Where do Jewish conservatives stand on Trump?
Faced with Donald Trump as his party’s presumptive nominee in this year’s presidential election, Jamie Weinstein, senior editor for the conservative Daily Caller website, said he may have to “take a Tums” and vote for Hillary Clinton — assuming Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee and there’s no third-party conservative alternative.
“Given that you have to vote, and my options are only Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that’s what I’m left to choose from,” Weinstein said in a recent interview. “And I think Donald Trump is a threat to the American system, whereas Clinton is a threat to our economic wellbeing for four years.”
Weinstein, like many Jewish thought-leaders in the conservative world, says he not only will not support the inevitable Republican nominee — he would prefer another four years of a Democrat in the White House if Trump is the only alternative. And this is not only because of the danger he believes Trump poses to America; he also sees Trump as a long-term threat to conservatism and fears the movement may not recover from a Trump presidency.
Among Jewish #NeverTrump-ers are some of the most prominent voices of conservatism: Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; Jonah Goldberg, senior editor for the National Review (the magazine ran an entire anti-Trump issue in February); Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby; Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire; nationally syndicated talk-show host Mark Levin; Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin; Elliot Abrams, a former George W. Bush adviser and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); Max Boot, also a CFR fellow and a former John McCain adviser; John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine; Seth Mandel of the New York Post; Bethany Mandel, senior contributor at The Federalist; David Bernstein and Ilya Somin, both law professors at George Mason University and both also writers for the Washington Post’s “The Volokh Conspiracy” blog, run by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh; Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University and also a Volokh blogger; and Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist, who in his most recent column all but explicitly said conservatives should vote for a Clinton presidency buttressed by a Republican Congress.
Although all conservatives and Republicans in the #NeverTrump crowd say they will never cast a vote for the real-estate developer and reality TV star, they differ in what they will do. Some, like Shapiro, say they will vote on Nov. 8, but only for “down-ballot” races like the Senate and House. Others, like Weinstein, say they will vote for Clinton as the anti-Trump vote, absent a third-party conservative option.
“He is every horrifying stereotype of Republicans that those of us who are actually Republican have been fighting against for years,” Bethany Mandel said. “He’s already destroying all of that work, but he will likely do irreparable damage to the brand.”
Mandel, who lives in New Jersey, said she was particularly turned off by two of Trump’s antics. The first was when he told CNN’s Don Lemon in August that Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” in describing Kelly’s performance during a Republican debate in which she challenged Trump about past misogynist comments. The second was at a November rally when Trump mocked and imitated the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint disorder.
Shapiro had his own decisive #NeverTrump moment: “The point where I said, categorically, I will never vote for this human being was when he refused to denounce the KKK on national television two days before the Louisiana primary,” said Shapiro, who supported Senator Ted Cruz. “He panders to legitimately the worst elements in American life.”
Shapiro thinks conservatives who are now “falling in line” behind Trump are “cannibalizing [conservatism] to stop the danger of the moment.
“Once you come out and you vote in favor of a man who has opposed every single conservative principle, and pandered to literally the worst people in America, it’s kind of difficult to put that genie back in the bottle,” Shapiro said. “I think Hillary would be a disaster for the country, but I think if we are to have a long-term future, it can’t be one where there’s no conservative party, because the conservative party has been gutted by a charlatan with authoritarian tendencies.”
Among Jewish conservatives, the #NeverTrump group thus far seems to outnumber those who say they will vote Trump—even if only to block a Democratic win. Nevertheless, Trump supporters include some prominent people, such as billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, New York Congressman Lee Zeldin and nationally syndicated talk-show host and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager. The Republican Jewish Coalition also came out in favor of the presumptive candidate, issuing a statement on May 4 congratulating Trump after Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich suspended their campaigns, saying Clinton “is the worst possible choice for a commander in chief.”
Adelson, who had withheld endorsing until now, told the New York Times at a World Values Network gala May 5 that he will support Trump, and that he believes Trump “will be good for Israel.” Fleischer, on May 3, tweeted, “There’s a lot about Donald Trump that I don’t like, but I’ll vote for Trump over Hillary any day.”
“It’s a choice between the known and the unknown, and I find myself in the category of hoping that the unknown doesn’t turn into someone as bad as the known,” Fleischer said in an interview, pointing to Trump’s respect for the private sector’s ability to create wealth. Even on economics, though, while Fleischer believes Trump has better instincts than Clinton, he said he “cringed” when he heard Trump say on CNN’s “New Day” on May 9, “You never have to default, because you print the money.” Trump said this in response to a question about his comments to CNBC on May 5, when he indicated that a debt renegotiation (in effect, a default) is always a possibility. “I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal,” Trump said, later saying the New York Times mischaracterized him when the paper said he “might reduce the national debt by persuading creditors to accept something less than full payment.”
Fleischer said he “always knew” throughout the nomination process that he would support whichever Republican candidate emerged, but said Trump “almost lost me for good” when he accused President George W. Bush of lying about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in order justify the Iraq invasion in 2003.
“If this were a race between Donald Trump and Joe Lieberman, I would vote for Joe Lieberman,” Fleischer said. “But this is a race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.”
Last January, Fleischer had said a Trump nomination would mean the Republican Party is no longer the conservative party. And he didn’t retract that notion, telling the Journal that Trump’s presumptive nomination may mean the party will be in the hands of its populist, not conservative, bloc.
“I don’t think you can rule that out,” Fleischer said.
Radio commentator and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager has, since early in the nomination process, opposed Trump, but said he would vote for him if he became the nominee. “I said from the outset that if my darkest dreams were realized, and he became the Republican nominee, I would vote for him,” Prager wrote in an email. “The reason is that there is one thing that frightens me more than Donald Trump being elected president, and that is Hillary Clinton being elected president.”
He said Trump’s behavior and positions made him unsure “almost every day” whether he could maintain that position. Asked what Trump would have to do to lose his vote, Prager said, “He tries almost every day.”
Among the many distinctions Prager sees between a Trump presidency and a Clinton presidency: the Supreme Court, natural gas extraction (known as “fracking,” which Clinton has come out hard against during her campaign against Bernie Sanders), and, as he said, “An ever-expanding government taking over more and more of the American economy.”
Prager fears Clinton appointments to the Supreme Court could, for a generation, allow judges to “use the court to pass laws” otherwise not achievable with a Republican-controlled Congress or White House. Asked to respond to #NeverTrump conservatives’ fear that Trump is redefining—or has already redefined the Republican Party—Prager said that will only happen if he “succeeds as president, and doesn’t do so by adopting conservative policies.”
“Then he may indeed redefine Republican and conservative,” Prager said. “I’ll worry about that then. And if he fails, he will give new impetus to the traditional understanding of Republican and conservative.”
Elliott Abrams, who served as a foreign policy advisor to George W. Bush and as a consultant for Cruz's campaign, said this year’s election reminds him of the first one he voted in—in 1972, when Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
“I voted for governor, senator, all that, but I didn’t vote for either of them for president, because I didn’t support either,” Abrams said. Asked whether the “lesser of two evils” argument sways him at all, he said Trump’s unpredictability does not count in his favor.
“I don’t consider it an argument for Trump that he doesn’t really have many policy positions, that no one has a good idea what he’s going to do as president—including Trump!” Abrams said. “He has no understanding of the job. He has no understating of the Constitution, and that’s dangerous.”
Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, said he will vote for president, just not for either Clinton or Trump, who he believes “undermines basically everything that conservatives especially, and Republicans generally, have said they stand for.”
In 1992, Jacoby voted for libertarian candidate Andre Marrou instead of George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton. And in 2000, he again voted for the libertarian candidate — Harry Browne — instead of George W. Bush or Al Gore.
Jacoby, too, is not swayed by the argument that Trump is the least bad of two options.
“During World War II, there might not have been a reasonable alternative to accepting the Soviet Union as an ally against Germany, but this isn’t World War II, and I don’t think any individual voter or any conservative organization gains anything by letting the party make common cause with Donald Trump,” he said. “The country has come to a really bad pass, and no matter which path we take, something bad lies ahead.”
Orin Kerr, a libertarian-leaning conservative and law professor at George Washington University, also likened Trump to Nixon, calling him the type of politician “the framers of the Constitution were worried about.”
“I think a President Trump would pose a serious threat to the world’s security and constitutional governance,” said Kerr, who said he’s prepared to vote for Clinton if she’s Trump’s opponent in November. “From what I can tell, Hillary would be another Democratic politician, not too far from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the republic survived those administrations.”
Weinstein, too, believes Trump has “authoritarian tendencies.” There is the affectionate way he has spoken about Russian president Vladimir Putin; his suggestions of respect for the late dictators Saddam Hussein and Muamar Gaddafi for killing terrorists; and his comments in a 1990 interview in Playboy magazine that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t have a “firm enough hand,” and that the Communist Chinese government “almost blew it” in 1990 during the Tiananmen Square protests, until “they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.”
What put Weinstein, the Daily Caller editor, over the edge was an incident in which Michelle Fields, Weinstein’s girlfriend and a former Breitbart reporter, was grabbed at a Trump event by campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as she tried to approach Trump to ask him a question. A Florida prosecutor charged Lewandowski with battery, and then later dropped the charges, but eyewitnesses corroborated Fields’ account, along with audio and video footage.
Trump’s response was to claim Fields was lying, and he hinted he might sue her. He also continued to praise Lewandowski and criticized other reporters for their coverage of the incident.
David Bernstein, a George Mason University law professor, said he would’ve voted for most of the Republican candidates in this year’s field, favoring in particular Cruz and Senator Rand Paul, but said he believes the U.S. “will survive four years of Clinton.” He thinks the Republican Party is at a tipping point at risk of being led by the “American version of Hugo Chavez or Juan Peron.”
“We’re going to have a situation where we have a Republican Party that resembles European right-wing parties—xenophobic, in favor of the welfare state; and the Democratic Party,” Bernstein said. “We won’t have any party that’s standing for limited government principles. We will have a big government left-wing party, and a big government right-wing party.”