Last year, as many voters set their sights on the 17-plus candidates running for president, one presidential historian predicted that the 2016 presidential race would shape up to be the “most Jewish” election in the history of the United States. At the time, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were leading the polls in their respective primaries.
“Think about it,” said Dr. Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Jewish Liaison for President George W. Bush. “Both leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have machatunim (Jewish in-laws of their daughters). I can’t think of any other country where the leading candidates have machatunim — except Israel.”
Little did Troy know that the conversation in the last 72 hours before voters went to the polls would be about Trump’s closing argument ad that some derided as having anti-Semitic overtones. Not to mention the fact that the two most influential whisperers of the now President-elect – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump – are Jewish.
“At the time I made the point, I actually didn’t realize quite how Jewish the election would be because I did not anticipate that Trump was going to be the nominee at that point,” Troy said this week during a panel with top Republican insiders hosted by Jewish Insider. “The election was more Jewish than I thought it was going to be.”
According to Troy, while having Jewish relatives of both presidential candidates is really new ground in American politics, his larger point was that “Jews have become much more involved in every aspect of presidential campaigning. I think it speaks to the comfort that the U.S. has given to the Jewish community. I recognize there are some ugly anti-Semitism out there, and even more ugly anti-Israelism out there — people on both sides of the aisle that are responsible for that, but for the most part, we in America have a happy home here.”
But while some Jews may feel encouraged by their level of influence in politics, Trump’s dog whistles, nods, and winks mainstreamed America’s darkest xenophobic inclinations, and caused many Jews to disavow the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
At his first appearance in front of wealthy Jewish donors, Trump castigated them for wanting to control elected officials. “You are not going to support me even though you know I am the best thing that could happen for Israel. I know why you are not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump said at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s presidential forum in DC last year. “You want to control your own politicians.” Trump also referred to the audience as “businesspeople” when he spoke about renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal. “I’m a negotiator like you folks; we’re negotiators,” Trump said. “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? This room negotiates a lot. This room perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.” The crowd nodded their heads in dismay.
Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail also led to the uptick in racism and anti-Semitism, especially against Jewish journalists on social media.
But on Monday, during Jewish Insider’s panel at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in D.C., the Republican Jewish insiders on stage, some who opposed Trump’s candidacy, displayed an almost kumbaya mode, celebrating Trump’s victory.
“The people that invited us to the panel, they expected us to be sitting up here in sackcloth and ashes, and we are not,” Troy remarked. “If I had cigars I would give them out to my friends here. I think we are very pleased with the results.”
Noam Neusner, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a NeverTrump guy, was a little less thrilled about Trump’s election. “I don’t think he’s going to be a very successful president,” he asserted. “Trump has a lot to prove. He has a lot to show concerning his capacity to holding office. I have severe doubts, but, you know, he can prove me wrong, and I will be the first to say so.”
Credit: Ron Sachs / CNP
RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks addressed the elephant in the room – the appointment of Steve Bannon as the President-elect’s senior advisor and chief strategist in the WH, which was criticized by many Jewish organizations. “I’ve never met Steve Bannon. I’ve never talked to Steve Bannon,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there about Bannon that I don’t know, and I look forward to the opportunity to sit down with him with our leadership and get to know him further as we figure out how to work together in the upcoming administration. Let me tell you what I do know about Steve Bannon. The people who have worked with Bannon… said there’s absolutely not an inch of an anti-Semitic bone in Steve Bannon’s body… We know that Breitbart has been unabashedly pro-Israel in their writings. We know they have been against the Iran deal. We know that under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart opened an office in Jerusalem. So, that’s what we know, and there’s a lot of stuff out there that, I think, we really need to take a step back and see how this issue works out.”
Brooks continued, “What we also know is the folks Donald Trump is surrounding himself with. I’ve known Reince Priebus for a decade. He is one of the most decent, honorable people that I know. He will be a phenomenal chief of staff. He’s somebody who’s had terrific relations with the Jewish community, somebody who’s strongly pro-Israel, and somebody that the Jewish community will be able to work very closely with. Despite all of these press releases and comments, the notion that President-elect Donald Trump’s family – who we know are very involved – would knowingly put in somebody who they felt would be anti-Semitic, doesn’t make logical sense.”
Trump’s election and the events leading to it exposed two major vulnerabilities in the Republican Party. One, that despite the fact that only a fraction of Republican Jewish donors contributed to his campaign, and despite being outspent by Hillary Clinton, Trump managed to overcome the hurdle and win.
Asked whether money still matters, Lisa Spies, a leading GOP fundraiser who was opposed to Trump, pointed to several factors in the money game that ultimately contributed to Trump’s win. “If you look at Trump’s numbers towards the last three weeks, they were down, and then the Ricketts and Adelsons’ Super PAC came in, and his numbers went up,” said Spies. “Another thing to look at is the great job that Lew Eisenberg did as finance chair of the RNC. Eisenberg is very prominent in the Jewish community, he’s been a long time Republican, and he led an effort that almost matched with what the RNC did in 2012.”
“A lot of people in this election, in the beginning, gave to my former boss Jeb Bush, and after that, it didn’t kind of go so well, people kind of stayed out of the presidential election and focused on the House and Senate,” she explained. “But just remember, when you’re looking at the numbers and does money matter, you’ve got outside super PACs, and you have someone – President-elect Trump – who during the primary got at least $500 million free of airtime. So, while people like Jeb and Marco (Rubio) that were paying for it, he had free airtime. That’s unprecedented, and I can’t imagine that will ever happen again.”
The second part in Trump’s victory against the backdrop of negative coverage and constant controversies was the failure of the many candidates to stop Trump during the Republican primary.
“They didn’t invest in oppo research,” Jeff Berkowitz, who led the oppo research for George W. Bush in the 2004 election, opined. “Even before Donald Trump was in the race, they did not hire senior oppo research professionals. The research director at the Jeb campaign had three years of research experience. That’s a joke. Where was the Access Hollywood tape? Where was the business record? Where were all of the other things? I’m sorry, but this was political malpractice by every single other primary opponent in the campaign, even before Trump was in it. They all had the attitude that somebody else had to beat up someone else, so they didn’t need to do it.”
“This cycle was the biggest step back in opposition research that I have seen in the more than 15 years I’ve been involved in presidential politics,” said Berkowitz. “They were not ready from day one. They did not take research seriously, and then they were afraid to attack Trump when he got in and didn’t have the material to do it even if they did. They didn’t have serious research teams that could do it when they could’ve made a difference.”
Looking ahead, Brooks said he’s looking forward to the next president repealing the Iranian nuclear deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
In a position paper on Israel, released six days before the election, Trump’s Israel advisors suggested that even before negotiations take place between the two sides, “the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.” But in an interview with the BBC last week, Trump’s senior foreign policy advisor, Walid Phares, indicated that Trump might not relocate the embassy immediately. “Many presidents of the United States have committed to do that, and he said as well that he will do that but he will do it in consensus,” Phares said. He later clarified his remarks. “Next administration to create consensus at home to move the embassy to Jerusalem,” he tweeted.
This was an issue of consensus for the panelist on stage. If somebody could relocate the embassy, it would be Trump, they said. “It is more likely than not,” said Neusner. “He would be more likely than any prior president to move the embassy to Jerusalem because I think he’s likely to look at the fictional and diplomatic myth that surrounds that whole issue and say, ‘You know what, what’s the difference?’ I could see him, as a character issue, say what’s the point of not having it in the nation’s capital?”