The Substitute Storyline: What a Trump Victory Means for American Jewry

Photo by Gage Skidmore via WikiMedia Commons
Photo by Gage Skidmore via WikiMedia Commons

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Days ago I had prepared an article examining Hillary Clinton’s impending victory! Indeed, the polls projected her as the likely winner, just as commentators were outlining her roadmap to the Presidency.

None of that would in fact occur. This election has fundamentally shocked mainstream voters. So what happened to generate this historic, unexpected outcome? Probably many factors will be listed as part of a fundamental misreading of the American electorate in 2016. This election has accentuated the deep political divide and cultural disconnect that exists within the American public. Pollsters simply did not take into account the levels of discontent that manifested Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency.

Many pundits dismissed the Trump campaign as amateurish and as a poorly organized effort to have the necessary impact or structure to win a national campaign. Yet, the so-called “battleground states” suddenly on Tuesday evening multiplied as state after state became a potential Trump road to victory. In the end, Trump’s message more than his lack of grassroots organizing won the day.

The nation will be revisiting this election for weeks to come, assessing what happened in this campaign, allowing for some analysts to suggest that this electoral tsunami represented another Brexit-type vote, where Americans were pushing back against the forces of globalism, social change and political correctness. Here, a political outsider would redefine American politics and reshape this nation’s destiny.

More dramatically, this outcome will have a profound and devastating effect on many American Jewish voters who were aligned with the Clinton campaign. For these mainstream Jewish Democrats this loss can be seen as very personal. Beyond the notion of electing the first woman to the Presidency, this was a contest over social values. With the repudiation of Mrs. Clinton will also come a very different domestic political ideology that will impact the future of the Supreme Court, potentially change the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, and alter the medical options for Obama care beneficiaries. This election represents for liberal Jews a fundamental revolution potentially overturning and challenging much that a generation of activists has fought to achieve and protect.

Likewise, for many Jewish Republicans who earlier had stepped away from supporting their party’s nominee for an array of reasons this may be a bitter sweet moment. On the one hand pleased to see a positive Republican outcome in connection with the House and Senate, these GOP Jewish voters remain uncertain about the impact of a Trump Presidency.

The Great Social Disconnect: Many of the issues that propelled Trump voters were reflective of constituencies that are geographically and culturally detached from the Jewish community. Indeed, the social, political and economic divisions that separate rural and working class voters from urban, college-educated Americans represents a core challenge to the future of this democracy. On the one hand the Jewish community could be seen by these angry and disappointed voters as a target of their frustration, yet it will be essential for Jewish activists in coalition with others to respond to the challenges raised by this segment of the electorate.

The political credibility of our leaders will likewise be tested. Should government fail to address the pain and disconnect of a significant sector of our citizens, many of whom placed their trust in Mr. Trump, this nation could experience a serious political upheaval, creating even a deeper divide between these very different constituencies. Our new President will need to act with great speed and determination in order to demonstrate to both supporters and those who voted in opposition that this nation can and will be responsive to the issues raised in this campaign.

Healing a Fractured Nation: This campaign has tragically left a negative and dangerous cultural imprint. The rise of a new wave of ethnic, racial and class intimidation and conflict, where the 2016 campaign has inspired and given license for some to freely slander and attack their fellow citizens, including Jewish Americans. This assault on the pluralistic and diverse character of this society threatens the very tenets of American democracy and has created an environment within this nation where the politics of hate has been given renewed license.

Our community has an essential role to play in healing the social fractures of our nation. This campaign has taught all of us that many in this country are financially in trouble, fearful of the future and lacking in trust that neither government nor its leaders can or will be able to repair the economic and social rift that has occurred. One would hope that a Trump Presidency would echo different messages and policies than the ones articulated over the course of the campaign, in order to assure those who did not embrace his candidacy that this new President is committed to inclusion and fairness.

Responding to Anti-Semitism and Racism: Left unaddressed, the seeds of hate and anger now present within our culture can become the bedrock for more radical expressions of racial and ethnic tension. The Trump candidacy gave rise to a deeply embedded presence of anti-Semitism within this society, expressed most directly on social media, in public actions and through websites promoting conspiratorial notions of “Jewish” influence. In the aftermath of this election, our national community relations agencies have an opportunity to study the political mindset of Americans, especially those who have lost hope and confidence in the promise of the American dream as a way to design and promote efforts at healing the divide that separates groups, while advancing intergroup understanding. Allowed to fester, this grass roots hatred will give rise to more definitive and dangerous forms of anti-Semitism.

But just as Jews must push back against the threats of political hate on the right, our community must mobilize to offset attacks directed against the State of Israel and the Jewish community emminating from the political left, as expressed through the BDS Movement and from religious, ethnic and racial groups on campus and beyond. Across the globe and within the United Nations, this assault on Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel needs to take priority.

Assessing Jewish Political Practice: In the aftermath of this election, as we analyze the Jewish vote and assess the political heft of our community, how might we assess our clout and the centrality of our agenda in comparison to other communities? What we learn about ourselves will be essential in furthering our understanding about how Jews employ their influence.

While Jews remain an important constituency within the American framework of politics, we are seen as more valuable and significant for our financial prowess than our voting imprint. The new road of Jewish influence is no longer how Jews vote but in what measure their dollars are supporting candidates and political parties. As the percentage of Jewish voters in relationship to other constituencies continues to decline, the percentage of Jewish political giving continues to accelerate.

Challenges to the American-Israel Connection: How President-Elect Trump will embrace the complexities of the Middle East and the Israel connection in particular, will in part depend on his base of Jewish supporters who will most certainly encourage Mr. Trump to strengthen the Washington-Jerusalem partnership. It will be interesting to monitor this President as he constructs a foreign policy borne out of little exposure to the complexities of international diplomacy and moves to determine what role the United States will play in world affairs.

Examining Technology and Politics: As social media has transformed American politics, Jewish organizations in cooperation with both private and public institutions ought to examine the impact of these new modes of communication on how best to promote a framework for responsible political messaging without denying the rights of citizens to express their ideas and preferences.

Promoting Election Reform: The Jewish community must join with others in addressing the negative impact of this election as an impediment to the growing and strengthening of American democracy. Critical reforms will be needed in connection with the nation’s political parties, our states and their election procedures, and the national guidelines on campaign funding. Tackling Citizens United ought to be seen as a bipartisan effort designed to strip away undo corporate influence within our election cycle.

Rebuilding America: This moment in time affords our social service network of institutions an extraordinary opportunity to partner with government in helping to infuse resources and expertise in providing services to our rural and inner city communities by responding to such issues as unemployment, drugs, housing and education. The issues of infrastructure, community services and social planning may offer Israeli humanitarian institutions the possibility of sharing their experiences with America’s cities, towns and rural communities.

Moving Forward: This is a critical juncture in our national saga. Preserving and strengthening our democracy must represent a core challenge for our community. As Jews, we are deeply invested in the success of the American enterprise; it will be incumbent on our community and its institutions to ensure the future of our democracy by joining with others in advancing the public interest and in promoting the general welfare. As part of advancing the great American story, Jews have worked across party lines and with those with whom we may have political disagreements in the past in order to achieve what is best for this nation, and we will do so again!

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.