By Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America
As someone who lost a 53-year-old parent to cancer, likening President Donald Trump to a cancer is not a metaphor I take lightly. I have experienced, firsthand, cancer’s devastation, and pray others are spared the pain and suffering of this horrific disease. It is with this experience in mind — and because of my deep commitment to Jewish values — that I believe Trump is a cancer afflicting our society. People judge nations by the way those nations treat children and the most vulnerable, and one need look no further than the humanitarian crisis on our southern border to see the state of American values under Trump.
While many had hoped Trumpism would be a relatively benign phenomenon, the hatred, divisiveness and indecency of our current president has proven malignant and metastatic, and the Jewish community has been one of many victims. Some have translated anti-Semitism from Trump’s campaign rhetoric and symbolism into violence, which is why nearly three-quarters of American Jews feel less safe today than before he became president. Whether Trumpism becomes a terminal condition is up to each of us in the next election. We need new leadership to restore to government what truly makes America great: our values and moral leadership.
Like with most diseases, the dangers did not appear overnight. Many saw early signs of Trumpism. For decades, Trump’s employees knew he harbored racist views and trafficked in anti-Semitic stereotypes. A 2016 New York Times investigation revealed a history of racial bias at Trump properties going back to the late 1960s. But the rise of social media and the first African-American U.S. president presented an opportunity for Trump to channel those biases into politics. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, he joined the ranks of racist conspiracy theorists questioning the legitimacy of the Obama presidency and demanding Obama release his birth certificate, passport records and college transcripts. In the ensuing years, Trump became the most prominent promoter of the birther movement. If the movement had not existed, he likely wouldn’t have made it to the point of becoming the Republican nominee for president.
From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he publicly espoused xenophobic and racists views, starting with an accusation that Mexico was sending rapists across the border. Trump’s first remarks as a presidential candidate also indicated his proclivity for lying. He started the speech by mentioning the “thousands” of supporters in Trump Tower, when reporting indicated there were “dozens” of people in the halls, some of whom were paid actors. At the outset of his political career, it was clear Trump was willing to exploit hatred and lies to rise to the top of the Republican field and eventually, the presidency.
Republicans were not blind to the moral corrosion of the Trump presidential candidacy, and some publicly spoke about the early signs. Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), Norm Coleman, absolutely was right when he wrote in a March 2016 op-ed that Donald Trump is “a bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully.” He went on to say that Trump “is not to be trusted to lead our nation’s military in times of peace or war” and “any man who declines to renounce the affections of the KKK and David Duke should not be trusted to lead America. Ever.” This was a prophetic and an accurate diagnosis, and it remains so to this day.
Unfortunately, too few Republicans expressed opposition to Trump, and those who publicly did so were berated and politically ostracized. Decency and tolerance should not be viewed through a partisan lens, but the 2016 election revealed that for some, political expedience took precedence. This was painfully evident as Republicans knowingly overlooked the fact their candidate for president had become the standard bearer for far-right extremists.
In 2016, candidate Trump drew praise and endorsements from white supremacists, including the head of the American Nazi Party, former KKK leaders and more than a dozen individuals affiliated with known hate groups. The alt-right embraced Trump; its propagandist leader, Steve Bannon, served as Trump’s campaign CEO and Trump amplified the movement’s hateful messages online. In July 2016, Trump tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a backdrop of American dollars with a red Star of David. This image originated on a white supremacist website neo-Nazis use to encourage violence against Jews. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) denounced Trump’s closing campaign ad, which featured images of prominent Jews and Hillary Clinton, for its use of a dangerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
On Election Day, Dana Milbank, a leading columnist for The Washington Post, concluded that anti-Semitism was no longer the undertone of Trump’s campaign — it was the melody. Still, there was some denial of the pervasive danger Trumpism posed, which one can attribute to three factors: widespread disbelief, even among Republicans, that Trump actually would win the election; hope that the hatred Trump conveyed was more of a publicity stunt than a reflection of Trump’s true beliefs; and the notion that Jews and other minorities would be inoculated in a Trump presidency by his Jewish daughter and son-in-law.
There is a word for all three of these ideas: denial. No one wanted to face the reality of the disease, but a tumor had been revealed and Jews, especially, recognized it was anything but benign.
Revealing the Malignancy and Metastasis
Since becoming president, Trump has fueled the flames of hatred, resulting in a shocking rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes and proliferation of hate groups. He uses rhetoric that supports xenophobic and racist ideologies, thus giving a green light to those who engage in these behaviors. He has emboldened and aligned with bigots through his selective use of anti-Semitic dog whistles, conspiracy theories and tropes. He has self-identified as a “nationalist,” a term associated with Nazism and white supremacy.
In his inaugural address, Trump presented a warped image of our country by referring to an alternate reality of “American carnage.” To American Jews, this was no more than bizarre hyperbole — until we experienced actual carnage in October 2018, when an armed white supremacist killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on American Jews in history. This horror was repeated exactly six months later at the Chabad of Poway. In addition to using the same kind of assault weapon, the attackers of these two synagogues had something else in common — both echoed Trump’s xenophobia and targeted Jews because of their support of migrants and refugees.
The killers in Pittsburgh and Poway despised Jews for our core value of welcoming the stranger. This is the very value Trump campaigned against and later betrayed with his Muslim ban, failure to protect DREAMers, actions to rip apart migrant families, and inhumane detention of migrant children. Despite these repugnant policies, the two synagogue shooters did not believe Trump went far enough in instituting xenophobic policies, and they blamed Jews for influencing his views. The motivating ideology behind these horrific and unprecedented attacks on our places of worship was eerily similar to that which neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, espoused and who chanted, “Jews will not replace us [with immigrants].”
Trump’s pathetic response to the events in Charlottesville — equating neo-Nazis with those peacefully protesting them — solidified the malignancy of his presidency. And lest there be any doubt of the intent of his remarks after the tragic killing of a protestor in Charlottesville, Trump defended his description of white supremacists as “very fine people” less than 24 hours before the shooting in Poway.
In the Age of Trump, American Jews now are conducting active shooter drills during synagogue services and adding security guards to protect against anti-Semitic hate crimes, which dramatically have risen on Trump’s watch. According to the Anti-Defamation League, American Jews experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, constituting a 48 percent increase in the number of incidents from 2016, and a 99 percent increase from 2015. The number of anti-Semitic assaults increased 105 percent last year.
To put a finer point on it, despite Trump’s well-known anti-Muslim bigotry and public denial of white nationalism as a rising global threat, right-wing extremists were responsible for all the physical anti-Semitic attacks extremists perpetrated in 2018, and Muslim extremists were responsible for none of them. One can debate whether Trump himself is a racist or an anti-Semite, but there is little doubt that racists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists believe he is both those things and see him as their ally.
Jews aren’t the only victims of this metastatic wave of hate, and its impact has not been limited to the United States. According to the FBI, 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. targeted Jews in 2017. Nearly 19 percent of such crimes targeted Muslims, which represented a historical high, despite under-reporting in the Muslim-American community of such crimes. Additionally, as the horrific massacre at two mosques in New Zealand demonstrated, Trump has inspired perpetrators of violence outside the United States. Moreover, nationalist movements are growing globally, and Trump has embraced warmly anti-Semitic nationalist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish President Andrzej Duda in recent weeks. This sends a clear message to other world leaders that there is no price to pay for condoning or encouraging anti-Semitism, and normalizes such behavior worldwide.
Response of the Jewish Community
The Jewish community overwhelmingly rejected Trump in the 2016 election, with less than one-quarter of Jewish voters supporting him, according to exit polling. This is because Trump’s position on nearly every issue is antithetical to Jewish values and misaligned with the policy priorities of the Jewish electorate, who deeply care about providing access to affordable health care, enacting sensible gun safety reforms, protecting the environment, defending reproductive rights, implementing humane immigration reform, and combatting discrimination and intolerance. On every single one of these issues, Trump has embraced policies that contradict the values and views of an overwhelming majority within the Jewish community.
Contrary to Trump’s recent false claims of Jews leaving the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Research Center, Jewish support for Republicans decreased even further in the 2018 midterms to just 17 percent, which was halved since the 2014 midterms, when 33 percent of Jews supported Republicans. This downward trend in Jewish support for the GOP is a result of the fact that the Republican Party under Trump is completely out of step with American Jews, and largely has been silent in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
A recent poll Greenberg Research conducted of 1,000 Jewish voters shows that in addition to a wide range of domestic policy issues, Jews now are voting on their own perceived insecurity, and 73 percent of Jews feel less safe today than they did two years ago. This poll also revealed that nearly 60 percent of Jewish voters believe Trump has at least some responsibility for the shootings at the synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, and 71 percent of Jewish voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism. Trump’s “encouraging ultra-right extremists committing violent acts” ranked as the highest concern of Jewish voters related to security, and the leading response when asked how to improve the security of Jews, was to elect candidates with “the right values.”
Still, a small minority within the Jewish community has checked its original rejection of Trump at the door of the Oval Office. This includes the chair of the RJC, who, despite his previous denunciation of Trump, recently embraced Trump by reciting his own rendition of “dayenu” in an expression of gratitude for all the president allegedly has done for Israel. This willful blindness of Trump’s record on anti-Semitism — predicated on the misconception that he has been good for Israel — is misguided for two reasons.
First, Republicans and Democrats (including me) strongly — and repeatedly — denounced anti-Semitic tropes and generalizations when invoked earlier this year by two freshman Democratic congresswomen, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), yet Republicans have responded with a deafening silence when Trump himself used similar rhetoric on more than one occasion, including the past two times he spoke to the RJC.
Second, the misconception that Trump has been good for Israel is fundamentally flawed because it overlooks the recklessness of his foreign policy and disregards his lack of results and strategy.
Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is no substitute for the hard work required to ensure Israel’s security, including preserving prospects for a two-state solution. But the GOP removed references to a two-state solution from its 2016 platform, rejecting decades of bipartisan pro-Israel consensus shortly before Trump came to office. More recently, the Trump administration chose not to include any reference to two states in its nascent “peace” plan. This has elicited sharp criticism from unwavering Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently said there’s no viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the absence of a two-state solution and who threatened not to provide assistance to any plan that results in one state.
As with so many issues, Trump threatens to undermine the long-term trajectory of the U.S.-Israel relationship by making it all about him and what he deems good politics. Never before has a relationship between a U.S. president and Israeli prime minister been as politicized as that which we’ve seen between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Never before has a U.S. president intervened in Israel’s democracy in the unprecedented way Trump meddled in the recent Israeli election and coalition-building process. Leaders and political parties in power will come and go in both countries, and this critically important relationship must supersede politics to stand the test of time.
As our closest ally in the region, Israel is strongest when America is strong. Trump has isolated the U.S. from our allies, withdrawn from international agreements and aligned with adversaries, thereby weakening our shared national security interests. Trump’s erratic foreign policy has led to increased regional instability, which he most recently demonstrated in his near-stumble into war with Iran. He also has taken action that directly contradicts Israel’s national security interest, including sharing Israeli intelligence with Russia in 2017. Trump also deeply concerned the Israeli security establishment with his shocking announcement — via a tweet — of a precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria in 2018, which would have left Iran with a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean and no security buffer on Israel’s northern border with Syria.
Moreover, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has pushed us further from reaching the primary objective of ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. The nuclear deal was not a perfect deal, but the complete absence of an agreement — and Trump’s utter lack of a strategy for reaching one — is even more flawed and dangerous. As recent Iranian provocations have demonstrated, Trump’s foreign policy has emboldened Iranian hardliners and isolated the United States.
Our Future, Our Choice
As we approach the 2020 election, we have a choice to make. To those in the Jewish community who believe Trump’s misguided policies on Israel constitute justification for overlooking his bigotry: Stop with the “dayenu” and recognize that it’s actually a pejorative “enough.” Trump has been a danger to our community and our country, and no political calculation is worth accepting the moral compromise required to stand by Donald Trump.
Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, those of us who cherish American and Jewish values, including a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, must resist Trump’s reckless policies and insidious politics. Americans must hold Trump responsible for the hatred and division he has sown, and we all have an obligation to combat this dangerous disease by rejecting Trump in 2020 and electing a president who represents our values.
Our future, and that of future generations, depends on it.
Halie Soifer is the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Previously, she served as a national security adviser in the Senate and in the Obama administration.