The Trump Factor: Now What?
Usually, I love Election Day. Watching people vote gives me a kick in the patriotic adrenals. But in this year’s Scrooge election, too many people looked grim, too many people confessed how anxious they were.
President Donald Trump pulled it off: He made these elections compelling. Midterms are the PBS documentaries of American politics — necessary, boring and upstaged by their Netflix rivals, meaning presidential contests. But Trump’s polarizing presidency GOTVed America — he got out the vote. Turnout spiked from an anemic 36.4 percent in 2014 to record levels.
Indeed, this election, like so much else in his life — and ours! — was all about Trump. But he over-Scrooged. His vitriol parlayed booming markets and unemployment lows into a 39-percent job approval and a repudiation in the House of Representatives.
Two years ago, Trump was The Miracle Maker. This year he was an electoral computer virus, weakening most candidates in his network.
Of course, he remains president. And the Republicans held the Senate — partially because of a different backlash: Millions watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings feared being held accountable for their teenage sins — even without corroborating evidence.
The elections thereby produced characteristically mixed results — for both parties and for American Jews, too, who may have shaped the Nov. 6 results more than any midterm ever, albeit as victims not actors.
First, the great news: The system worked. Tens of millions of Americans voted, peacefully. This everyday miracle should not be taken for granted, given the premature eulogizing about our dead democracy. Doom-and-gloom Democrats don’t like to admit that America-the-functional usually prevails and the Constitution works.
Donald Trump is the evil genie of American politics, mischievously outing inner demons among friends and foes. His refusal to act presidential has made many opponents act hysterical. His hyper-partisan, playing-to-the-base, tweet-fueled, wedge-making, presidency rejects the president’s role as the nation’s secular high priest.
Those who support him should nevertheless acknowledge his twisted priorities — and pathologizing proclivities. Similarly, his detractors must condemn their allies who turn thuggish. The right has no monopoly on shrillness or violence — remember the antifa riots.
Yet, day to day, America functions impressively for most. The checkers and balancers check and balance: from the obscure judges who defied Trump after his first Muslim-immigration-ban decree, to this week’s electoral-slap-in-the-presidential face.
Next, the less-great news: The Democratic House victory will block some Trumpian outrages. And former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 midterm loss produced presidential humility, congressional compromise, even national prosperity. But today’s atmosphere is too toxic. The fury seems bound to intensify; a Blue House and Red Senate seem destined for gridlock.
Finally, the Jews. As usual, Jews can delight in striking electoral success: A disproportionate number of Jews were elected. On the other hand, at least three new Blame-Israeli-Firsters entered Congress, all Democrats. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — represent warning signals (not yet funeral bells) for the bipartisan pro-Israel alliance.
“Jews must unite against the left’s new anti-Semitism and the right’s renewed anti-Semitism. Political rivals are siblings who disagree with us, not enemies who betrayed us.”
Most disturbing: Most Democrats’ refusal to be furious about these three indicates how many Americans have become political contortionists: liberal Jews silly-putty themselves into rationalizing former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, and downplaying the risks of progressive anti-Zionists Corbynizing the party. Those who complain that Israelis vote statehood issues not peoplehood issues, should admit that American Jews vote pro-choice or anti-Trump not pro-Israel.
Similarly, Jewish Trumpistas — Trumpistowitzes? — cannot tolerate any criticism of an amoral, bellicose, race-baiting demagogue — even though he was right to scotch the Iran deal and move the American Embassy to Jerusalem.
Fanatics on both sides are importing pro-Trump or anti-Trump my-way-or-the-highway litmus tests into synagogues, federations, schools — let alone Shabbat dinners. Jews must unite against the left’s new anti-Semitism and the right’s renewed anti-Semitism. Political rivals are siblings who disagree with us, not enemies who betrayed us.
Of course, to Americans, this is all internal Jewish stuff. The only Jewish story that counted was the Pittsburgh slaughter. Elections, like people, are complex, contradictory, not easily reduced to monocausal explanations. Still, it’s hard not to connect the dots between the Oct. 27 massacre and the anti-Trump vote on Nov. 6.
The Jewish vote rarely has determined electoral outcomes, unless you count the thousands of elderly Jews who wanted to vote for Al Gore in 2000 and mistakenly butterfly-balloted their way to voting for Pat Buchanan. But the Pittsburgh massacre mattered. It’s timeliness and bloodthirstiness alarmed Americans. It warned everyone where the nation could go if the polarization grows, if the hate festers, if Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit only becomes Trump’s bullying pulpit.
The anti-Trump vote voted “no” to demagoguery as a presidential leadership strategy. Along with millions of moments of outreach after the shooting, this vote affirmed America-the-functional and America-the-good. It’s a decent America, an America that appreciates nationalism as a pathway to liberal democracy not xenophobia, or white nationalism. It’s a purple America that doesn’t reduce every issue to black and white, red versus blue.
I repudiated radicals who blamed Trump for the killings, who rejected Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitism or his consoling visit to Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, I heard this election answer the Charlottesville, Va., Jew-haters’ yell: “Jews will not replace us.” I heard: The shooter does not represent us, haters will not define us, toxic partisans who cannot see a fellow American behind a political rival will not replace us.
I’m not naïve. I see the hate festering left and right, on campus and online. I understand the fears that Jews are canarying in America’s coal mines — the bully’s first targets.
But since Oct. 27, the unprecedented embrace of Jews, in churches and in synagogues, on streets and online, is the rainbow after the flood. These group-hugs affirm the American covenant uniting us, defining this exceptional nation, this exceptionally accepting nation, the last, best hope on earth. Those moving voices and millions of votes cast in free, safe elections created a mandate for all our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, to break the gridlock, mute the partisanship, and help us heal.
How ironic that in this Scrooge election, the exceptional American response to a far-too-familiar Jewish trauma — except in America — generated a rare ray of light.
Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Toronto and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”