Opinion

Trump Doesn’t Really Hate People of Color. Just Like He Doesn’t Really Love Israel

Racist incitement is an opportunistic tool for Trump, as is his over-hyped 'support' for Israel. A president who believes in nothing can be counted on for nothing

President Donald Trump before speaking at Turning Point USA's Teen Student Action Summit 2019. Washington D.C., July 23, 2019
Alex Brandon,AP

In his heart, Donald Trump is not a racist. In a way, that is the good news. 

The bad news is that, in his heart, neither is he a lover of the State of Israel.

Let’s begin with his take on race. The view that Trump is not a racist is unpopular in the liberal circles in which I travel, but it is true nonetheless.  

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The point is not that Trump is a voice of enlightenment on matters of race. His indecent attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and other members of "the squad," are crude and appalling, as are his hate-filled tirades against people of color and racial and religious minorities of every type.  

The point, it seems to me, is that a racist is someone who actually believes in the inferiority of "the other," as George Wallace believed in the inferiority of African Americans and Charles Lindbergh believed in the inferiority of the Jews and all "non-Nordic" races.  

But Trump is a man utterly without convictions or ideology. He has no firm principles, beliefs, or world view, on race or anything else.  

The New York Times, in reviewing his history on race, had no trouble finding politicians and associates who remembered him as generally indifferent. As the late Congressman Charles Rangel put it, what defined Trump was not his racial attitudes but his "giant ego."

Precisely so.  

From his earliest days. Donald Trump has been nothing if not a supreme narcissist, consumed by ambition, a passion for self-promotion, and an obsessive desire to be at the center of things. And he has pursued this ambition with shrewdness, cunning, and considerable skill.  

How does race come in? It is simply a tool, pulled out of his toolbox when his popularity is low, his reelection seems threatened, or when media attention wanders. 

And these things happen with some regularity, given the fact that Trump has no idea how to be president. Lacking moral backbone, historical memory, and experience in the give-and-take of democratic politics, his presidency is always in crisis.  

And, therefore, he does what he needs to do: He shamelessly resorts to racial incitement, aware that the rage and passion that will result will drown out his failings, distract the press, and reinvigorate his base.  

The squad: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, second from left, speaks, as U.S. Reps., from left, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, listen, in Washington, on Tuesday, July 15, 2019.
\ ERIN SCOTT/ REUTERS

Does he actually believe anything that he says? I don’t think so, but then again, I am not sure that it matters. What does matter is that Trump is no buffoon, but a calculating populist, weaponizing tweets and exploiting the cyber age to drown out analysis and reason with a flood of constant extremism and hate.  

Will it get him reelected? It is hard to say. His approval ratings are anemic, and good people everywhere are organizing against him. Trump is counting on Republican cowardice, Democratic incompetence, the quirks of the electoral college, and the economic insecurities of a significant segment of the electorate to pull him through.  

Looking ahead, it could go either way. Who would have thought that any president could initiate a crude racial battle for power and not be driven from office by an aroused citizenry? Who would have thought that a barely disguised white nationalism could become the calling card of one of America’s major parties?

But Trump has made this happen, gambling that his coarse brand of nationalism will triumph over the principled moderation that is the foundation of American democracy.  

And what does this mean for the Jewish state? Nothing good.

First, a president who believes in nothing can be counted on for nothing.  

All presidents have egos, of course, and often outsized ones, but they generally possess a measure of virtue and principle as well. From all that we can tell, Trump does not. And incredibly, despite living almost all of his life in New York City, he had no record of meaningful engagement with Israel prior to assuming the presidency. 

What this means is that in a time of crisis for the Jewish state, neither instinct nor history will bind Trump to a pro-Israel position.

A related point is that opportunism and convenience explain Trump’s current support for Israel, just as they explain every other position that he takes. The problem with opportunism and convenience, of course, is that they shift with the wind and are thin reeds on which to base American policy.  

Thus, since Trump’s backing for Israel is due almost entirely to his need for Evangelical votes, what will happen in a second term when those votes are no longer a factor? Let us imagine that the Saudis propose to Trump a "deal" for Israel that is good for them but much less good for the Israelis. With the Evangelicals out of the electoral picture, Trump can hardly be counted on to look out for Israel’s welfare.

Another reason for concern is the delight that Trump takes in magnifying the role of the anti-Israel fringe in the Democratic Party.  

President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation at the White House in Washington. March 25, 2019
Susan Walsh,AP

Mainstream Democrats are strongly supportive of Israel, and all of the major candidates - with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders - back a secure Israel with defensible borders, in the framework of a two-state solution.

They are critical of settlements, as they should be, because settlements threaten the two-state concept; and they are critical of Bibi because Netanyahu, for all practical purposes, is a card-carrying Republican

But when Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib began publicly flirting with BDS, single state language, and anti-Semitic tropes, the party effectively rebuked them.

And then along comes Donald Trump, focusing not on the Israel positions of the Congresswomen but on their ethnic heritage and skin color. And Democrats, rightly, rush to their defense, unifying behind them in the face of "love it or leave it" nationalism.  

The result? The sensible and centrist positions of the Democratic mainstream on Israel are lost in the shuffle, as Trump surely intended. But how can anyone think that Israel benefits from this charade?

A supporter wears a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap with a half American, half Israeli flag logo on it, during President Trump’s speech at Turning Point USA's Teen Student Action Summit. Washington D.C., July 23, 2019
Alex Brandon,AP

Similarly, in his casual use of racism for electoral gain, and in his attacks on the principles and practices of liberal democracy, Trump has directly threatened Jewish security in America.

As William A. Galston noted in the Wall Street Journal, 63 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Trump primary voters in 2016 say that you are not truly American unless you were born in America. 

And - Trump apologists in the Jewish community take note - 56 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Trump primary voters assert that you cannot be truly American unless you are Christian.  

Such beliefs, of course, are simply inconsistent with what Americans have come to understand as liberal, multiracial democracy. They make it possible to imagine that as Trump continues to whip up crowds of his followers into a frenzy of hatred for immigrants and people of color, white supremacism could actually grow and thrive in this country.

And they are a frontal blow to the sense of safety, well-being, and acceptance that Jews have always experienced in America.

So yes, Donald Trump may not actually be a racist. But he is a danger to America’s deepest ideals. He must lose in 2020.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie