Donald Trump is making his way to the 2024 Republican nomination for president. If he wins it, he has a reasonable chance of winning the election. And if he does win, it will be a disaster for America and for American Jews.
And yet, as America faces a slide into authoritarianism, Democratic and liberal voters — Jews included — seem bizarrely unconcerned.
Polls indicate that many have backed away from politics. Perhaps they are simply exhausted by the Trump years. Overjoyed that Trump is out of office, they appear to have banished him from their thoughts.
Some argue that his political career is over. His children are against a run, they say. His wife will leave him. Other candidates — Pompeo, Pence, DeSantis, Haley — will come forward to challenge him. And surely, they suggest, the country has had enough of his antics and farcical claims.
But Trump is not acting like a man who has given up on political life.
On the contrary, he has set out to more fully capture the Republican party and to make it over in his image. And he has succeeded.
While an abysmal failure at both management and policymaking, Trump has sound instincts in one area: party politics. He knows that the base is with him and that his party will follow the base. He watches gleefully as Republicans plead for his endorsement, and as the few remaining sane Republicans are silenced or resign from office in disgust. If Trump declares that he is running, not a single Republican of consequence will stand against him.
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Trump has no platform, of course, but his message is brutally simple: The election of 2020 was stolen, and the Democrats are out to steal the next election as well. Trump intends to stop them and rectify past injustices.
And what of the insurrection of January 6? It is probably best, Trump’s people imply, to avoid the subject in order not to alienate suburban voters. But fierce condemnations should be avoided as well. Direct action, including violence, is understandable when used as a patriotic defense of the nation.
And a Trump victory is not at all unlikely.
Biden is too old to run in 2024, and his polls have cratered. Kamala Harris, his potential replacement on the ticket, has made a weak showing as vice-president. The Democratic Congress has been handcuffed by Senators Sinema and Manchin, both quirky narcissists on a power trip.
If Congress finally passes legislation, it will come too late to make much difference in the presidential race. Major infrastructure projects take years to implement, and so do the expansion of child-care and pre-K programs. The results will not be felt until after the election.
And even if the Democrats do better than expected, they might lose anyway.
With frightening efficiency, Trump and his party have set out to corrode democracy and delegitimize elections. In a sweeping and incisive article in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan explains how it has been done.
The key has been to subvert future election losses by taking control of election machinery on the state level. Kagan notes that 16 states have shifted electoral powers away from the governor and secretaries of state to legislatures that are run by Trump loyalists and the Republican party. In addition, 19 states have enacted laws that make it harder for their citizens to vote.
Trump has also endorsed state officials who can be counted on to help him win, regardless of the election outcome. In the Arizona race for secretary of state, for example, he has backed Mark Finchem, a state legislator sometimes associated with QAnon who is known for his bogus claims of election fraud.
If Trump is nominated, the nightmare scenario for the election has become the probable scenario, modeled on the pattern of the previous four years. The Trump-led Republicans will challenge every Democratic victory, pressure state officials to bow to wild charges of fraud, twist the arms of representatives in Congress to play along, threaten Republican resisters with retaliation, and strike up the “stop the steal” band.
Most important of all, the signal will be given — openly or implicitly, by Trump himself or others in authority — that loyal Trumpers must take to the street. And take to the streets they will.
No illusions, please. January 6 was not an aberration but part of the plan, and a rehearsal for the future. Some of the protestors will be decent Americans who have been hoodwinked by the Trump circus; after all, three-quarters of Republicans believe that the election was stolen.
But the protests will not be led by the decent folks but by the racists, extremist leaders, militia members, and fanatic nationalists, and it is this latter group that will set the tone. Republican leaders, whose initial horror about January 6 quickly turned into excuse-making and rationalizations, will now have the privilege of watching what happens when the “law and order” party decides that it can ignore a violent mob if the tyrant whose name it is chanting is one of their own.
And now, two questions.
The first question: Can our constitutional democracy survive what Donald Trump and the Republican party have unleashed?
It is not at all clear that it can.
Thanks to Trump and his backers, the truth is no longer the truth, the legitimacy of elections cannot be assumed, the peaceful transfer of power is no longer a given, and violence to advance partisan goals is now tolerated if not encouraged.
Civil disorder surrounding the 2024 election is not only possible but likely, and we face the specter of mayhem and mob rule on a scale that we have not seen in America since the Civil War.
Our liberal democracy is in profound danger, and it is impossible to know if the chaos that a Trump presidential run might bring will lead to an unravelling of the entire system.
Why exactly there is so much indifference to these dangers is not clear either. As noted above, Democrats and liberals are strangely apathetic, despite the warnings of Robert Kagan and others in the mainstream media.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that it may have been a mistake to banish Trump from Facebook and Twitter. His irrational rantings were infuriating, but they reminded most Americans of what a charlatan the man is. Taking away his microphone allowed him to plot his return to power out of the public eye, with the help of political collaborators from his party who seem entirely prepared to risk the enabling of dictatorship.
The second question: What does all this mean for American Jews?
Nothing good, that is for certain. If we learn anything from Jewish history, it is that mayhem and mob rule always — and I do mean always — threaten Jewish welfare and Jewish lives.
Jewish wellbeing in America is directly related to America’s stability, pluralism, and relative tolerance, along with established constitutional guarantees of freedom and equality. No other Diaspora community has come close to offering its Jews the security and peace of mind that they enjoy in America.
But now, imagine a paralyzed, post-election Congress, unable to resolve an election crisis, while mobs rampage in the streets, demanding a Trump restoration. Imagine anti-Trumps mob surging forward to meet them. Imagine the chaos that will ensue, and Donald Trump looking on, a barely suppressed smile on his face.
Jews fear chaos and angry mobs for good reason. They know that if a mob is yelling for blood, it will be yelling for Jewish blood as well. They know that they will never be safe in such an America, and neither will other minorities.
It is heartbreaking to watch what is happening to America. We thought we had beaten Trump, saved liberal democracy, defeated the preening insurrectionists, and returned to a more normal politics.
But we were wrong. And perhaps it is not too late.
Our only hope now is to awaken Americans from their dozing indifference, remind them of the danger and the stakes, take on the odious haters and would-be authoritarians in our midst, and reaffirm the constitutional norms that protect all Americans, Jews included.
And this too: we must call out Donald Trump by name. We know who he is and what he has done, and we will not forgive or forget.
With due respect to other concerns, however weighty, the fight against Trump must now be the heart of the American Jewish agenda.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie