August 20, 2019

The new political reality: Jews encounter Donald Trump

We are living in the aftermath of a 21st-century election that divided this nation by class, ethnicity, geography and culture. The social, political and economic divisions that separate rural and working-class voters from urban, college-educated Americans framed this country’s voting patterns last week, and the results created a political tsunami that profoundly impacted the Jewish community, just as it buffeted other constituencies on the left and within the right.

The population demographics of our nation are changing, as reflected in the statistics about those who voted. A census report affirms that by 2050, the United States will cease to be a majority Caucasian society. In response to these changing realities, the candidates constructed two distinctive visions of America, each appealing to different voting constituencies: one that asked us to return to an earlier moment of American greatness while the other celebrated the contemporary scenario with its possibilities and promises. Donald Trump’s worldview is bound up with his focus on national protectionism, placing limitations on immigration and trade agreements. A Hillary Clinton-inspired America would have promoted her globalist instincts where human rights, trade and immigration were key ingredients.

Donald Trump was not the candidate of choice for our community. A New York Times exit poll found that 71 percent of Jews supported Hillary Clinton compared with 24 percent who embraced Donald Trump. Probably for the first time in American-Jewish history, a number of Jews did not exercise their right to vote. Some millennial voters, unhappy because Bernie Sanders wasn’t on the ticket, decided not to participate. A group of Jewish Republicans and independents opted out, expressing their disappointment with both major-party nominees. After each election cycle, Jews take a DNA sample measuring their political pulse. In this scenario, Jewish financial clout seemed to outweigh our community’s voting heft as our numbers appear to be declining as part of a changing demographic reality.

At this moment, we have no ability to unpack the intentions of the president-elect, as Trump defies basic labels, adding to our confusion when trying to define his leadership. The question remains: What type of America is likely to emerge under a Trump presidency? A key indicator certainly may be provided in his cabinet selections and through the appointment of key advisers. 

We know Republicans will define the future of this nation, but the question remains which sector of that party will gain traction in shaping the president’s vision and priorities: the evangelical base, the Tea Party crowd or fiscal conservatives? Despite the fact that neo-conservatives, a predominantly influential Jewish constituency, did not embrace Trump’s candidacy, will they nonetheless be able to play a role in constructing the president’s foreign policy priorities?

The Jewish community for decades has sought to protect and expand the social policy firewall, composed of such issues as health care reform, immigration, civil liberties and economic justice. The challenge now will be to defend these core areas against efforts to modify or alter policies or downsize the social welfare basket of services. Jewish organizations have crafted policies on gun violence, the environment and church-state separation among other public policy priorities. Neither the Republican Party platform nor Trump’s campaign statements in connection with these issues offers little by way of common agreement with our community’s positions. 

The balance of power on the Supreme Court is an area of primary concern to the Jewish community. The gains secured over the past half-century in civil liberties, abortion rights, criminal reforms and marriage equality are likely to be revisited as conservative court appointees will endeavor to roll back existing positions. This could be the primary battleground arena for American Jews.

In the aftermath of this election, we are likely to experience a fundamental social and cultural revolution unfolding in connection with how the new administration and its Republican congressional allies set out to define and shape their American story. This president’s legacy is going to be determined by the character of our relationships with one another. Through the president’s messages and policy proposals, will a Trump administration seek to divide and separate constituencies from one another or will the new president take advantage of the opportunity to build bridges across class and race? From the outset, one would hope that Trump would repudiate his political supporters who embraced messages of hate directed against an array of nationalities, religions and ethnic communities. It would be instructive if the president-elect would step back from some of his campaign rhetoric, seeking to reach out to some of those he personally offended.

The newly minted president-elect has acquired over the years, in business and through his civic undertakings, a broad swath of Jewish connections. Within his own family and as part of his campaign team, his Jewish relationships are impressive. While he may not abide by the insights being shared with him about Jewish political interests, hopefully he will come to appreciate the deeply embedded contributions that Jews have made to the political discourse and policy positions of this nation.

The international agenda represents another arena of importance to our community. There is consensus that the new president will embrace Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, seeking to promote closer ties between Washington and Jerusalem. As with other policy areas, one has a less clear picture of how a Trump administration will manage our existing treaty obligations and military agreements across the globe.  

Just over a week has passed since this political reality has touched us, yet American Jews who have a profound love for this nation as well as a passion for its politics are still trying to come to grips with a Trump presidency. What lies ahead seems scary and uncertain, but as a people, we have traveled such uncharted pathways before and will yet again.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found at