Above: President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Credit: ABC News.)
By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
NEW YORK — The simplest way to understand the Trump victory is to recognize that since 1952, the United States changes the presidential party in power every eight years, the only exception being the dispatch of Jimmy Carter after just four miserable years, and the extension of the Reagan eight years with four of GHB Bush. Otherwise, it is like clockwork – R, D, R, D, R, D, R, D and now R again. Of course, there is much more to this election cycle.
Four years ago, I published an essay that went viral: “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.” It lamented the Obama victory in 2012 and how changes were coming to the United States that would leave the country unrecognizable to many of its citizens with domestic policies that were more socialist and foreign policies that shrunk America’s role in the world and made the world a more violent and dangerous place. It further lamented the decline of politics in America that depicted a good, decent man like Mitt Romney as a monster and ogre who gleefully threw the elderly off cliffs, deprived the ill of their cancer medication and delighted in firing hard-working people.
It was nearly impossible, given the demographics of American life, to see a plausible path to the Republicans ever winning the presidency again. One of the ironies of this riotous, unpredictable and unprecedented presidential campaign is that the only Republican who could have won was not really a Republican and certainly not a Republican for a long period of time. For make no mistake: a conventional Republican – a Bush, a Cruz, a Rubio, et al – might have been preferable to Donald Trump in theory, but such a conventional Republican would have been eviscerated, lambasted, vilified and scorned in actuality, and would have lost the election.
I remained puzzled about the almost universal support of Democrats for Hillary Clinton, despite her personal flaws, and the Republican “never Trumpers” who refused to support their party’s nominee because of his personal flaws. And both were flawed, which is an understatement. But Trump’s policies always trumped Trump’s personality, and I was always at a loss to understand which of Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for America were preferable to those of Donald Trump. But too many Republicans, including columnists, pundits, activists and even some rabbis (who might not be Republicans), were so turned off to some of Trump’s faults that they were completely blind to Clintons’ when they weren’t rationalizing them altogether. Too many people did not recognize that there was no moral argument that could be marshaled on behalf of either candidate, but Clinton supporters were particularly dismissive in that regard. The only morally consistent approach was to concede that both candidates were deficient and that one’s vote was based on policy. That was my approach, as well as to acknowledge that Judaism prefers leaders with skeletons in their closets (Masechet Yoma 22b); it keeps them humble.
Here in Israel, there is, for the most part, a great sigh of relief. It is anticipated that Obama’s grudging support for Israel and his embrace of Iran will both be reversed, and that the world will learn again to respect and even fear a resurgent America. It is also anticipated that President Trump will craft a new foreign policy that rejects the chimera of a “two-state solution” and supports the right of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel. That will be a welcome and revolutionary change, even if it happens subtly rather than overtly. The fear of the Obama “December” surprise is still present but less burning. A presidential recognition of a “Palestine” can be reversed and a UN resolution critical of Israel, settlements, support of a Palestinian state, etc., supported by the US might be vetoed by…Russia, whose president has better ties with Netanyahu than Netanyahu had with Obama. Perhaps President-elect Trump could weigh in on that matter with Putin as well.
There are numerous takeaways from this most unusual election.
Polarization. It is not just that the electorate is divided, but rather the persistence on the left in portraying the right as evil, not just wrong, has led to the despair in so many parts today over the Clinton loss. How can “evil” win?? This pattern dates back to Obama’s first term and is now entrenched in American life. With evil, you can’t compromise; with evil you can’t even dialogue. Those who vote for evil must be evil! And one should then not wonder why children – from kindergarten through law school – are being kept home from school today in droves so their troubled parents can try to explain how “evil” could prevail. Here’s the approach they should take: another opinion is not necessarily evil but different. There is no one solution to the problems that confront America. And there are people who can occasionally do or say bad things but that failing does not necessarily make them bad people. That goes for both candidates, not just one. We are all imperfect and we must learn to accept the imperfections of others if we hope to live in the world without becoming insane, vengeful or perpetually angry. Endlessly citing this or that word or phrase as if it defines the human being who uttered is a caricature, not an analysis.
The Failure of Punditry and Pollsters. There are people who make their living making predictions, and they were almost all wrong, and in very predictable ways. Once it became socially unacceptable to support Trump — and many of the pundits and writers were the ones who made it socially unacceptable — it was clear that polls were not accurate and would miss 3-5% of the voting public, at least. That is exactly what happened, as Trump’s margin of victory was extremely narrow in several states that facilitated his victory.
It also vindicated Trump’s campaign model that should drive so many “professionals” batty. He spent relatively little, spoke his mind, eschewed handlers and messaging, and spoke directly (even occasionally tactlessly) to the people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who shunned the media like the plague and felt like answering questions was beneath her, Trump was omnipresent on television, interviewed again and again, and then again. Free advertising, very human and personal, and a brilliant strategy.
Do not underestimate the resentment that the Trump candidacy engendered in the professional political class. He is the ultimate outsider in a world where to be an insider is considered a success. Trump is the guy who walks in unannounced from the parking lot, becomes the team quarterback and wins the championship. (There are such cases – Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, and probably dozens of people reading this.) Those who toiled in the system and either wouldn’t or couldn’t are naturally brusque with the one who did and could.
The Republican Party is Floundering. Some of its most principled people refused to support Trump, because of both personal blemishes and policy heresies. But it should recognize that it is increasingly talking to an electorate that is deaf to its values, uncomfortable with personal responsibility, uninterested in its policies and — for many — addicted to the free stuff that only Democrats can offer. It is safe to say that the Trump phenomenon cannot be duplicated, so where does that leave the GOP, alienated in large part from its standard bearer?
Ganging Up. Americans like a fair fight, and Trump was opposed by the full weight of one party, much of the other, the presidency and the tools of government, and especially by the mainstream media whose collusion with Clinton (including slipping her questions before debates and checking articles with her before publication lest something displease her, as Wikileaks revealed) made them not the reporter of news but makers of news and attempted shapers of outcomes. That was never supposed to be the role of the independent media, and the few outlets or individuals who actually presented fair and balanced coverage were not only honest and a credit to their profession but reaped the windfall of high ratings. They became a refuge for Trump supporters, whether tepid or passionate. Donald Trump became the underdog despite the media’s best efforts to make him the bully. People saw through that, saw the ugliness of the insider dealings and the cattiness of released emails, and saw the pay-to-play schemes – and recoiled from them.
Narrow Margins. Republicans should not gloat. Once again, the Democrat candidate won the popular vote. That is somewhat misleading because if California is taken out of the mix, then Trump wins by several million votes. Nonetheless, Republicans still have won the popular vote only once since 1988, and future prospects are not good unless…Trump is successful in his quest to strengthen the inner cities and reach out to other communities traditionally marginalized by Republicans and patronized by Democrats. His direct appeal to blacks and Hispanics was a welcome shift from prior Republican tactics. As America is becoming less and less white, the Republican Party will become a permanent minority unless it changes its approach to the electorate. Ronald Reagan’s America does not exist anymore.
Les Deplorables. That being said, was there a greater gaffe in memory that Clinton’s contention that half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables”? That was arguably worse than Romney’s statement that “47%” of Americans don’t pay federal taxes and therefore have no skin in the game. At least Romney’s statement was a fact; Clinton’s slur was a direct attack on the integrity and decency of the supporters (“irredeemable”) of the nominee of a major American party. Rabbis quick to see Trump’s offenses glossed over Clinton’s outrages. Others, impressed by Clinton’s graciousness at a seder, ignored her similar graciousness towards Suha Arafat, kissing, hugging and praising Yasser’s wife right after she accused Israel of poisoning Arab wells in order to murder Arab children. Trump had no monopoly on “deplorables,” most of whom were not deplorable at all, and some of his critics would have benefited from a little more self-awareness. There are bad people on the right – and on the left; truth be told, bad people did not play much of a role in this election.
Rigged System. The Deplorables had only to open their eyes and see the special treatment, the unequal justice under the law, and the outright criminality of the Clinton enterprise to realize that this election demanded more than sitting at home and whining about the worthlessness of voting. The double standard was, to borrow a Trumpian term, “disgraceful.” The corruption, under Obama and Clinton, of the FBI, the IRS, the FCC, the EPA, and much of the rest of the alphabet exceeded anything that Richard Nixon had carried out. The schemes of the Clinton Foundation were breathtaking in scope, and its entire business model was built on Hillary Clinton winning the presidency and rewarding her donors. That is not to be, and the book is still open on whether it will continue as a legitimate charity. Will Obama, before his term ends, pardon Clinton for any and all crimes? I would expect it.
Negativity Works. Well, it depresses the voters and depresses the numbers of voters. Neither candidate is a paragon of virtue but Trump was aided by one factor: his children seem remarkably well-grounded and decent people. It is hard to imagine such individuals emerging from the home of such a “villain,” and having such genuine respect and love for their father. So the negativity became overkill after a while, not to mention Trump’s prior popularity as a TV entertainer that enabled many people to feel that they “knew” him. The feeling of unease that many Americans feel is attributable to the campaigns that brought new lows to American politics. Negativity works, but what an awful price to pay for such successes.
The Death of Political Correctness. Donald Trump is not a politician, and will be the first person since Dwight Eisenhower to assume the presidency never before having held elective office. Being a non-politician, and indeed the antithesis of Hillary Clinton, he did not poll test and focus group every word he uttered. He was refreshing, even if occasionally crass and crude. Certainly the latter is unbecoming, and Trump matured (is that the right word for a 70 year old?) as the campaign neared its end. But most people recognize the unseemliness implicit in the revelation of private comments (or emails). Few but the most pious among us would like to be judged by what we do or say in private; if that were untrue, the curtain business would fail and we would all live in glass houses.
But Trump, one can hope, has put an end to the petty tyranny of political correctness. He said what he thought was true regardless of who was offended by it, and the reactions – often overwrought but occasionally justified – reflected life in an era in which freedom of speech has been curtailed, people watch their words constantly (and not for always salutary reasons) and the thought police are ubiquitous. It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when an offended person, group, or class would just be told to grow up, and if the offense was unintended, a classy person would apologize. Now, the offenders are publicly mocked, excommunicated and sent for sensitivity training. The most intolerant among us are those who frequently hurl epithets like racist, bigot, sexist, -phobe, etc. at someone with whom they disagree. Generally speaking, they are the ones who are the most apoplectic about the results of this election. Maybe they should just grow up?
One lesson of this election is that Americans are tired of being told what to think, whom they should like or dislike, that their traditions and values are hateful and that an unelected class of scolds gets to sit in constant judgment of their every utterance. Trump was a hero to those Americans, and anathema to the thought police. Those vocally liberated voted for Trump in droves and thumbed their noses at their supposed judges. Democracy is a most unruly form of government.
One by-product of this election and the PC malady is that the Democrats continue to view the electorate not as individuals but only by a group identity. We are not individuals but whatever ethnic, religious, gender, racial or national attachment we have. How limiting – how degrading is that to every person who is then expected to think and act and vote like the group to which he or she is a part! Are we supposed to vote someone because the candidate is a Jew, a black, a woman, a Latino, or something else? Nothing could be more anti-intellectual, demeaning or shallow. That too should end. It won’t, not yet anyway.
Margaret Thatcher once said one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Perhaps that will change as well.
There have been bitter and divisive elections in the past in the United States; obviously 2000, but also 1860 (the Civil War followed Lincoln’s election, after he succeeded James Buchanan, still the last president who previously served as Secretary of State) and 1828 and 1824 (the ruthless battles between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams) come to mind. Some of those campaigns were even dirtier and more vicious than this one. But the world needs a strong America; the dangers around us are real and cannot be wished away. We can only pray that Donald Trump, who has so many good instincts in many areas, will be focused and responsible. In many ways, he is similar to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whose tenure started but didn’t end well. Trump will surround himself with good people – Boltons, Giulianis, Flynns, Huckabees, Carsons and others. Life goes on. We hope and pray for the best.
Mark Twain stated that “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Twain, at least here, and now, was wrong. The citizens of the American empire have chosen to change course. The people have spoken. Long live the people.
Is this good for the Jews? Time will tell. Disappointments are inevitable in life but we are ever hopeful. God’s hand controls our destiny. But what is always good for the Jews is this: learn Torah, observe the Mitzvot, daven with sincerity, perform acts of kindness, stand with Israel and come to Israel. If we do that, then only good things can happen.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of nearly 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey, and one of the most vibrant centers of Orthodox Jewish life today. He has served since August 1994. Previously, Rabbi Pruzansky was for nine years the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills, New York. While in New York, he served a two-year term as President of the Vaad Harabonim (Rabbinical Board) of Queens.