hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill. All the knights and barons will be riding into the castle pulling up the drawbridge in a minute. All the peasants are coming with pitchforks.” The knights and barons counterattacked, and managed to nominate Bob Dole. Then, in the years that followed, Republicans papered over their differences. They united in an attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. They united in vengeance after the September 11 attacks. They united to oppose Barack Obama.  

But below the surface, the balance inside the party shifted. After 2000, wages stagnated, which led more Republicans to doubt the benefits of global trade. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became quagmires, which led more Republicans to doubt the benefits of foreign war. And Barack Obama’s election induced a panic about America’s changing demographic character. All these factors strengthened the Buchananites, even as Buchanan himself faded into obscurity.

Which brings us to Trump and the Jews. Name the conservative movement’s most passionate Trump opponents, and you’ll notice that Jews — Bill Kristol, David Brooks, David Frum, Robert Kagan, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Dan Senor, Jennifer Rubin — are heavily overrepresented. The primary reason is that most Jewish conservatives find Trump’s brand of nationalism alarming. Trump doesn’t see the “West” as worth defending on ideological grounds. Like Buchanan, he thinks America’s key allies rip us off. He can’t see any reason why America should spend money and risk lives defending the Baltic States — just because they’re democracies — against Russia. For Trump, like Buchanan, the West matters only as a religious and racial entity. Muslim immigration, Trump claims, is “destroying Europe” and “I’m not going to let that happen to the United States.” Jewish conservatives want to expand the West’s frontiers in the name of prosperity, security and freedom. Trump, by contrast, wants the West to close its doors to keep the Muslim hordes out. 

Jewish conservatives don’t only find this frightening because they fear what may happen overseas if the U.S. withdraws. They also fear what may happen at home. For many American Jews, the isolationism of the 1930s connotes anti-Semitism. It evokes figures like Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy Sr. and Father Coughlin, all of whom used Jew-hatred to justify appeasing Hitler. Trump, by resurrecting the slogan of Lindbergh’s America First Committee, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II, plays into those fears. It’s no coincidence that the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens recently warned that, “Donald Trump presidency raises a new kind of version of conservatism which more closely resembles a kind of Father Coughlin, America First populism and nativism and isolationism.”

Stephens is right to worry. Like anti-Semites of old, some Trump supporters see Jews as cosmopolitans, people who would rob their nation of its authentic character. That’s why Ann Coulter, who helped inspire Trump’s agenda, takes so many anti-Jewish potshots. She wants to stop immigration so America can preserve its northern European racial stock. And she knows that many of her most formidable opponents inside the GOP are Jews.

For Jewish conservatives, the good news is that Trump will likely lose. The bad news is that his success bespeaks a shift that will outlive his campaign. The Republican base has grown more anti-intellectual, more anti-immigrant, more anti-cosmopolitan and more contemptuous of the conservative elite in which Jews play an important role. 

Jewish conservatives yearn for a party that reflects their own interests and identity: a party that is hawkish on foreign policy, libertarian on economics and defined by ideology, not ethnicity. Pat Buchanan tried to kill that Republican Party in 1996. Maybe it spent the last 20 years dying from its wounds.