CLEVELAND – The slogans of a fringe, haphazard, made-for-television presidential campaign were institutionalized by the Republican Party this week in Ohio, where the halls of its national convention were plastered with Donald Trump’s most memorable lines.
On hats and T-shirts, across big screens and in chants by delegates are calls for the return of a bygone American era – if it ever existed – when small town residents kept their front doors unlocked, when white Christians were the majority, and when the United States turned inward from the world ostensibly to work on itself.
“Make America Great Again” and “America First” are slogans intended to evoke this politically luring past, and have prompted Democratic figures – including Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee – to cast the GOP as backward. It was a campaign strategy that worked for President Barack Obama in 2012 during his fight with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a far more moderate figure on the American political spectrum: “Forward, not back,” the Democrats charged, repeatedly.
Particularly unusual in this campaign has been the GOP nominee’s willingness to, in his words, “tell it like it is” without concern for political correctness. How Trump describes the way “it is,” however, reveals a worldview that is largely unrecognizable or otherwise threatening to a great majority of American Jews, who culturally identify with the experiences of immigrants and other religious minorities.
The undercurrents sweeping the Republican Party off its feet today – populist, illiberal urges that have historically repelled American Jews from the GOP – are the same forces that have propelled Trump’s candidacy. And the consequences of this moment for the future of the Jewish vote will reverberate for many years to come.
Longstanding Republican promises of American leadership abroad, of respect for the private lives of all children of God, of religious liberty protections, of strict interpretation of the Constitution, and of pioneering liberal democratic values across the Middle East – all appealing, or at least inoffensive, policy prescriptions to a sizable portion of American Jews – are by no means embraced by the Trump campaign.
The candidate has, to the contrary, called for cuts in foreign aid to NATO and America’s closest allies, for religious tests and the monitoring of Muslim communities, for a flexible Constitution that “doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide as a country, okay?” and for largely withdrawing from the Middle East, save for the targeting of Islamic extremists and their family members.Trump says that under his direction
, the 2016 Republican Party Platform is the most “pro-Israel ever” – rejecting characterization of Israel as an “occupier” and withdrawing the party’s decade-long support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But most American Jews do not prioritize Israel when voting, and a large majority believe that endorsement of a two-state solution is a pro-Israel position.
Data from a GBA Strategies survey conducted during the 2014 midterm elections showed that Jewish voters care most about economic and welfare matters, with 44 percent citing the economy as their top issue and 31% chiefly concerned with health care. Another poll from the 2012 presidential election, released by non-partisan PRRI, found that a mere 4% of Jews listed Israel as a top voting priority.
Regardless of how American Jews prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, GBA found that 85% support a two-state outcome and active American engagement toward that end, even at the risk of public disagreement.
More importantly for the GOP: Of the merely 19% of American Jews who identify as conservative, 43% of those believe in a peaceful outcome that results in two states for two peoples, according to yet another poll from the Pew Research Center.
While anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric has cropped up repeatedly throughout this campaign – prompting Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to accuse Trump earlier this week of tolerating anti-Semitism – the candidate’s rhetoric toward Muslims risks ostracizing Jewish voters perhaps more than any other issue.
According to Pew, 56% of the community considers “working for justice and equality” as an “essential part of what it means to be Jewish.” PRRI found that eight in 10 Jewish Americans consider tikkun olam, “healing the world,” as somewhat or very important to their political philosophy. Over 70% prioritize “welcoming the stranger,” and a majority say their belief that all people are made in the image of God informs their political activity.
These numbers, more than any other, are at the very heart of American Jewish support for Democrats going back to the 1930s and ’40s, according to Mark Mellman, one of the country’s leading pollsters and founder of the Mellman Group.
“The truth is, we don’t have a tremendous amount of data before 1972,” said Mellman, who worked on a study titled the Solomon Project that researched the topic. Minority groups coalesced around Franklin Delano Roosevelt before support dropped slightly in the ’60s and ’70s, reaching a low point in Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign in 1980.
From 1984 onward, Jewish support for Democrats has remained consistently high, with seven in 10 voting Democratic, on average.
“That’s when you saw an alliance between the Republican Party and Evangelical Christians that are very conservative on social issues, and seem hostile to the pluralistic interests of the American Jewish community,” Mellman said. “So that concern has now been transferred from the Evangelical community to the Republican Party at large, and has driven Democratic support, because American Jews generally believe that a pluralistic America is what allows them to be comfortable and successful in this country.”
Mellman cast doubt on figures suggesting the Jewish community does not prioritize Israel. But as a general rule, he said, the community is “fundamentally concerned” above all with threats to American pluralism – “the very factor that has made American Jews succeed."
“Certainly, the Trump phenomenon only serves to reinforce this tradition, because Trump is in fact opposed to pluralism by any definition,” Mellman added.
Trump’s hostile posture toward Mexican immigrants and Muslims – “Islam hates us,” he famously declared in March, after promising to build a southern wall – is therefore interpreted by American Jews as a direct threat against their own community, because a leader willing to erode the minority protections of one group ultimately sets a precedent for the targeting of any other, including of the Jewish people, historic scapegoats for the world’s passing problems.
Jewish support for Democrats is therefore less about multiculturalism than it is about self-preservation – in other words, protecting the rights and dignity of Mexicans and Muslims means protecting the rights and dignity of American Jews.
Jews account for 5% of the voter population of Florida, a key swing state, as well as sizable voter populations in critical districts of Colorado, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs at J Street – a Democrat-oriented group which primarily lobbies in favor of a two-state solution – characterized the nomination of Trump as a “frightening” example of “demagoguery and groupthink.”
“Seeing an arena full of people draped in the flag angrily boo the mere mention of refugees was a gut punch to me as a Jew and an American,” he said. “The tide of vitriol Trumpism has helped unleash against Muslims and others is sickeningly familiar to Jews.”