This was supposed to be the election that engendered a new wave of Jewish Republicans. After eight years of a Barack Obama presidency that frustrated many Jews on both sides of the aisle, 2016 was primed for a heavier Jewish vote on the Republican ticket. While a majority of Jews in the United States have voted Democrat in every election since 1920, 29 percent of American Jews identified as Republican in 2014, according to a Gallup poll, up from 22 percent in 2008.
But with Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president, even Jews who are registered Republicans remain divided over whether or not they can support their party’s nominee.
Trump received 49 percent of the vote of Americans living in Israel, whereas Hillary Clinton received 44 percent. Support for the Republican candidate has dropped in this demographic significantly, as Mitt Romney received 85 percent of the vote in 2012. Voter turnout was extremely low, with a majority expressing distrust of both major party candidates.
If Israel is any indication, Republican Jewish support is significantly down, and, in a bizarre turn of events, the man Trump once strongly denounced as being a racist may be to blame.
This isn’t Trump’s first attempt at the presidency. In 1999, encouraged by his friend Jesse Ventura, Trump officially renounced his GOP affiliation to campaign as a candidate for the Reform Party. His campaign lasted until February of 2000. No longer believing a win possible, Trump ended his campaign and distanced himself from the Reform Party, which, at the time, included Patrick Buchanan and David Duke. Trump was clear that the anti-Semitism of both men was problematic to him, bluntly declaring Duke to be, “a bigot, a racist, a problem.”
Sixteen years later, Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and current candidate for U.S. Senate, has been a vocal member of the choir of white supremacists in support of Trump. Duke called a vote for any other candidate to be a “treason to your heritage.” That Duke and other white nationalists are excited about a Muslim immigration ban and a wall to keep out Mexicans is not shocking: These are unabashedly racist and xenophobic individuals. They view racial integration as anathema, and they fear the extinction of white culture.
Trump has thus occupied a strange nexus within this election: He’s earned support by the likes of Duke (though Trump continues to deny knowing him), but has a Jewish son-in-law (and daughter, as Ivanka converted).
By religious code, Ivanka’s children are Jewish — a fact that has seemingly bolstered support for his presidency, some even likening Ivanka to the biblical Queen Esther. With someone so involved in a possible Trump presidency being Jewish, the belief that Jewish interests will be represented encourages his Jewish supporters.
“Trump has been playing footsie with the white supremacists. He’s dog-whistling right to these people,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The chatter on several white nationalist websites agrees with Beirich’s assessment. Many white nationalists are willing to put aside any distrust of Trump stemming from his connections with Jewish people because they believe his silence in the face of accusations of anti-Semitism and racism speaks volumes. It doesn’t hurt that 62 percent of the retweets by Trump’s official Twitter account — which he insists he controls — are from white supremacists, according to New York magazine.
“Everyone keeps pointing to the fact that he has a Jewish daughter for why he’ll be ‘good for Jews,’ but the fact that he indulges the people who would hate his daughter and grandchildren should give any Jew pause.”
In spite of this troubling trend, however, Trump maintains Jewish supporters, and they are not a negligible faction. Jews Choose Trump, an organization which boasts of several thousand members in various chapters throughout the U.S., believes Trump to be a friend and defender of Israel. According to its website, Jews Choose Trump recalls the Iran deal as a moment of unified opposition in American Jewry. Since Trump has called the Iran deal the worst agreement ever signed by a free people, the organization trusts that Trump shares their goal of protecting the Jewish state. “Trump has pledged to not pressure Israel in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” says Carol Greenwald, the group’s chairman. “The Democratic Party is heavily influenced by progressives who believe in boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning the Jewish State.”
But when it comes to the Duke endorsement and other shades of anti-Semitism in the Trump campaign, Greenwald is unconvinced. “This smearing of Trump as a racist and anti-Semite is outrageous and is what makes me fear for the future of our democratic institutions,” she says. “Anti-Semitism today is a danger from the left, not the right.”
Like many other Trump supporters, Jews Choose Trump cites Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, which includes promoting peace in Israel, his desire to investigate anti-Israel intimidation on college campuses in the U.S., and the prospect of Syrian refugees entering the U.S. as unique threats under a Clinton presidency as reasons for their endorsement.
“[Clinton] wants to bring in to the U.S. tens of thousands of Syrians, all of whom have been raised in a culture of profound anti-Semitism,” Greenwald says. That doesn’t sound so different from Duke, who himself writes about the danger of allowing Syrian immigrants into the U.S.
Of course, not all Jewish conservatives side with Greenwald. Many agree with the assessment that Trump is not himself anti-Semitic, but that he is intentionally pandering to this rabid fan base. New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz, who identifies as a conservative Jew, does not support Trump, nor does she buy his Jewish supporters’ defense.
“Everyone keeps pointing to the fact that he has a Jewish daughter for why he’ll be ‘good for Jews,’ but the fact that he indulges the people who would hate his daughter and grandchildren should give any Jew pause,” she says. “He can’t not know that he has this online army who hates Jews, and the fact that he doesn’t do or say anything to let them know he doesn’t stand with them is a real issue.”
Markowicz is also skeptical of Trump’s promises on Israel. “I can’t think of a single issue where he hasn’t substantially reversed himself, and Israel is no different. He has said that Israel would have to give up a lot to make a deal, and he’s said that he would be neutral when it came to Israel, a position that most people understand means anti-Israel,” she says.
Aside from some overlap in policy support, white supremacist Trump supporters and Jewish Trump supporters have this in common: Neither is willing to acknowledge the existence of the other. When asked about Trump’s possible signaling of white supremacists during a recent discussion about international banking, Greenwald had strong words: “This is outrageous smearing and you should be ashamed of yourself for repeating it.” And while calls to Duke’s campaign headquarters were not answered, a search of several white supremacist message board finds the only mention of Jewish Trump support coming from Trump detractors, pointing out the hypocrisy.
It would seem this cognitive dissonance is necessary for each group to remain enthusiastic about their candidate.