The Trump candidacy is an expression of the people’s anger at a leadership and at an establishment that they feel has failed them. His appeal lies in his willingness to stand up to others and to say it like it is, to be the very opposite of our president whose accommodating approach has – in the eyes of many – eroded American influence and respect in the world, and weakened America internally. “The Donald”, with his toughness and his aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach, will – in the eyes of his supporters – regain America’s standing in the world and restore security to our country.
Are the people right to be angry? I believe so. Are they right to feel that their leadership has failed them? I believe so. Are they right to feel that we must stop projecting weakness and project strength instead? I believe so. Are they right to feel that in the interest of evenhandedness we have abandoned our friends and even abandoned ourselves? I believe so. Should that lead us to support a Trump candidacy? I think not.
I am not a supporter of Hillary Clinton. I have serious concerns regarding both her trustworthiness and her policies, and am profoundly worried about four more years of the current administration’s policies. But I am far more deeply concerned about the specter of a Trump presidency. And I am afraid that the unease many in our community rightly have about Mrs. Clinton leads them to overlook the exponentially greater concerns we should have about Mr. Trump.
I will steer clear of discussing any issues regarding Mr. Trump’s character, personal stability and suitability for leadership, and stick instead to three serious concerns relating to the nature of his campaign and the movement that it has generated.
1. Loving the Stranger
A dominant theme of the Trump campaign, along with making America great, has been the adoption of a strong position relative to the immigration of both Mexicans and Muslims. Concerns about illegal immigration are wholly appropriate, as is the need for a clear and secure approach to screening immigrants from countries exporting terrorism. Yet it is hardly debatable that the movement Mr. Trump has created has a strong nationalistic flavor, with many of his supporters identifying with a general suspicion and antipathy towards the outsider. As Jews, this is a serious cause for concern.
As a comedian said the other day, speaking as his program’s Chief Jewish Correspondent: “We were just wondering when it was going to get around to us. First it was Mexicans, then it was Muslims. We were on the sidelines going, ‘Hello, Jews here!’”
Jews are the ultimate outsiders. When Haman presented to Achashverosh his plan for the destruction of the Jewish people, he described us as “a nation dispersed in (their) midst that is different than all other nations.” Pharaoh also cast us as the outsiders, threatening to take over his country.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book about religious violence (Not In G-d’s Name),
notes that religious violence has less to do with religion than with the definition of an “us” and a “them”. “Within groups we practice altruism. Between them we practice aggression.” Religion is a very powerful organizer of groups, of defining an “us”, but it is by no means the only means of such organization. And there is no people, no group, who have so readily and so frequently been branded as the “other” as the Jews.
We have succeeded in our various exiles under different conditions. There have been times when we have been seen as indispensable to the success of our host country, as the valued “other”, as was the case when Yosef first came to Egypt. This perception however has limited value as it does not last long, as it typically quickly moves from our host country’s appreciation of our indispensability to its resentment of our control, something easily anticipated in situations when, for instance, four of a country’s nine top judges are Jews.
We have also succeeded for a time when we have worked to make ourselves part of the nation that hosts us, to no longer be the “other”. Yet, as history has demonstrated time and again, this usually involves compromise of our essence and values to the point where Divine Providence has to remind us and them that we are indeed different. Inevitably the society ends up branding us as the “other” despite our best efforts to the contrary. Think for instance about the emancipation of Western Europe, where we were welcomed into the most cultured of societies. Yet that same society went on to create an elaborate system of defining the “other” based on a theory of racial purity, designed to define us as outsiders beyond the reach of their culture and altruism, and licensing history’s most horrendous aggression against us.
The peace and prosperity of the American, post-Holocaust Diaspora appears to be based on a third condition, perhaps unique in our history. Here we live in a society that celebrates as a core value the love of the stranger, and an opposition to aggression towards any and all “others”. According to the American ethos we do not need to prove our value or our affinity to merit our countrymen’s protection or love as one of “them”. In America we can be protected and cared for just the way we are, as the unabashed “other”. The America that loves and embraces the stranger – loves and embraces us. The America that is not isolationist, concerning itself only with its own national interests, is far more likely to concern itself with the ultimate stranger, the Jew.
This is not the value system of the masses that have rallied strongly around Donald Trump. Whatever the possible nuances of Mr. Trump’s own policies, they seem quite clearly to be lost on the crowds rushing to cheer him on. Love of the stranger does not seem to be much of a rallying cry at Trump events.
2. Political and Ethical Correctness
Over the years, the value of Holocaust museums and of the philanthropic investment in them has become much clearer to me. While I always appreciated the value of history and can spend lots of time taken up in its study, I would still wonder where it fits in our hierarchy of priorities. The event that changed my mind was a visit to the Holocaust museum in DC. On that visit, I spent much of the time following a non-Jewish visitor – someone who had not grown up on the Holocaust like we did – through the exhibit. I watched as her horror grew into audible sobs as she saw what human beings did to other human beings. I do not know how many Jews this visitor knew, and I do not think it was a particular concern for Jews that moved her. It was the simple horror of seeing the evil that human beings are capable of perpetrating. How did we descend to those depths, to destroy and torture human beings? Her sense of ethical correctness was genuinely and deeply upset by what she saw.
The Talmud (TB Avodah Zara 65a) tells a story of the sage Rava who had deeply impressed a Roman dignitary known as Bar Sheishach. As they were taking leave of each other, Bar Sheishach declared, “The eye that yearns to see the misfortune of your people should burst,” to which Rava responded “Amen”. Ultimately, the Talmud notes, Bar Sheishach’s own eye burst!
The lesson of this story is that while in Bar Sheishach’s gut there was hatred for the Jews and a desire to see their failure, his mind felt otherwise. His sense of ethical correctness told him that the success and well-being of the Jews should be desired for the world, despite the visceral distaste which he had for them. Bar Sheishach’s ancient form of political and ethical correctness, the restraint of gut feeling by a desire to aim higher for a more peaceful and respectful path, was and is “good for the Jews”. It is upon us to encourage that kind of reflection, that kind of thinking, and that kind of political and ethical correctness.
This idea appears in the Purim story as well. When Achashverosh asked Esther who had the audacity to develop this horrible plan to destroy and eradicate her people, Esther declares, “A man who is an adversary and an enemy; this wicked Haman.” The Talmud (TB Megillah 16a) states that as she began her statement she was poised to point her finger at Achashverosh, but an angel came and steered her hand towards Haman instead. This Talmudic statement is not to be taken literally, as Esther did not have a ‘death wish’ to be killed by the accused king. Rather our Sages highlight the dissonance that was present within Achashverosh. Certainly in his gut he was no lover of the Jews, and he had been a willing partner to Haman’s proposal. But now that Esther had won his heart and identified herself as a Jew, Achashverosh could no longer see them as the “other”; he could no longer tolerate seeing himself as plotting their destruction. This was a feeling that Esther dare not change. So while on one level Achashverosh deserved her accusing finger, Esther would not discourage his current restraint on his visceral feelings towards the Jews.
As evidenced by his followers, Mr. Trump is not encouraging that kind of sensitivity, but quite the opposite. His approach is to tell it like it is, to wear his heart on his sleeve, or “his lung on his tongue”, as the Yiddish expression goes. There is little encouragement of any form of correctness that would block the expression of visceral feelings. That is not good for the Jews.
And while Mr. Trump himself is a New Yorker with Jewish grandchildren, he is also an extremely effective populist who has unleashed the unabashed and unrestrained feelings and passions of millions who do not have Jewish grandchildren and who view us as the “other” and no longer feel any need to be restrained or correct.
There are only two character traits that the Rambam considered so poisonous that one should avoid them to the extreme, avoiding any use of them at all—arrogance and anger. As indicated at the outset, we will avoid any discussion of the candidate’s personal qualities, so we will avoid the issue of arrogance. Anger however is a defining characteristic of his movement. “The people are angry; I am just the messenger.”
People are indeed angry, and we can understand why. But unbridled anger is poison. Lack of self-control is poison. When we get angry, do we ever not regret it? I have never met a reflective, serious person who is not ashamed of his occasional angry outbursts, and recognizes that they undermine – rather than enhance – the respect others have for him. Rambam wrote that if one feels that he needs to demonstrate anger to command respect, it should only be done if the anger is purely demonstrative while a complete inner calm prevails. For most of us this is wishful thinking, and our outbursts show it. Yet for some reason we think that an angry America will gain new respect from the world.
The twists and turns of the Purim story are all punctuated by angry outbursts. Vashti is killed after the fury of the king is ignited. Haman pursues the destruction of the Jews after Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him infuriates him. And finally when Esther exposes Haman’s plot, the king’s fury turns towards Haman. Anger is the engine pulling a roller coaster of steep ups and downs. It does not drive stability. Stoking a nation’s anger is dangerous.
One of Purim’s customs is dressing up in costume. Many reasons are given for this, but one relates to the original conflict between Yaakov and Eisav, that Purim continues through their descendants Mordechai and Haman. When Yaakov needed to act to edge out Eisav from the blessing of earthly power that their father Yitzchak was prepared to grant Eisav, he dressed up as Eisav. By dressing up ourselves, we recall that original event of Yaakov’s triumph over Eisav.
Yet we know that Yaakov’s disguise was obviously incomplete, as he continued to speak in his gentle, deferential tone, leading his father to notice the “voice of Yaakov”. Evidently, even with the stakes as high as they were, Yaakov could only change his external dress to imitate Eisav. He could not find it within himself to even mimic the gruff and arrogant tones of Eisav, even for the few minutes of his audience with his father.
The phenomenon of the Trump movement is a matter of great concern, for reasons that extend way beyond the candidate himself. We see a strong movement abandoning America’s traditional love of the stranger; a movement that spurns restraint and correctness for the sake of unabashed and unbridled expression of whatever its feelings; and a movement driven by anger. These phenomena combine with frightening force.
While it behooves us as Jews to take an extra hard look at these factors, it is also important for us as the descendants of Yaakov and the heirs to his legacy to maintain the inherent sensitivities which defined him. To remember the costumes we wear as well as what we would never alter or change. To maintain the precious sensitivity of the voice of Yaakov in the midst of a gruff and angry world.
May the gentle voice of Yaakov rise again in prayer to the Almighty that He grant us salvation and safety today as he did in those days during this season, Amen.