What explains the powerful appeal of nationalist and populist candidates such as Donald Trump among huge swaths of the electorate? If a recent set of analyses by American and European political scientists and sociologists is correct, the story of Joseph and his brothers that Jews are reading from the Torah in synagogue this month may well hold the key
Consider the family dynamics set forth in the opening verses of Parashat Vayeshev. Joseph, who helps his older brothers tend the sheep, regularly brings back reports of their bad behavior to their father. Jacob loves Joseph best of all his children and shows it by giving him a special garment (variously translated as an “ornamental tunic” or “coat of many colors”). The brothers, resenting their father’s greater love for Joseph, “hate him” so much that “they cannot speak a friendly word to him.” Joseph reinforces that animosity by recounting two dreams that seem to demonstrate his hope or intention – as the brothers see it – to “reign and rule over us.” Jacob resolves to “keep the matter in mind.” Something has to give, and it soon does, changing the history of the Children of Israel forever.
According to social scientific studies surveyed by journalist Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times, many right-wing voters in America and elsewhere have been giving voice to “a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy, and resentment” that stem primarily from “anxiety over declining social status.” There may be racism, poverty, or class-conflict in the mix; money and power are certainly involved. But the dominant factor driving these voters, according to the accounts on which Edsall reports, is related to all those other factors but also somewhat distinct: a disturbing sense that they are declining in the hierarchy of societal importance and respect. There is ample evidence that concern about who is high or low, in or out, on the way up or on the way down, can be every bit as important to people of all ranks and persuasions as money or power. Indeed, unlike the differing opinions on domestic and foreign policy that have long influenced people to vote for one political party or another, status concerns go the very heart of a person’s identity. Status is not a matter of what one believes but of who one is. Compromise is therefore out of the question. One cannot trade away self-respect.
This analysis probably does not account for all the recent surge in populist and nationalist sentiment, much less for all of the 74 million votes that went to President Trump. But it does help to explain the urgency that many people, “right” and “left,” ascribe to acquiring and securing the prestige that confers and demonstrates status. One can get such prestige, according to the social scientists, either via “notable achievement” that is recognized and rewarded or through “dominance” over others. The former is harder and harder to attain these days for workers who are being left behind in the high-tech global economy. The latter – a sense of strength powerful enough to make up for actual or perceived weakness in other areas of life – can be gained from identification with a nation or leader of demonstrable power. It can also be achieved by bullying or violence.
Joseph’s brothers, examined in these terms, suffer from at least three acute problems where status is concerned. First, recalling the two prizes that Jacob wrested by guile from his brother Esau, blessing and birthright, we might say that Jacob implicitly gives his blessing to Joseph in the form of special love and favor. Joseph palpably enjoys paternal love that his ten brothers do not.
Second, the brothers fear that Joseph’s dream of power over them might come true one day (as, of course, it does). That is why they are unable to dismiss Joseph’s dreams as mere ravings of a boy, just as they cannot react calmly to their father’s gift of what is, after all, only a coat. His star is one the rise. Theirs seems doomed to fall.
Note, finally, that the brothers who burn with jealousy in the opening verses of the story are the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, former maids of Rachel and Leah, respectively, whom Jacob later took to be his wives. The sons of Leah herself, sister of Joseph’s mother Rachel, enter the story only in the next episode when they intervene to prevent the other brothers from murdering Joseph. Reuben and Judah perhaps had less to fear from Joseph’s higher status in the family — and more to lose if their father turns against them.
President Trump by all accounts did especially well in last month’s election among workers whose well-paying jobs have disappeared in recent years, or are likely to do so soon. Automation, the export of labor overseas, and the global internet economy have all taken their toll on blue-collar jobs and respect for the people who held them. Their vote in many cases expressed what one observer has called “fear of falling.” Trump supporters themselves report harboring resentment at urban elites (especially those concentrated on America’s east and west coasts) who are profiting in the high-tech global economy and enjoying the social prestige that comes from that success. Older white men, another bastion of support for Trump, have reason to be concerned that young, female and minority workers are advancing at their expense. Evangelical and Fundamentalist voters believe (with some justification, I think) that liberal elites and media often look down on them as backward, ignorant and bigoted. The culture that once viewed them favorably and reflected their values is no more.
We know from midrashic literature on the Joseph story that there is more than one way of interpreting his actions and his character. A lad of seventeen can be forgiven youthful excesses. His dreams are not his own invention but sent by God. He will soon prove his mettle. The rabbis had good reason to call him a tzadik. Alternatively, one can find cause for a less praiseworthy account of Joseph’s behavior. Consider his vanity and self-promotion, his failure to let his father know he was alive and well in Egypt, and the anguish he causes his brothers while inducing their repentance. Most tellingly, perhaps, Joseph seems to have no qualms whatever about selling Egyptians into serfdom to the Pharaoh in exchange for the grain that they had deposited in his charge before the start of the seven-year famine. Joseph’s brothers are not the only guilty party in his family story.
The myth of a level playing field
The role that concern for status has played in recent elections can also be variously interpreted. I do not agree with the frequent claim by the President and his supporters that “the system is rigged,” and I certainly do not agree that the 2020 election was rigged, as the President maintains to this day. It is true, however, that America has a long way to go before “equality of opportunity” and a “level playing field” become a reality. All sorts of good things in life are not distributed fairly – a point made repeatedly by Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump. It is also true, I think, that TV shows and films rarely show traditional, church-going families in a good light. I understand why some voters feel disrespected, threatened or left behind. Let’s recognize, though, that status analysis cuts both ways. The brothers, looked at in this light, perhaps deserve more sympathy than they usually receive from readers of the Bible. We perhaps root for Joseph not only because he has been wronged, but because we know that he – and therefore we, Children of Israel — will emerge from his trials victorious.
American Jews, I believe, have both less and more at stake than many others in the competition for status. On the one hand, our community has by and large done very well in America over the past century. The system has worked for us – and, like other highly-educated, urban, and relatively prosperous Americans, Jews tended to vote for the Joseph running in this election, and not “the Donald.” Biden got the majority of votes from Jews, as he did from other religious and ethnic minorities, both because Jews continue to benefit enormously from the American system that rewards merit, initiative and skill, and because, having been discriminated against for many years, we support the efforts of victims of discrimination for whom the system has not worked as well thus far. Jewish Trump supporters, for their part, seem to be motivated by approval of the President’s economic policy and his support for Israel rather than by concern for declining status. Jews as a group have little to fear from the internet economy (quite the opposite) and, despite the recent spike in anti-Semitism, remain highly respected by the great bulk of Gentile Americans. Overwhelming numbers of Jews say they are proud to be Jews. I don’t see much evidence of envy or resentment.
What Jews do have to fear in the current political climate, I think, is the steep rise in hate-speech, suspicion of minorities and immigrants, and disrespect for law and truth. Heightened resentment and polarization have already led to violence. The rise in anti-Semitism is part and parcel of increased bigotry across the board. History has taught Jews to be wary of individuals and groups who, failing to find success through achievement, seek dominance through actual or vicarious bullying. When battles between right and left grow fierce, Jews are likely to be attacked from both sides or caught in the cross-fire between them. Joseph’s brothers, we note with alarm, move from envy and resentment to vengeance; they are persuaded not to kill Joseph only because he is their brother. If only more Americans saw their neighbors of differing race, religion or political preference as brothers rather than enemies! If only status and self-respect did not have to be gained at the cost of keeping others down.
Jews and Gentiles alike will need to do all we can in the coming months to help dignity and healing win the day.