November 13, 2019

Trump Doesn’t Understand American Jews’ Political Views

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the AMVETS (American Veterans) National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. U.S., August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Did President Donald Trump actually refer to American Jews as “a basket of deplorables”? Not quite. But as a reminder, it was approximately three years ago that Hillary Clinton used that phrase to disparage Trump supporters, arguing that many voters preparing to cast a ballot for her opponent were motivated by racism and sexism, introducing that phrase to the political lexicon.

When Trump recently castigated Jewish voters for their failure to reward him with their support, he used different language with which to level his criticism. Instead of calling Jews “deplorable,” he said that widespread Jewish backing of Democratic candidates demonstrated “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

Slightly more than 70% of American Jews voted for Clinton in the 2016 election. Using that number (and a thesaurus), Trump appears to believe more than two-thirds of Jewish voters in this country either are stupid or treasonous.

Specific word choice notwithstanding, that sounds pretty deplorable.

We’ve learned over the past few years that Trump divides the world into two groups: his loyal friends and his sworn enemies. He believes the phrase “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” applies to anyone who would stand in the way of his reelection. His thinking has less to do with anti-Semitism than an extraordinarily tribalist view of Earth’s population.

Trump divides people not just between allies and opponents, but heroes and villains. The result is a mindset that sees political campaigns as cataclysmic battles between the forces of good and evil. This mentality now dominates the thinking of both political parties (and means Joe Biden is either the last sane person in American politics or a hopelessly naïve relic of a bygone era).

Clinton’s insults in 2016 caused her tremendous political damage. Throughout her campaign, she had struggled to attract support from the white working-class voters who had been a critical part of the coalition that elected her husband and most other modern Democratic presidential candidates. The backlash to her remarks permanently put out of reach the large majority of those voters.

Trump’s challenge is a different one. Most of the American-Jewish community was permanently out of his reach even before his recent exercise in name-calling. But the frustration that led him to lash out is a familiar one. It reflects decades of erroneous Republican thinking when it comes to the political motivations of Jewish voters. For the better part of a generation, GOP politicians and strategists have believed their party’s strong record on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East would (or should) lead to increased levels of support from Jewish voters.

“For the better part of a generation, GOP politicians and strategists have believed their party’s strong record on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East would (or should) lead to increased levels of support from Jewish voters.”

But public-opinion polling over that time consistently has shown that most American Jews prioritize candidates’ domestic social and cultural policy agenda over their views on Israel. Trump made the same mistake Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and countless other Republican leaders have made in the past —just louder and more confrontationally.

The original targets of Trump’s attacks — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) —– demonstrate the potential limits of that issue hierarchy with Jewish voters. Most American Jews prefer Democratic politicians, but not those who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or who harbor the type of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments Omar and Tlaib regularly express. Trump has devoted huge amounts of time and energy to highlighting the roles of these two women in the Democratic Party and attempting to force their colleagues into either standing with them or disavowing them. It’s a fairly standard campaign tactic — the same strategy Republicans have used, linking Nancy Pelosi with Democratic candidates in contested congressional races, and which Democrats employ in those same districts by invoking Trump.

The difference is that Trump didn’t just insult his political opponents. Just as Clinton did during her presidential campaign, he expanded his attacks to the voters themselves, which is much more dangerous.

Just as the majority of Trump’s supporters are neither racist nor sexist, most American Jews possess abundant amounts of both knowledge and loyalty. In both cases, suggesting otherwise is downright deplorable.

Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.