TThe Jewish Week’s recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton for President may not sound earth-shaking, but New York City’s establishment Jewish newspaper has never before endorsed a candidate for public office. The paper is conscious of its mission to serve the needs of an opinionated and maddeningly diverse Jewish community, the largest in the Diaspora. It would not depart from its customary practice without a good reason.
Though its endorsement editorial lauds Clinton’s “deep knowledge of issues and empathy for the underdogs of society,” it is clear that what prompted this unprecedented endorsement was the conviction that “Donald Trump presents a danger to this country.” It sets forth in excruciating detail a sampling of Trump’s many outrages during the campaign and sums up well its view of his candidacy: “Never before has a candidate so ill-equipped for the demands of the Oval Office — in temperament, character, compassion and humility — been so close to its doors.”
Having made unambiguously clear its position that Trump’s values are incompatible with Jewish tradition, the editorial goes on to pose the following question:
Ironically, the one group among us most favorable to Donald Trump is the Orthodox community, known for its piety, modesty in terms of sexual contact and respect for leaders with spiritual and intellectual authority. Yet Trump, who represents the antithesis of those values, is said to be favored by a significant percentage among the Orthodox. How can that be?
It’s a good question, and one worth exploring. To answer it fully would require a multi-disciplinary expertise beyond my ability and a length far greater than I could fit into a single post. This question is the Jewishly relevant portion of the broader question of how to understand the phenomenon that is Donald Trump — a question, I suspect, that will preoccupy journalists, bloggers, think-tankers and other assorted members of the punditocracy for a long time to come. How, in other words can we understand the fact that millions of purportedly rational Americans voted to hand the nuclear codes to a man so fundamentally unfit to wield such awesome power?
For most Orthodox Jews today (with the exception of a few Chassidic groups that remain staunchly anti-Zionist), the starting point for any discussion of Presidential politics is the welfare of Israel. I do not criticize the determination to make Israel’s safety and security our top priority; in fact I share it. If I believed that electing a particular candidate would be harmful to Israel’s well-being, I could not vote for that candidate, regardless of his or her other advantages.
But that doesn’t mean that support for Israel is my only criterion. I am, after all, an American citizen, and the well-being of this country and its citizens is also a high priority. I could not vote for someone overtly hostile to Israel, but relatively minor differences in Israel policy would not necessarily determine my vote if other considerations clearly pointed the other way.
Most Orthodox Jews who are Trump supporters — at least those I have spoken to — point to Israel as their primary justification. Many of them are no doubt sincere, but their arguments cannot survive serious scrutiny. To justify their support for Trump, they argue that Hillary Clinton is so manifest a danger to Israel’s survival that opposing her takes precedence over every other consideration. The few particulars they rely on, however do not make their case. They try to explain away her pro-Israel record as a Senator as an insincere but necessary concession to the political necessity of representing New York. Their view of her tenure as Secretary of State comes down to heads-I-win-tails-you-lose: anything good that happened was the work of others, while anything bad can be blamed on her (or on President Obama, who in this telling is virtually her foreign policy alter ego) .
In other words, Trump’s Orthodox Jewish supporters are taking the position that Jewish Republicans have taken since at least the Reagan era, to undermine the overwhelming preference of American Jews for the Democratic party. They use a highly selective political narrative to argue that the Democratic nominee,whoever it may be, would endanger Israel’s security. Thus, they contend, American Jews, regardless of their perspective on domestic issues, should vote Republican.
Personally, I find this tiresome rant simplistic and unpersuasive. Whatever its merits in an ordinary election year, however, to apply that argument to Trump’s candidacy is sheer lunacy. It should hardly be necessary at this point to recount the various facets of his character and temperament that render him manifestly unfit to hold any significant political office, much less the Presidency. No one who has followed the campaign even casually, and certainly no one who watched the three debates between the two candidates with an iota of objectivity, could possibly harbor any doubt as to Trump’s unfitness. To take only the most recent revelations, Trump’s history as a serial groper and his insistence that the vote is “rigged”, combined with his repeated refusal to promise to accept the result, by themselves, without more, should be sufficient to prevent any rational voter from supporting him.
But what makes the pro-Trump argument entirely incomprehensible is the inability of his supporters to point to a shred of evidence that Trump’s policy on Israel would be more favorable than Clinton’s. Since he has never held political office before, he has no record to judge him by, on Israel or anything else. He has made some encouraging statements about Israel — and other statements that should strike fear into the hearts of any pro-Israel voter. Some of his supporters appear to be reliably pro-Israeli — and others are hostile to Israel, or even anti-Semitic. The thinking behind the claim that pro-Israel voters should back Trump seems to be limited to one incontestable fact: he’s not Hillary.
That shouldn’t be enough. Even if Hillary were demonstrably anti-Israel — which she emphatically is not — it would be nearly impossible to justify voting for Trump in view of his serious moral deficiencies that have been revealed or confirmed during the course of the campaign. Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate, to be sure, and one who has not always exercised the best judgment. She would not have been my ideal Democratic nominee, but there is no comparison between her deficits and Trump’s. If the thought of Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button doesn’t scare you, then you haven’t been paying attention — not to this blog and not to the campaign.
In view of these circumstances, how can any rational person consider voting for Trump? Some declared Trumpians to whom I have spoken have insisted that a Trump presidency would not be as bad as depicted. Sure, Trump would find the responsibilities of the office beyond his capacity, they have conceded. He would cope with that reality the same way he has in some of his successful business enterprises — by hiring good people and then getting out of their way.
The entire campaign, it seems to me, has been a test of that proposition. The result of that test has been both predictable and conclusive. Donald Trump does not listen to his advisers because, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, he thinks he knows better than they do. Even during the campaign, when deferring to the campaign professionals was clearly in his best interest and the feed-back loop was relatively simple, he has consistently proved to be incapable of exercising a modicum of self-restraint. I suppose that the Presidency might change him, but I’m not prepared to bet the planet on it — which is what putting him in the White House would do.
So how do we explain rational voters backing an irrational candidate? It’s actually not so difficult. We’ve been thinking a lot, during the fall holiday season, about how to overcome the temptation of the yetzer harah, which is the inclination that is in all of us that makes us vulnerable — to a greater or lesser degree — to the temptation to do that which we know to be wrong. One of the yetzer harah’s most common tricks is to lead us down the path toward sin little by little, so that at the culmination of the process, we end up doing things that we never would have done at the outset.
A similar process has been at work in this election campaign. Had the voters known from the outset of the campaign everything that they know now about Donald Trump, it’s hard to imagine that any significant number of Orthodox Jews would have supported him. But that is not the way it happened. Instead, only a few of Trump’s more egregious faults were apparent initially, making it possible for those whose visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton and/or loyalty to the Republican party so inclined them to persuade themselves that Trump was the lesser of the two evils that were on the ballot. Little by little, as the campaign went on, they learned more about what set Trump apart from normal candidates — both because of revelations of past conduct and because of continued egregious conduct in the course of the campaign.
After months of focusing their attention on Hillary’s faults and ignoring or downplaying Trump’s, many of Trump’s supporters have had a considerable investment of time, effort and reputation in the proposition that Hillary Clinton is a greater evil than Donald Trump. Had they known from the beginning that multiple women have credibly accused him of sexual assault and that he would threaten to prosecute his opponent if he won and openly raise the specter of violent resistance if he lost, many of them — especially the Orthodox Jews among them — might well have weighed the candidates’ faults differently.
By the time the campaign reached the point at which the falsity of that position was self-evident, many supporters’ psychic investment was so great that the emotional toll of changing position was formidable. Rather than admitting that they were wrong from the outset, most Trump supporters have chosen the path that seemed to be of least resistance, the increasingly difficult path of trying to justify the indefensible.
But as the recently completed holiday season taught us, it doesn’t have to be that way. However great the psychic investment in choosing Trump over Clinton, each of us has free will and thus the capacity to change. The initial choice of Trump may have seemed rational, but we now know enough that we can no longer plead ignorance to evade responsibility. The question posed by the Jewish Week is a good one. It’s the answers that are problematic.