Orthodox Jewry and President Trump
At least eight buses filled with Orthodox Jews went to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021 to attend a rally in support of Former President Donald Trump’s claim that the election was stolen and that Congress or the Vice President should declare him re-elected. This rally was being held after all the states had certified the votes and over 60 court cases objecting to the count had been rejected by state and federal courts on every level, including the United States Supreme Court.
The rally ended with the President telling the crowd to walk up to the capital and apparently, through this, influence Congress and Former Vice President Mike Pence. A significant number of people understood this as a directive to enter the Capitol and riot. Let us assume that the overwhelming number of Orthodox Jews who participated in the rally did not enter the Capitol and were not part of the violence. It is also possible that these Orthodox Jews were not familiar with the white nationalist groups who participated with them and had a history of violence. Some mistakenly believed that the rioters, broadly speaking, were leftists masquerading as Trump supporters.
After giving them every benefit of the doubt, these Orthodox Jewish supporters of Trump had accepted as fact that that the election was rigged, an operation which would have involved both Republican and Democratic state officials on different levels in at least six states. The many judges who decided the court cases had to be part of this conspiracy since every single complaint had been rejected.
If one followed the narrative in one state, Georgia, Trump made claims that were systematically refuted by state officials. He pressured the Governor and Secretary of State, both Republicans, and threatened them. To accept Trump’s version required not following the details of the story; it meant rejecting information that came from the mainstream media.
The explanation that the Orthodox Jewish vote for Trump was based on supporting his policies on Israel or religious rights fails to explain the segment of Orthodox Jewry that remained loyal to him against the apparent evidence that he had lost and wasn’t re-elected. Something deeper was happening. Trump had convinced them that if he loses, the results would be catastrophic. He represented the only model of America that they could live with.
Orthodox Judaism has been remarkably successful after many thought that it would disappear. The periodic shift from presidents of one party to the other had virtually no impact on this growth. As a notorious abuser of women and frequent liar, Trump’s personal behavior and crudity should have turned off religious people. Clearly, his personal qualities are irrelevant to a major portion of Orthodox Jewry.
The consequences of the attack on the Congress — with more information to emerge from continuing investigations — are likely to reduce support for Trump. Examining Trump’s appeal to other parts of American society might be helpful in understanding the causes for support for him in the Orthodox community. Trump’s slogan, “make America great again,” is a good place to start.
American society has changed. The traditional family has been transformed by the changing role of women and the greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. The dominance by white males is declining. In the view of many traditional Catholics and Evangelicals, America has become a secular country. Additionally, while the legacy of racism hasn’t disappeared, Blacks and Latinos have earned prominent spots in American life, marking another shift in broader society.
Many Orthodox Jews want to return to an earlier time. Like the idealizing of life in the shtetl, the problematic aspects of the past are ignored. While it is bizarre to partner with white nationalists who are violent anti-Semites, they are the enemies we have coped with in the past. Because leftist opponents of Israel are a new threat, they are seen as more dangerous.
When the runoff Senate election in Georgia resulted in victories for a Black and a Jew, for non-Orthodox Jews this stirred memories of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King marching together. For many Orthodox Jews, who associate Blacks with crime and riots, it only meant that the Democrats would control the Senate and that the crime and riots would continue.
For some Christians, beliefs are more important than behavior; this enabled them to disregard Trump’s behavior and focus on his fundamental ideology. There is a segment of Orthodox Judaism that also sees incorrect ideology — which they see as embodied in the Democratic Party — as being worse than improper behavior. With the memory of the Holocaust in the background, bad behavior by a non-Jew is a given for this segment, which makes the argument that all politicians are corrupt effective. If there is no difference between politicians, then the prime consideration of the voter is reduced to: “who will do more for me?”
In general, Orthodox Jewry has become less concerned about the welfare of the broader society. The Trump administration was sympathetic to support for religious institutions. Political activity from Orthodox organizations in Washington is focused on increasing governmental response to Orthodox needs and supporting Israel. On issues facing the general society Orthodoxy has almost nothing to say.
Accepting the above, it is still difficult to find an explanation for this absolute trust in Trump’s assertion that he was cheated out of his re-election; none of the legal resources have supported his claim. There has developed within segments of the community a commitment to Trump that is extraordinary.
A plausible explanation involves examining the nature of the Orthodox community’s support for Trump in the 2016 election. There was some dislike for Hillary Clinton and political polarization that left Trump as the only alternative. Clearly his personal behavior and character were far from minimal religious standards. When the policies of his administration, whatever his motivation, led to fulfilling religious and Israeli aspirations, there had to be an explanation.
Looking to Jewish history there were non-Jewish monarchs who were the agents for G-d to save His people. Koresh gave the Jews permission to rebuild the temple. Achashverosh gave Mordechai and Esther the authority to save the Jews from Haman’s decree. The kings’ personal behavior was irrelevant. Achashverosh was at best a foolish king, but was nevertheless a vehicle for fulfilling the Divine plan. Historical models existed for Trump as an immoral agent of G-d.
From this perspective, whether expressed explicitly or not, Trump’s lies and immoral actions could be ignored as irrelevant. A segment of Orthodox Jews view Trump as G-d’s agent who must therefore receive their support. If this explanation is correct this bond will only be broken when it becomes apparent that Trump’s role as Divine agent has ended. Perhaps, with the end of his presidency, Orthodox Jewry can return to its appropriate vision that character matters, and that we were meant to better the world — not only ourselves.
Photo caption: The White House
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons