It is distinctly dispiriting, in my view, to watch our national political life become a giant reality show. For that reason, I am relieved that the Republican National Convention is finally over. It subjected us to an even larger dose of what we have been experiencing since Donald J. Trump entered the presidential race. Many things happened at the convention, but a sober consideration of the issues was not among them.
Still, I am reasonably confident, although not certain, that Trump will lose the election in November. What is certain, however, is that, win or lose, Trump will not be getting the votes of American Jews this fall.
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Many Jews will vote for Hillary Clinton because they, like me, see her as tough, experienced, and highly qualified to be President, not to mention a friend of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. But even those who don’t much like Hillary or have been voting Republican for years will be supporting Mrs. Clinton in overwhelming numbers.
As Jennifer Rubin reports in the Washington Post, board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who are the Republican Party’s most loyal Jewish backers, are mostly refusing to give Trump money. And although Ms. Rubin is an aggressively conservative voice, she predicts with dismay that Hillary Clinton could receive 90 percent of the Jewish vote.
The important question, of course, is why. Most of the commentary in the Jewish press has focused on specific issues: Trump’s stand on Israel, his reaction to the anti-Semitism of his supporters, and his attacks on Muslims and immigrants. Yet if you talk to Jews of all political persuasions, you discover that Trump’s policies and positions are mostly beside the point.
Political messages and platforms, no matter how outrageous, can be changed, or massaged, or reformulated. All candidates from time to time say outrageous and offensive things. But what cannot be changed is a candidate’s fundamental character. And what I am now hearing from American Jews is the panicked conclusion that Trump is not a populist maverick, as some originally thought, but a true maniac, singing from the same songbook that despots and mad men have long employed for their own purposes.
Imagine the following sequence of events: Trump is elected President and decides that following up on his most popular proposal, he will, by Executive Order, ban immigrants from Muslim countries from entering the United States, at least until they can, in his judgment, be “properly vetted.” Liberal groups challenge the President in court, and the Supreme Court invalidates the Executive Order by a vote of 6-2. In a televised address to the nation, President Trump announces that the Court has exceeded its authority, ignored the will of the people, and misread the Constitution. The liberal justices, he says, were prejudiced against him, mentioning Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s critical comments about him prior the election. Thus, the Court’s decision was a personal affront to the country’s newly elected President, and in any case, this is a matter that is properly within the President’s purview. The Executive Order stands, President Trump declares, and will be carried out to the letter by immigration officials.
The real problem with the Trump candidacy is not any single issue but the fact that this does not seem like an unrealistic scenario for a President Trump. And a substantial number of Americans, perhaps even a majority, probably agree—which is why Trump is likely to lose. An ego-driven, shoot-from-the-hip showman, Mr. Trump, if elected, would be a one-man, constitutional crisis in waiting. At the same time, it is impossible to imagine such a scenario with a President Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton, in this sense, is a traditional politician, and it is unthinkable that her election would pose a challenge to our constitutional system.
That is why 90% of American Jews will not vote for Trump. Jews, whether Democrats or Republicans, are small “L” liberals. They overwhelmingly support a strong middle-class, and they crave stability and security in politics. Also, 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 dictators and demagogues. They also have a fuller understanding of precisely how fragile modern democratic governments are.
And that fragility seems especially pronounced right now. America has maintained its democratic institutions by pulling off a delicate balancing act: On one side of the scale, an assertive American nationalism, rooted in common democratic ideals, cultural union, and compelling national rituals; on the other side, inclusiveness, a remarkable degree of diversity, and constitutional guarantees of individual rights. No other country has succeeded in preserving this balance in quite the same way. Even among the advanced, industrialized democracies, nationalism generally rests as much on tribalism as on shared values, and individual freedoms and religious liberty are often compromised in a way that Americans would not tolerate.
Looking at the American system of constitutional government, Jews know that they have lived here as a small minority with a security and dignity that they have found no place else on earth. But they also know that stable democratic governments do not come into being easily, or naturally, or without sustained effort. And now, along comes Donald Trump, threatening the constitutional balance in a way unimaginable since the 1930s.
Trump’s nationalism is not value-based but race-based. He speaks the language of white nationalism, sometimes openly and sometimes by innuendo. He despises immigrants and the diversity that has long been both a fact and a value in America. He incites hatred. He is a nativist and a Birther, who cast doubt in an especially ugly way on the legitimacy and Americanism of our country’s first black President. He plays around the edges of fascism.
The simple truth is that the Jews look at the disruptive potential of a Trump presidency, and they are terrified. And even when Trump makes an effort to appear “presidential,” as he passingly did in his Thursday night address, it convinces no one. Absent the narcissistic bluster, Trump becomes unrecognizable—an altogether different candidate that, we know, will be gone by tomorrow, if not an hour from now.
Will Trump as President protect the State of Israel and America’s other major allies? My own view is that he will not. Still, his foreign policy pronouncements are such a hodgepodge that it is impossible to know for sure. But American Jews will make their voting decisions this November for different reasons altogether. And the overwhelming majority will not vote for Trump for the simple reason that they are afraid for America.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie