Can anti-Trump Jews Save the Republican Party?

Many Jewish conservatives are adrift, impotent and uneasy. Their intense opposition to Trump is not only based on policy but also the anti-intellectual, vulgar and angry culture he represents.

Yishai Schwartz
Yishai Schwartz
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs at the end of a campaign rally, Eugene, Oregon, U.S., May 6, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs at the end of a campaign rally, Eugene, Oregon, U.S., May 6, 2016. Credit: Jim Urquhart, Reuters
Yishai Schwartz
Yishai Schwartz

Trump has the nomination in hand, and the opportunity for denial is over. Republicans must choose whether to rally to their nominee, or whether — and how — to oppose him.

For many of conservatism’s most prominent Jews, the choice is already made. Over the last months, some of Trump’s most vocal and vociferous Republican opposition has come from Jewish figures. Writing in Commentary, Max Boot has labeled him “the single biggest threat to U.S. security” and announced that he “would sooner vote for Josef Stalin.” In the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens compared Trump to Mussolini and denounced those who reconcile themselves with him as “appalling” and lacking “mental maturity.” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol’s Twitter feed has featured a storm of anti-Trump pronouncements that is positively Churchillian. Even the cautious and unflappable Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and the GOP’s brightest intellectual, announced he “would never vote for Trump.” Instead, he is praying that “a serious conservative alternative emerges and makes it onto the ballot around the country.”

Over the course of the primary campaign, Trump made significant inroads into nearly every pocket of the Republican primary electorate. Despite his ideological fluidity and his playboy lifestyle, he won support from tea partiers, evangelicals, conservatives and moderates alike. Jews however, have remained — with near unanimity — implacably opposed.

There is, of course, one notable breach in this wall: Sheldon Adelson. Already months ago, Adelson signalled he could support Trump if he became the nominee. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, Adelson and some of his associates — including Ari Fleischer — seem resigned to doing just that. But the contemptuous response they have elicited, and the eccentric magnate’s biographical similarity to Trump, simply highlight that Sheldon-land is the exception that proves the rule.

So what explains Jewish Republicans unyielding, overwhelming antipathy to the GOP’s presumptive nominee? In part, it is a matter of policy. The Jewish community’s leading conservatives are overwhelmingly foreign policy hawks. Many gravitated to the Republican Party inspired by Reagan’s confrontational stand against Communism. And many stayed because of the modern GOP’s continued commitment to American global leadership, a morally-grounded internationalism, and strong support for Israel. This is not the diplomatic vision of Donald J. Trump.

But the special opposition of Jews goes deeper than policy. Trump is not an ideological candidate; he is a cultural phenomenon. And the culture he represents — anti-intellectual, vulgar and angry — is not a Jewish one.

Jews are relative late-comers to the Republican Party. It was not until the 1960s, with William F. Buckley’s purge of the anti-Semitic Birchers, that the GOP could become a conceivable political home for even a significant minority of American Jews. Those who swung right during this era — including, most famously, many so-called “neo-conservatives” — were political converts; but they were never cultural assimilators. So Jews have, somewhat awkwardly, tried to find their place among wealthy Mayflower patricians, evangelicals and Second Amendment activists. But the coalition has always been a strange one, and I wonder whether Jews have ever felt fully at home. In a campaign that is about identity instead of policy, Jewish conservatives are left adrift and uneasy.

That unease is compounded by Trump’s independence. This nominee has burst onto the political stage fully formed. He is beholden to no one, and has no record to which he can be held. To a community that counts on its relationships with those in power, this is particularly disconcerting.

It is a feature of our political system that institutional leaders and prominent donors spend years educating and feeling out candidates on the issues that matter to them most. By the time politicians reach real power, interest groups know who they are, where they stand, and to whom they turn for advice and expertise. Within conservatism, those concerned with Israel and Jewish issues have been among the most successful at building such relationships.

The up-and-coming generation of conservative politicians — Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Ted Cruz, for instance — have each counted the support of prominent Jewish backers. But with Trump, the Republican Jewish establishment finds itself strangely impotent. The candidate does not need them.

For Jews, this should be a wake-up call. Perhaps we invest too much in relations with “leaders.” It is an old European conceit, borne out of the sad reality that too often it was only local prince’s good grace that protected us from the mob. But in a democracy, and particularly in an internet-driven, populist age where elites find themselves stripped of influence, such vertical relationships are far less useful. In America, the people are the prince, and it is in their direction that we should turn our persuasive energy.

It is that public that, channeled by Trump, has stirred up old Jewish insecurity and fear. For at least a generation American Jews have happily buried their eternal feelings of political vulnerability. But Trump’s candidacy has unleashed a wave of aggressive populism that includes a non-trivial anti-Semitic element. As Jamie Kirchick, a younger Jewish conservative implacably opposed to Trump, has written: “He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.”

And we should also be proud. Jewish skepticism of the mob is not simply a product of self-interest. Jewish conservatives, no less than Jewish liberals, have adopted a politics of moral commitment born from the lessons of Jewish history. For the left, those commitments are to a certain vision of social justice; for many Jewish conservatives, it is to “never again.” We were all once strangers in the land of Egypt. For some, the lesson is to support Black Lives Matter; for others, it is to demand American intervention in the Syrian slaughter. But for none of us is the vulgar vilification of Muslims and Mexicans an acceptable method of political mobilization. For we have borne that burden too.

So what is a Jewish conservative to do? Adelson, Fleischer and a perhaps a handful of their friends will rally to Trump. But Jewish opposition runs too deep, and its foundation too strong, for many others to join them. A smaller faction — those for whom foreign policy is the overwhelming priority and for whom party affiliation matters little — will publicly back Hillary Clinton. A third group, those for whom symbolism is most crucial, will continue loudly trying to draft an alternative candidate — and perhaps they will even succeed.

But this will be a sideshow. The real focus will shift to protecting the core of the party whose values Jews can share. Energy and dollars that would have once been spent on the presidential campaign will flow to vulnerable long-time community allies, like John McCain and Mark Kirk. The struggle is no longer simply against Democrats, but to preserve an alternative vision of what the GOP should stand for. And despite the miracle of America, after millennia of diaspora, Jews are still experts of political triage. If the White House is already lost, perhaps the party can still be saved.

Yishai Schwartz is a student at Yale Law School. Previously, he was an associate editor at Lawfare and a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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