October 18, 2018

Why every third American Jew supports Trump

Acccording to Gallup, President Donald Trump’s approval rating among US Jews is 31%. That is not very high, but it is also not very low. It is about the same percentage of Jews that voted for Trump. That is to say: the Jews have not changed their minds about Trump. Those who liked him half a year ago, still do. Those who disliked him, still do. They, as Gallup’s Frank Newport and Alyssa Davis put it, “are reacting to Trump along party lines in about the same way as other partisans.” Apparently, we are neither wiser no stupider than other human beings. In this era we are – like them – just “partisans.”

This means that the big scare concerning the Trump-ignited anti-Semitic wave did not impact the views of Jews in America. Those who oppose Trump were easily convinced that the president had a role in inflaming this wave of hateful speech and deeds, while those supporting him either don’t see a “wave” or don’t see any connection between the elected president and the wave.

This also means that Trump’s actions concerning Israel, thus far, have had little impact on his supporters and opponents. Supporters – most of them on the hawkish side – are not yet alarmed by the president’s somewhat bizarre obsession with Middle East peace making (or maybe their concerns with it are balanced by the tough love he has showed the anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council). Opponents – most of them on the dovish side – are not yet swayed by Trump’s investment in the peace process, his apparent intention to tame settlement activity, his refusal to be a cheerleader of Israel’s radical right-wingers.

Just “partisans.” So disappointing, and yet so reassuring. The Jews do not make their political choices in ways different from those of other Americans. They vote for the Democratic Party because they are used to doing it. They are used to doing it – and thus are well trained in explaining why theirs is the better choice. And, of course, it might be the better choice, as more than two thirds of them believe. But it is not the obviously better choice for everybody, as the other close-to-one-third of Jews demonstrate by supporting Trump.

Just “partisans.” And this, of course, complicates the relations within the Jewish community. The more America becomes polarized, the more a dialogue between Trump supporters and Trump opponents seems impossible, the harder it is for Jews of the two partisan camps to find common ground.

You might say: well, there are far more Jews opposing Trump than those supporting him. And this is true, but it is not the whole truth. When one counts all Jews – then yes, many more of them oppose Trump. But the fact that Jews from the groups who support Trump tend to be more active in the Jewish community, and more intensely engaged with Judaism (look at Pew’s numbers and see for yourself), complicates the picture. In Jewish organizations, among voters with strong Jewish consciousness, the pro-Trump and anti-Trump camps become more balanced.

These two camps have specific characteristics and different Jewish instincts. The anti-Trump camp is more universalist, while the other one is more tribal. The Trump camp is more Orthodox, the anti-Trump more progressive. These two camps have different interpretations of what Jewish Americanism means, and they have different readings of Jewish history and values. They have different strategies for dealing with the non-Jewish world.

A few months ago, Yehudah Mirsky published an article in The American Interest that, in my view, did not receive proper attention. Mirsky is a relatively rare Jewish breed: both universalist and tribal (at least, that’s the way I understand his views – Yehuda, you are free to call and correct me). He is, I dare to assume, a Democrat. He seems puzzled, possibly even horrified, by Trump.

He suggests an interesting thesis in the article: That the relations between American Jews and Trump echo past eras of Jewish history: “Trump’s candidacy”, he wrote, “has galvanized American anti-Semites like nothing has in decades, and yet he’s a New Yorker whose daughter converted to Judaism so she could marry, yes, an Orthodox Jew. The significance of this, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that Trumpism and its focus on the Great Leader has thrust Jewish politics back by centuries, to the time when all that mattered was the personal relationship between the sovereign and Jewish merchants with good connections, or in slightly less exalted circumstances between the poritz (the baron) and his transactionally useful Jewish intermediaries (schtadlanim).”

Mirsky does not specifically say this, but connecting the dots is easy: if Jewish-Trump relations are the reincarnation of a Jewish past, it is almost natural for the Jews who feel more comfortable with the Jewish past – Orthodox Jews – to feel comfortable with him. What does he offer them, and other tribal Jews? An alluring option of keeping their separate identity and custom while being protected by a friendly leader. The other option – to be an active and integrated player in the American political arena – is of less appeal to these groups of Trump supporters. It carries the danger of cultural assimilation that accompanies political integration.

And, of course, tribal Jews put more emphasis on Israel than other Jews. Israel – the Jewish State – is a tribal cause. A president who defends Israel, who supports it, for whatever reasons, is a president that the tribe ought to also support. A president that clashes with Israel, opposing its actions, criticizing it for being, well, tribal, is a president that the tribe ought to oppose.

31% of Jews approve of Donald Trump. This doesn’t mean that they are pleased with everything he does. This doesn’t mean that they think of him as the ideal president. This doesn’t means that they do not see his many deficiencies. It means that under the current circumstances they accept his shortcomings in an almost commercial-like exchange: support us and we will support you. Like Trump, these Jews speak the language of businessmen. That’s why he likes them – that’s why they like him.