Reflections on the U.S. presidential election and its implications for American Jewry and the State of Israel
By Dr. Steven Windmueller
America has made its presidential choice. The long, divisive campaign has finally ended. What are some of the challenges that the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community must begin to address in the aftermath of this election? The victory of Donald Trump has fundamentally transformed the place of America's Jewish community within the political arena. Traditionally a key Democratic constituency, a portion of the Jewish political base has shifted over time to the political right. Yet, the surprise victory of Donald Trump represents an election tsunami for Jews and other key Democratic constituencies.
Similar to the rise of Andrew Jackson in 1828, Trump could be defined by the same type of labels and images depicted in that election campaign. The Jackson-Adams campaign was described by historians of the period as "a good deal of mud was slung on both sides, much of it aimed at Jackson's marriage, his violent escapades, and the incidents of ferocious discipline and of disrespect for civilian authority that dotted his military career. (Jackson) was painted as a grasping and bloodthirsty character, a budding tyrant in the model of Caesar or Napoleon, whose election would spell the death of the republic."
Trump won this election without securing the largest number of votes while handily winning the Electoral College. Similarly, the Republican candidate will come into the White House receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote, making him one of 12 Presidents to receive a plurality of the vote but not a majority (the last being George W. Bush in 2000). A key to this year's results has to do with a significant number of Republican victories across the nation in state and local campaigns that will have a profound long-term impact on elections.
America's Changing Demographics: As we digest the outcome of this election, the extraordinary demographic transformation of the American electorate represents one of the most significant realities of this campaign. Indeed, the social fabric of the society will be tested, as many groups feel particularly vulnerable in light of a Trump victory. White working class voters in various parts of the society have transformed the character of America. A fundamentally different composition of voters determined the outcome of this campaign as President–elect Trump was able to galvanize the working class constituency and rural voters into a new base of support for his surprising election victory. Traditional Democratic voters in the "rust belt" regions of this nation crossed party lines to embrace the new President's message.
Beyond Mr. Trump's victory, new Americans including Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other constituencies through their participation will be redefining the electoral voter rolls within this nation. By 2040, America will cease to be a predominantly Caucasian society; rather, it will reflect the multi-dimensional character of the world's populations. The Jewish community is situated in a unique but critical place to forge a bridge of understanding and engagement between these new constituencies and the American mainstream. This is a role the community relations organizations have undertaken for decades in the United States.
Confronting New Threats to the Jewish Community: In the aftermath of this election, the Jewish community faces a challenging agenda. The overwhelming reality for American Jewry in the days following this political campaign will involve an appreciation for the fractured state of this country's electorate. The deep political divide has unmasked a new round of anti-Semitism, and it has demonstrated the presence of hate directed toward other minority communities as well. Just as Jewish organizations have been encountering an assault on Israel driven by the BDS movement on the political Left, the community must now contend with the rise of the "Alt-Right" and its conspiratorial manifestations of Jewish influence and political control. With a Trump victory, these extremists' voices will no doubt increase their messages of religious and ethnic hate. And indeed, social forces on the political Left rejecting the electoral outcome have already begun to manifest their frustration with the Trump victory.
As there are political challenges directed against the Jewish community, Jewish public policy organizations will need to address the state of inter-group relations within the United States, seeking ways to breakdown the walls of suspicion and bigotry that contribute to an erosion of democracy and inclusion.
Assessing Jewish Political Power
There were multiple centers of Jewish political influence represented in this election. Jewish Republicans now have an opportunity to exercise their clout in advancing the pro-Israel agenda, serving as a critical bridge between the new administration and the American Jewish community.
The Trump Administration may be prepared to discard the highly controversial Iranian Nuclear Agreement. Similarly, the incoming regime may have fewer concerns about Israeli settlement activities and other issues that may resonate with the Netanyahu Government.
Revisiting the Jewish Vote
The stark reality is that in this campaign Jews voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. A New York Times exit poll suggested that 71 percent of American Jews supported the Secretary of State, while some 24 percent of Jewish voters endorsed Donald Trump. A second study, released by J Street, reflects similar numbers in the State of Florida among Jewish voters. Not surprisingly, we note that an uncertain number of Jews decided either not to vote in this campaign or ultimately embraced third party candidates, feeling unprepared to commit to either of the major nominees, as a result of both candidates' very high disapproval ratings.
Interestingly, Jewish financial support for Donald Trump among Republican donors was significantly below the levels of commitment to John McCain (2008) and Mitt Romney (2012), in part reflective of a heightened degree of uncertainty on the part of the Republican Jewish establishment over Trump as a viable candidate.
Unpacking the Great Social Disconnect
Many of the issues that propelled Trump voters were reflective of constituencies that are geographically and culturally detached from the Jewish community. Indeed, the social, political, and economic divisions that separate rural and working class voters from urban, college-educated Americans represent the challenge to the future of the American democracy. The Jewish community could be seen by these angry and disappointed voters as a target of their frustration. If so, it will be essential for Jewish activists, in coalition with others, to respond to the challenges raised by this sector of the electorate.
The political credibility of our leaders will likewise be tested. Should government fail to address the pain and disconnect of a significant sector of our citizens, this nation could experience a serious political upheaval, creating even a deeper divide between these very different constituencies.
Assessing American Political Behavior
The voting record of Americans may be the real issue of 2016; this new reality would ultimately foster a Trump victory. ABC News reported that fewer Democrats (some 4 million) voted in this election. More generically, the percentage of voter participation has been declining for decades. More than a third of eligible voters are not exercising their political franchise. Civics education ought to be on the agenda of American Jewish organizations as a way to encourage and promote an educated, politically engaged, and knowledgeable public about the critical issues associated with American democracy.
Building a New American Jewish Agenda
Many of America's Jews will be specifically focused on what lays ahead in connection with critical social policy concerns that will include immigration, the environment, health care services, and reproductive rights. How the Trump administration approaches these various Constitutional and public policy concerns central to mainstream Jewish interests will most certainly occupy Jewish attention as Republicans reclaim the White House. As the results of this election set in, some American Jews fear that a Trump Administration may undermine democratic norms while pushing back against minority political interests and rights.
The Supreme Court has been a particularly sacred cause of the Jewish community. Undoubtedly, the new president will have occasion to make judicial selections to the Court that can and most likely will alter the balance of power, potentially leading to the revisiting of Roe v. Wade (abortion rights), church-state and religious liberty cases, second amendment rulings, and civil rights issues, among other concerns.
Changing the Political Culture
The voting record of Americans may be the real issue in 2016; the absence of key voting blocs specifically permitted a Trump victory. ABC News reported that fewer Democrats (some 4 million) voted in this election from 2012. Since 2000, the Democrats have lost a total of 9 million voters, which suggests a major shift in political affiliation. More generic, the percentage of voter participation, in general, has been declining for decades and was again affirmed in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Jewish community has held to the principle that an informed and engaged electorate is essential for this democracy to flourish. People who are invested in the system tend to be more open-minded, embracing diversity, and accepting the pluralistic character of this nation. If responsible and caring citizens leave the public square, whether out of disgust or fear, a dangerous vacuum is likely to occur where extremist voices will dominate the political culture of this society, filling the void left by mainstream activists. Yet, many Americans may be dissatisfied with the current political climate in the country, as reflected by the significantly large number of eligible voters who failed to exercise the franchise of the ballot. Voter education remains an on-going challenge as part of the effort to encourage citizens to believe in the value of democracy and political participation. The reintroduction of civics into our classrooms and in other arenas of American society will be an essential first step in helping our young as well as this country's new citizens to better understand the unique features of the workings of American democracy.
Sharing Closing Thoughts
Note the extraordinary notion that literally hours after this unexpected victory, the loser (Hillary Clinton) graciously conceded, and the sitting American President had already extended to Mr. Trump an invitation to meet with him as part of the transfer of power. American democracy with all of its complexities continues to serve this nation well.
While many American Jews are indeed distraught over this political outcome, they too will embrace the new administration, seeking to find ways to work with President-elect Trump in moving this nation forward.
The American story goes on!
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: thewindreport.com. Professor Windmueller is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.