Analysis

Trump’s 2020 Strategy: Politicize Israel, Demonize Ilhan Omar and Keep Key Voters at Home

The president is already rolling out his re-election strategy. Will he make Jewish Democrats choose between support for Israel and their party?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2019
REUTERS/Jim Young

Just three months into the Democrats controlling the House, President Donald Trump has already declared that “Democrats hate Jewish people” and is now actively pushing the so-called Jexodus movement, which claims to be aimed at converting Jewish Democrats into Jewish Republicans.

At CPAC in late February, a former Jewish Trump campaign adviser, who recently called Ilhan Omar “filth,” launched the Jexodus movement. A few weeks later, the group’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Pipko, went on “Fox & Friends” and claimed that “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of anti-Israel policies start under the Obama Administration, and it got worse and worse. There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party. They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.” Trump immediately tweeted Pipko’s statement.

One problem: There is no proof for the claim that “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party.”

In the 2018 midterms, a full 79 percent of Jewish Americans voted for Democrats (up 13 percent since the 2014 midterm elections). A Gallup poll released last week found that only one in six Jewish Americans formally identify as Republicans, while 52 percent identify as Democrats (down from 55 percent in 2008). The same poll noted that out of all religious groups, Jewish Americans were the least likely to approve of Trump, with 71 percent disapproving and only 26 percent approving.

Many Americans Jews have not forgotten Trump’s embrace of white nationalists, his “good people on both sides” comments after Charlottesville or his long history of coded racial language — including telling the Republican Jewish Coalition that they won’t vote for him because he won’t take their money.

Despite media warnings that a "new wave" of Democrats like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would finally split the party’s long-held support of Israel and alienate some Jewish voters, it didn’t happen. Additionally, Trump’s popularity in Israel, his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital only seemed to lose the Republican Party Jewish voters in the 2018 midterms.

Republicans have tried to win over the Jewish vote before. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was by far the most successful in 2012, winning 30 percent of the Jewish vote, compared to John McCain’s 21 percent or Trump’s 24 percent. Romney campaigned heavily against Barack Obama’s foreign policy and his Iran nuclear deal, which had enraged both Israeli leadership and the Gulf Arab states. This likely resonated with the 31 percent of Jewish Americans that a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found wanted to see the U.S. support Israel more.

Romney, a devout Mormon, also appealed to Jewish voters as a member of a religious minority. Unlike Trump, he courted evangelical Christians but didn’t couple his support of Israel with Christian Zionism or embrace Christian leaders who have offended Jews. This also worked in his favor, since many American Jews find Christian Zionism and evangelical support of Israel to be incompatible with their Zionism and a betrayal of their liberal values.

The Republican Party, despite its best efforts at Jewish outreach, has a long history of pushing Jews out of its ranks. Sam Brownback, currently serving as Trump’s religious freedom envoy, won the 1996 Kansas Senate election in a race that drew national scrutiny for a robocall that said, “We think it’s important for people to know that Jill Docking [Brownback’s opponent] is Jewish. Please vote for Sam Brownback.”

In 2006, Virginia Sen. George Allen vehemently denied a report that his mother was Jewish, insinuating it was a slur. He later confirmed the report was true. These are just a few examples, not to mention the slew of white nationalists, neo-Confederates and even a self-proclaimed actual Nazi (who was disavowed by the GOP) who were running on the ballot as Republicans last November.

However, it’s very unlikely that Trump’s true aim is to win the Jewish vote. It’s of little real electoral importance to him, and it’s all but certain that he will not attract many new Jewish voters into his ranks. His real goals are to try to brand the Democratic Party as an unacceptable choice in 2020, while attempting to absolve himself and the more extreme elements around him of accusations of anti-Semitism and bigotry.

An issue to tip the scales

Trump has been looking for a new wedge issue for the 2020 election campaign. Immigration and the border wall have become too toxic and he clearly has his eyes set on Israel, anti-Semitism and the Jews. In his State of the Union address, the president insisted the United States would never become a socialist country — a veiled attack on the Bernie Sanders-supporting wing of the Democratic Party.

Now he and congressional Republicans have abandoned that line of attack, choosing instead to focus on Minnesota’s Rep. Ilhan Omar. Trump this week even went so far as to tweet his support for Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who was apparently suspended for an Islamophic attack on Omar and her hijab.

Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots and has never had a net favorability rating during his presidency. He and his 2020 campaign advisers undoubtedly know that his best chance for re-election is to run against an equally polarizing candidate. Just as Harry Truman dubbed the Republicans the “Do Nothing Congress” in 1948 and went on to defeat Thomas Dewey in a major upset, Trump too knows his best chance is a symbolic opponent. So far, he’s choosing the “anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Congress.”

Even among liberal Democrats, Israel still has a 58 percent favorability rating — and 87 percent favorability among conservative Republicans. However, only 3 percent of liberal Democrats view Israelis more favorably than the Palestinians in the conflict. This is an all-time low, but independent voters still favor Israel’s side over the Palestinians by 60 percent. In the current divisive era of American politics, Israel is one of the few consensus issues left.

Trump and the Republican Party clearly want to change that — at least so far as Republican voters are concerned. A separate Gallup poll released earlier this month shows that Americans overwhelmingly favor Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite that number falling to a 10-year low, the GOP is still gearing up to use that popularity to pull independent voters in its direction.

The strategy is also a time-tested ploy to energize the party’s evangelical base, 46 percent of which wanted the U.S. to do more to support Israel in 2014 —– by far the highest number of any religious group. While the most vehement anti-Israel activists in American politics reside within the Democrats’ wide coalition, Trump and the conservative media machine want to make sure their voices are as loud as they can be.

‘Jexodus’

When Chelsea Clinton was shouted down by pro-Palestinian activists and accused of inspiring the New Zealand massacre over the weekend, Donald Trump, Jr. quickly came to her defense. “It’s sickening to see people blame @ChelseaClinton for the NZ attacks because she spoke out against anti-Semitism. We should all be condemning anti-Semitism & all forms of hate,” he tweeted.

The reason Trump, Jr., who is not known for his civility on social media, so quickly came to Clinton’s defense is also why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney repeatedly compared Omar’s controversial statements on Israel to the white supremacist remarks made by Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King  last week: They think it’s a winning narrative. McCarthy even went so far as to say Omar’s comments were worse than King’s remarks.

Trump’s entrance into the conversation changes the debate over Omar and anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party, and for many on the American left creates a need to refocus the debate on Trump and absolve Omar. However, author and political commentator Prof. John Pitney points out that “the danger for Democrats comes not from Trump, but from within their own ranks, and the anti-Semitism issue is part of a larger problem.”

Trump’s strategy to politicize Israel and demonize Omar boxes the Democrats into a difficult corner. The top tier 2020 candidates are already split over Omar, with Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris showing support, while Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker are leveling criticism.

Going forward, the party’s leadership will have to choose between actively rebuking Trump’s narrative and their own progressive stars or risk alienating crucial swing voters in the middle. “Given a choice between two extreme parties, these voters might stay home in November 2020, which could result in a Trump victory,” Pitney warns.

How all of this plays out is not about whether American Jews stay in the Democratic Party, but whether or not American politics still has a place for liberal, pro-Israel voters.