This was the year that anti-Semitism went mainstream again. On Tuesday, American Jews will have a chance to register their vote about a presidential candidate whose campaign has trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric, symbols, and organizations unlike any other seen in recent years. When politically conservative Jews go to vote, they will have to decide whether they can pull the lever or touch the screen in favor of Donald Trump after all of this has been so prevalent in his campaign.
We don’t know what Trump is thinking behind the scenes. Many of his supporters have pointed to the very obvious fact that his son-in-law is Jewish, his daughter is a Jew by choice, and together they are raising a religiously observant family in New York City. Trump has denied repeatedly that he has any sympathy whatsoever with the venom that has been unleashed against the Jewish community in the course of this campaign.
Regardless of his intention, though, it is undeniable that the Republican campaign has done more than any other in modern U.S. history to connect a mainstream party to this sentiment. Indeed, the closing ad of the Trump campaign is really shocking. Trump says: “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.” Viewers see images of the billionaire George Soros, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein, CEO and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, all of whom are Jews.
Trump’s words come directly from the audio of a speech that he delivered in Palm Beach about a global conspiracy, after which he came under heavy attack for employing the kind of words used in the Protocols of Zion. “This is an anti-Semitics ad,” wrote Josh Marshall, “every bit as much as the infamous Jesse Helms ‘white hands’ ad or the Willie Horton ad were anti-African-American racist ads. Which is to say, really anti-Semitic.” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released a statement that said: “We denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the use of contemptuous and historically anti-Semitic tropes in the recent campaign ad of presidential candidate Donald Trump. References to ‘the establishment’ and a ‘global power structure,’ juxtaposed over images of Jewish public figures, create thinly-veiled allusions to centuries-old anti-Semitic propaganda. This latest ad is, regrettably, part of a pattern of the use of such words and imagery that has been repeated by the Trump campaign over many months.”
Indeed, this is not the first time that this has been a problem in the Trump campaign. A number of journalists have documented the close connections that have emerged between Donald Trump and the white-nationalist groups who are part of what is euphemistically called the “Alt-Right.” These organizations have heard the words that he utters as speaking directly to their concerns about the threats that face white Anglo-Saxon America. Trump and his campaign are aware of this passion for his campaign, yet they have done little at any point to pull back from these kinds of incendiary statements. Nobody was surprised when the Ku Klux Klan’s official newspaper endorsed Trump with the banner headline—“Make America Great Again!”
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When CNN Anchor Jake Tapper confronted Trump months ago about the endorsement of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Trump simply refused to condemn him. He told Tapper he didn’t know who Duke was, or the kinds of organizations he was associated with. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” he insisted. Although he later repudiated the endorsement, it wasn’t until his initial stubbornness, something of a dog-whistle to those groups, was out there. The Twitter campaign for Trump has been driven by an energized army of anti-Semitic and white nationalist writers who have unleashed their venom on Jewish journalists and filled social media with hateful and threatening words. His campaign has retweeted tweets from these sources and sometimes used visual images from their camps.
There were many moments in the past few decades where Republicans hoped that they could peel away the Jewish vote from the Democratic Party. Starting with Ronald Reagan, there was an ongoing effort, particularly by neoconservatives who used to be Democrats, to find wedge issues like Israel that would allow for a shift in partisan loyalty. Although there were a few elections like 1980 where there was some movement of Jews from blue to red (Reagan won 39 percent of their vote, the best since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, who won 40 percent), overall this ongoing campaign has been a failure. The predictions of a conservative moment for Republicans with Jewish voters have been overblown. George W. Bush tried to do this around national security following 9/11, while Mitt Romney hoped that Jewish unease with Barack Obama’s policies toward Israel would lead to an exodus. All of them were wrong. Obama won about 69 percent of the Jewish vote in his campaign against Romney. American Jews have remained firmly within the Democratic camp, one of the party’s most loyal constituencies.
While Trump made some efforts to appeal to Jewish voters on issues like Israel and the Iran deal, what is more striking is how he took a very different path. In some ways, he has given up their support from the start. It is not a surprise, as Yair Rosenberg has written for Tablet, that many of the top non-Trump Republicans have been Jews (John Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, and Jonah Goldberg among them). “I was wrong,” Ben Shapiro wrote in National Review, “I’ve spent most of my career arguing that anti-Semitism in the United States is almost entirely a product of the political Left … The anti-Semitism I’d heard about from my grandparents—the country-club anti-Semitism, the alleged white supremacist leanings of rednecks from the backwoods—was a figment of the imagination, I figured. I figured wrong.”
Trump has run a campaign that will do inordinate damage to conservative efforts to win over the Jewish vote. His campaign has made anti-Semitism legitimate at the very top of a major-party ticket. If American Jews vote decisively against witnessing this kind of anti-Semitism as part of the Republican campaign, the electoral damage could last for decades to come. At a minimum the Trump campaign will make it difficult for the Republicans to appeal beyond the 30 percent of the Jewish vote secured by Romney. If any Jewish Democrats or independents were on the fence about whether to switch parties, Trump will give them plenty of reason to stay put. It is also very possible that his campaign will cause Democrats to make deeper inroads into that vote, even among orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities that have identified with the GOP but will have trouble affiliating with a party whose standard-bearer has run this kind of campaign.
2016 could be like the moment starting in 1964 when African Americans registered their vote for Democratic support of civil rights, and just as important, against Senator Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act that year. They never looked back. Many experts expect that Trump could do more than any recent candidate to lock in the Democratic advantage among African American, female, and Hispanic voters.
The damage that Trump might cause the GOP with the American Jewish community won’t go away any time soon, either. It won’t be easy for Republicans to put this dangerous sentiment back in the bottle.