2016 Election Blog #7: The Trump Phenomenon and the Jews Trouble on the Campaign Trail

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on January 4, 2016 / 23 Tevet 5776

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.


Donald trump

While there will be Jewish supporters of Donald Trump, his rise in the polls, his unsettling language, his controversial messages, and even his disconcerting comments made recently before a Jewish audience have left many Jews unsettled and possibly even alarmed. Yet, why has he been so successful in reflecting the concerns of American voters? Why is his campaign creating concerns for many within our community?

As Yoram Ettinger confirms: “Trump understands the significance of the findings of the December 9 and 15, 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal polls respectively: a staggering majority of 70%: 20% of the public believe that the US is on the wrong track.”1

In the end the question will revolve around whether voters will actually embrace Donald Trump’s candidacy. Namely, will he be able to translate his popularity into concrete voter endorsements?

American Jews are passionate about politics, whether as Democratic partisans or Republican supporters. Yet, their political engagement, as is the case with most Americans, is framed around a set of established principles of acceptable political conduct. Whether thinking about a candidate’s ability to meet an individual voter’s personal expectations or when assessing what voters consider essential attributes for leading the nation, there is a litmus test of both substance and standing that seems to define this selection process. Certainly beyond the ideological makeup of a candidate is the issue of one’s suitability to appear and to act “presidential.” Because politics is such an essential piece of the American Jewish story, our community has created a distinctive vision of this nation’s identity and role. American “exceptionalism” has provided for Jews a particular image of what this nation has come to symbolize and mean.2

For many, Donald Trump’s campaign sits outside of this logical construct. His statements are seen as beyond the range of acceptable rhetoric. His message has been described as bigoted, hateful, and destructive. Anti-immigrant bashing, dismissal of women, and the marginalization of religious groups are positions that for most Jews are viewed as outside the norm of responsible politics. For some, the very essence of American democracy is undermined by the Trump message. His rise to political stardom has struck a nervous and unsettling cord for many, while for others his “out of the box” candidacy has captured their passions. In the end, however, will Trump’s meteoric rise be sustainable as he taps into the anger and angst of many 2016 voters who seek to embrace an alternative political voice?

But we ought to be reminded that American political history has had other moments where candidates and political parties would represent ideas contrary to the traditional social values of this society. The Know Nothing Party of the 1840’s with its anti-Catholic stance, the presence of Klan candidates during various election cycles in the 20th century, and the David Duke presidential candidacies of 1988 and 1992 represent but three examples of American political extremism that would be rejected by the majority of this nation’s voters.

This is not to suggest that there are Jews, who like other voters, are seeking to express their political discontent and distress with this nation’s policies, its economic position, the future of the US-Israel partnership, and the current tenor and direction of American politics. In many ways a significant number of the aspiring players in this year’s presidential sweepstakes can be defined as Washington “outsiders”. The significant appeal of Donald Trump’s message has touched a raw political nerve within this nation. As a result of his candidacy, Americans during the 2016 campaign will need to be a part of a conversation on the character and future of this democracy.

1 What makes Trump tick (so far)? 
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger,
2 “Second Thought: a US-Israel initiative”
“Israel Hayom”, December 25, 2015,
Jews in the Psyche of America

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

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