Re-evaluating ex-President Trump
Well Rabbi, what do you say now about Trump? In the wake of the events of 6th January, do you still view him as “a breath of exceedingly fresh air” as you once wrote? Or do you now admit that his presidency was a moral stench that has polluted his country? Yours, P. L.
Your challenging question deserves a comprehensive answer
My evaluation of Donald Trump’s strengths and weaknesses of character – you may recall I also termed him “a man with evident human flaws” in that article I wrote seven years ago – has essentially not changed. The very qualities – individualism, chutspa, loyalty, refusal to conform to conventional sterotypes – that so endeared him to half of America and much of the world have now caused much of America and the world at large to view him in a very negative light. The truth is that all these qualities can be unleashed for good or for ill. I, as well as many others, had hoped that he would bring them to bear for the good of his country, our people and the world. Indeed he did so in several areas. But tragically one cannot be blinded to the woeful moral self-annihilation he wrought on 6th January 2021, a day that will sadly live in infamy. Trump has spectacularly borne witness to the corruptive nature of power and adulation and its ability to ignite a powder-keg of self-destruction. He is not the first leader to do so, nor in all likelihood will he be the last.
Trump has been called, not without justification, a divisive figure, a bully, a liar, a cheat and a narcissist. But sadly he is not alone. Many other political leaders in free-world countries, let alone dictatorships, have been found over recent years to possess similar vices if not worse. The difference is that they are careful to try to hide them from the public for as long as they can whereas Donald Trump was unswervingly transparent about everything he did and said.
The leading talmudic sage Rabban Gamaliel spoke wisely when he declared: Beware of politicians for they befriend you only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it suits them but they don’t stand by a person in his hour of need (Avot 2:3).
(The low esteem in which politicians are held has scarcely been enhanced by the circus which passed as an impeachment “trial” last week, doomed to failure from the start, a fact acknowledged by even the most optimistic Democrat, yet staged merely as “a matter of principle” – in reality out of hate and vengefulness – when far more important matters, not least the continuing Covid-19 crisis in the US, were begging to be addressed.)
So granted politics is not among the most trusted professions, where does Trump rank in the scale? Is he really so near the bottom? Our Sages furnish a clue when they weigh up the relative demerits of a ganav (stealthy thief) and a gazlan (open robber). They come to the conclusion that a ganav is worse. Whereas a gazlan is equally unafraid of G-d and man, a ganav shows he is afraid of man but unfazed that G-D is watching his actions.
President Trump did not fear any adversary. He was unafraid to antagonise the politically-correct fraternity who sadly control much of the US media. As a result he was confronted with unremitting visceral hatred from his political opponents from the word go. Despite it – and herein lies the irony with which his detractors have to contend – he continued to articulate ideological truths that other politicians were afraid to express, and to perform good actions – like the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the tough stance on Iran and the Abraham Accords – which his predecessors failed or were afraid to do. Whatever his motives, for these worthy deeds he will be remembered for good.
It remains to be seen whether the new US administration, keen as they claim to be to eradicate Trumpian falsehood and deception, will have the Trumpian courage to expose and fight the biggest of all lies, namely, that Jews have no historical connection and therefore justifiable claim to the heartlands of Judea and Samaria.
Let’s just for a moment assume the mantle of those who regard Donald Trump only negatively as a delusional. self-obsessed control freak who harboured dictatorship fantasies.
We have been reading about another such historical figure in our shules in recent weeks.According to the Talmudic sage Shmuel, the ‘benign’ Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as viceroy of all Egypt, who magnanimously welcomed the nascent nation of Israel to the country placing the best of the land at their disposal and who was blessed by an appreciative Jacob was the same ‘harsh’ Pharaoh who, after Joseph’s death, set in motion the subjugation process of the burgeoning nation!
Did Pharaoh’s essential character change? No! Both policy decisions were driven by Pharaoh’s own self-interest. It paid for him to treat well the family of his second-in-command whose wisdom and administrative expertise were so essential to the economic wellbeing of Egypt. And it paid (or so he thought) for him to subjugate and enslave the ensuing generation of Israel when it grew exponentially and, in his mind, threatened a take-over of the country. It would seem that the mind can play extraordinary tricks on a power-craving individual inducing a “parallel reality”.
Another powerful monarch who allowed himself to be deluded by his lust for absolute control was Achashverosh (Ahasuerus). When Haman, fuelled by hatred, slanders the Jews of the realm claiming they “do not observe the king’s laws (Esther 3:8), Achashverosh’s ego is piqued to the extent he does not even bother to investigate before entrusting Haman with the power to exterminate the Jewish nation. Much later, as a result of both the threat to his power from Haman and the discovery that Haman is seeking to annihilate the nation to which his beloved wife bears allegiance, he calls for Haman’s head (7:9). Yet when Esther falls at his feet begging him to rescind the decree of genocide, his super-inflated ego will not allow him to agree! An edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot possibly be revoked! (8:8). Mordechai and Esther have instead to come up with a plan-B whereby the king issues a second decree not contradicting the first nor in any way imputing error on the part of the monarch but merely stating that the Jews have his authorisation to defend themselves! (8:11).
Nevertheless – and here is the key point – the good that both Pharaoh and Achashverosh caused to our nation, albeit that it was done through lf-interested motives, does not go unappreciated in our sources. The Torah states (Deut 23:8): “you must not despise an Egyptian for you were a stranger (guest) in his land” “His” clearly denotes Pharaoh. Unlike Moab and Ammon, his progeny may marry into Am Yisrael after three generations. We spill sixteen drops of wine at our Seder in sympathy for the Egyptian drowning in the Reed Sea. And we refrain from saying Hallel in its entirety on the anniversary of that drowning, the seventh day of Pesach, for the same reason! (See T. B. Megila 10b). As for Achashverosh, Mordechai begins and ends the Megila with fulsome praise of the monarch and his glory (1:1; 10:2). Moreover, in the Shoshanat Yaakov poem that we intone at the conclusion of the Megila reading on Purim, Achashverosh, despite his latent hatred of the Jews (see Esther Raba 7:20), is noticeably not among those whom we imprecate.
The ways of G-D are wondrous indeed. Pharaoh had a “Jewish” (or at least strictly monotheistic) daughter, Batya, who saved the leader of our nation. Achashverosh had a Jewish son, Darius who authorised the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And Donald Trump has a Jewish daughter, Ivanka, who, together with her husband, has helped ensure that Trump has, against all expectation, been the most philo-Semitic president in US history.
We can and should condemn Trump’s incitement to anarchic revolt on January 6 as well as his failure to unreservedly denounce the deplorable violence. But we must not damn the man or resort to equally deplorable vindictiveness as his political enemies are doing., As I have no doubt written before, it is ironic that while it is Orthodox Judaism which is often seen in black-and-white hues (and it is true that in areas of halacha something can be either mutar, permitted or assur, forbidden), in fact Torah wisdom encourages us to view human behaviour in more nuanced hues. (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot.) We are not born either good or evil. We all have a yetser tov and a yetser ra, a good and bad inclination and can use the natural character-traits with which we are endowed for good or for ill or for a mix of both.
Donald John Trump has done much good albeit that he has also exhibited for full public view the baser side of his character. Unlike both Pharaoh and Achashverosh he has been only good for the Jews. Hopefully in the long-term, history will view his presidency as a whole in a lighter shade of grey. And we as Jews and lovers of Israel must continue, despite his negative character-traits, to be grateful to him for his extraordinary and hopefully continuing friendship