One Year After: Donald Trump’s Presidency and American Jewry

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By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

One year ago (November 8th, 2016) American voters elected Donald Trump as their 45th President. For a significant number of Jewish Americans this was a traumatic moment, one that many had not anticipated. In response to last year’s election, Jews who had opposed the Trump candidacy report greater involvement on behalf of various political causes. In turn, the President’s Jewish supporters have galvanized around him, defending his actions and promoting his ideas. Regardless of one’s political preference last year, Jews have joined their fellow citizens as active news junkies as Americans have intensified their connection to “the news.”

Over the course of the past year, I had occasion to reflect on different aspects of the Trump Presidency and its impact on American Jewry. More precisely, six months into the President’s term, I noted five specific outcomes:

  • Political Re-Engagement: The Rise of Social Activism
  • Financial Investment: Increased Giving for Particular Causes
  • A Cultural Renaissance: Programs Reflective of the New Political Climate
  • The Deeping Divide: The Sharpening of the Sword
  • Political Warning Signals: The Significant Upturn in Anti-Semitism

Since that moment in time, these specific characteristics, along with others, continue to dominate the communal scene. The bottom line, there is a Jewish political revival underway.

The Jewish Response to Trump:

We should recall that Donald Trump received 24% of the “Jewish vote,” well below the more recent numbers garnered by Republican presidential candidates. Further, it is important to note that in this past election Jews did not vote in the same high percentages that has defined their past political performance. The evidence suggests that a significant segment of Jewish Millennials (8-10%) who had supported Senator Sanders decided not to weigh in on behalf of Mrs. Clinton on Election Day. Similarly, some Jewish Republicans who had embraced other 2016 GOP contenders opted to “sit this one out” or in the end cast ballots for third party candidates, further reducing the overall impact of the Jewish vote. Possibly the most interesting element to this election itself involved the level of Jewish financial participation with the two campaigns, as donors generated record funding to the two political parties.

Beyond the election, this year has been marked by a heightened level of political engagement, involving the growing presence of new Jewish candidates for public office across the country, increased voter registrations, and accelerated giving to public affairs causes, as various Jewish and secular organizations report significant numbers of new donors and record levels of support. Among the nonprofits benefitting from this uptake in giving include Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and the ADL.

Similar degrees of activism can be found within Jewish Republican circles, as supporters launch new fundraising initiatives to assist GOP incumbents and prospective candidates, establish the Republican Jewish Alliance to promote grass roots political organizing, and advance specific policy priorities.

If one wishes to understand the mindset of America’s Jews, it would be necessary to
construct two distinctive political scenarios, as a deep fissure today separates American Jewish voters. In a March (2017) this writer wrote about “Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Jews,” employing these historic characters to define the contemporary Jewish political divisions. The impact of Trump has profoundly altered individual relationships as well as influenced the social dynamics within the Jewish community. The political passions of Jews today meld into their life-style choices and social connections, as friendships have been frayed and dinner conservations disrupted over the current political divide.

The impact of this election has also fundamentally reconstructed Jewish institutional practice and the patterns of communication employed by communal bodies. Some organizations have pulled back from overt political actions or statements, lest they offend particular constituencies, while in other instances, one finds a new degree of organizational activism where specific groups are expressing their opposition to this administration around an array of social policy priorities. Yet, the political minefield has caused many Jewish communal and religious leaders to remain silent in lieu of the sharp divisions that comprise their membership base.

In this political atmosphere Jews are seen battling one another over the policies and actions of this White House. Is the Trump Presidency “good” for America, frames the ongoing debate within the country, and no more so than amongst Jewish Americans? For some who define their politics through the lens of Jewish self-interests, the President’s popularity is directly linked to his credentials on Israel and Jewish priorities; for others, it involves their universal values in conflict with the President’s populist, nationalist orientation.

Hate and Politics:

According to the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, since the election of the new President, there has been an uptake in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. These statistics are joined by a growing presence of attacks on immigrants, an increase in race-based hate crimes, and assaults on the gay community. The question remains how much of this is tied to the general political environment extending beyond the President and to what degree has Donald Trump by his words and actions contributed to this heightened level of hate?

While many different issues stimulated Jewish political responses, no subject matter has created more attention than the President’s statements in connection with Charlottesville. Few themes so define Jewish sensibilities than the issue of anti-Semitism. Historically, American Jews have expected this nation’s political leaders to refute such threats in whatever form it may appear. For many, this President’s lack of clarity proved to be particularly problematic.

The Voices Against this Administration:

Among conservative writers and intellectuals, one finds an influential sector including Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, John Podhoretz, David Frum and David Brooks writing in opposition to the populist orientation of Trump Republicanism. If there is a political break on the right, there conceivably could be a more violent response from the left, warns columnist Peter Beinart:

The United States is headed toward a confrontation, the likes of which it has not seen since 1968, between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough.

Just as this nation would experience the anti-War movement of the 1960’s, bringing many young Jews into its ranks, the rise of groups such as the radical left Antifa may well attract disaffected young Jewish activists, some times identified as “Red Diaper Babies” (in some cases the grandchildren or even great grandkids of Jewish socialists and anarchists of the 1930’s).

Unpacking Jewish Reactions:

In the 2017 American Jewish Committee Leadership Survey, involving 1000 individuals, provides us with insights into Jewish political behavior:

  • Among Orthodox Jews 71% were favorable of the President’s performance. In contrast 88% of Reform Jews, 73% of Conservative Jews and 81% of “Just Jewish” indicated an “unfavorable” opinion of the Trump Presidency.
  • In this same study some 54% of Orthodox Jews voted for Mr. Trump, while 89% of Reform Jews and 60% of Conservative Jews, along with 78% of “Just Jewish” voted for Mrs. Clinton.
  • “The survey recorded a significant jump in the number of those who view anti-Semitism as a problem in America. While in 2016, 73% considered it a problem and only 21% viewed it as “very serious,” in 2017 84% say it is a problem, and 41% consider it a “very serious” problem.”

End Notes:

No recent American presidency has so impacted the social behaviors and public culture of this nation as that of the Presidency of Donald Trump. This current eruption in activism may well alter for a generation the landscape of American life and this nation’s political behavior.

Employing social media, this President is fundamentally changing how leaders in the future will communicate with their constituencies, bypassing the traditional media outlets in favor of direct access to the public, employing tweets to deliver personal perspectives on policy matters, political enemies, etc. But will American politics remain as deeply partisan, and will future leaders employ the “Trump card” in dealing with their opponents, the media, and the institutions of government?

The Trump imprint on America’s Jews is no less significant, as this community comes to grips with the striking divisions that define its contours. This past election appears to have changed not only the intensity of Jewish activism but also the types of roles that Jews will be playing in American politics, as this nation moves forward.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: