Jew-baiting is part of the Trump playbook. It's a feature, not a bug

Lloyd Green
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced that American Jews who voted Democratic were either stupid, disloyal or both. As Trump framed things: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Disloyal to Trump, the US or Israel, the president did not specify. But he didn’t have to, the message was clear enough: American Jews are now a cross between political props and piñatas.

Almost on cue, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, eagerly whitewashed Trump’s comments. According to Brooks, Trump’s goal was really about communal therapy, and what Trump actually meant was: “You’re being disloyal to yourself to say, ‘Hey, I support somebody who is known to espouse antisemitic comments.’”

Related: Trump and Netanyahu are playing a bigoted game of chicken

Realizing that he may have bitten off more than he wanted to chew, Brooks later enthusiastically retweeted: “I don’t think for a min he’s questioning our loyalty to America or country.” Sure, he isn’t.

So once again, Jew-baiting will be part of the Trump playbook, just as it was in 2016 and 2018, even if Trump’s allies now proclaim that Jexodus is just around the corner. Old campaign habits die hard, and sometimes not at all.

Three years ago, thinly veiled antisemitic messages from Team Trump were features, not bugs. Pepe the Frog was a constant campaign meme. In July 2016, Trump tweeted out an image of the star of David, Hillary Clinton and piles of money. After the initial stir, the six-pointed star was replaced by Trump with a circle. Still, folks “got it”, on both sides, just like in Charlottesville.

Then just days before the election, George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein took center stage in Trump’s closing ad. Back then Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were not on the stage – someone else would have to make do.

Said differently, religion and ethnicity were fair game for Trump from start to finish, and Jews were not off-limits. As one of Trump’s lawyers told me, it was about expedience, that’s all; nothing personal, just look at Jared Kushner. Or as Steve Bannon confided to Michael Wolff, he couldn’t vouch that Trump wasn’t a racist, but Bannon could say that Trump “probably wasn’t an antisemite”.

History not only rhymes, it can repeat itself. When last year’s midterms rolled around it was pretty much the same story, that is until the Shabbat morning massacre in Pittsburgh. No less than Kevin McCarthy, then the House majority leader, had tweeted and then deleted: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”. The song had remained the same.

The fact that Soros and Steyer had already been targeted by the now convicted pipe bomber, Cesar Sayoc, made no difference to McCarthy. The specter of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker meant that mores could be disregarded, and if that line of attack was good enough for Trump, it was definitely fine for McCarthy. Unlike Paul Ryan, McCarthy was never thought by Trump to be a boy scout. In the congressional midterms, Jews cast between 72 and almost 80% of their votes for Democrats.

Yet Trump has definitely gained traction with segments of America’s Jews. The latest Siena poll of New York’s voters show Trump’s approval among Jews in the Empire state at 57%, a figure higher than Trump’s standing among whites overall, Catholics or Protestants. Likewise, a majority of New York’s Jews say they plan to vote for Trump. With the exception of Republicans and conservatives, Trump’s numbers are underwater with everyone else.

By that measure, the breach within the American Jewish community is not disappearing anytime soon. Instead, expect it to grow. Trump delivered on his promises to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and in shredding the Iran deal struck by Barack Obama. With New York’s large Orthodox Jewish population, these issues possess particular resonance.

The reality also is that Trump has a difficult time putting distance between himself and white nationalists, and takes unvarnished pride in turning up the rhetorical heat. The Proud Boys are his latest love object, and Trump struggled to disavow David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Even with low unemployment Trump feels compelled to scorch the social fabric. On the other hand, ethnic arson is a longtime Trump specialty. Can you say “Obama’s birth certificate”?

Like a Rorschach test, American Jews along with all Americans will see what they want to see, with 2020 looming as another flashpoint. In the midst of our not-so-cold civil war, division is the operative coin of the realm. Expect the president to stomp on these deepening fissures daily without any hesitation or remorse.

  • Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign and served in the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992