Alone among all segments of the American Jewish community, it was the Orthodox community that supported Donald Trump. A survey conducted by Ami Magazine found that 83 percent of Orthodox Jews surveyed said they would vote for the president, compared to 13 percent who said they would vote for Joe Biden. Regardless of the precise accuracy of these numbers, no one has contested the fact that a significant majority of the Orthodox community, from charedi to modern Orthodox, were enthusiastic supporters of the president.
The reasons for this backing, in stark contrast to the rest of the American Jewish community, revolved around the President’s strong support for Israel; his identification with conservative family values exemplified by naming conservative justices to the Supreme Court and other federal courts; and his lack of support for strong preventive pandemic public health measures, which Orthodox groups felt discriminated against them in their religious and social lives.
There is no question that under President Trump, the United States has taken many favorable actions toward Israel: moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; recognizing Israel’s legal rights in West Bank settlements; taking a leading role in the recognition of Israel by three Muslim states; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, which the Israeli government opposed; and recognizing the Golan Heights as belonging to Israel. There is no question that both by the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israelis have seen these actions as beneficial to Israel security and its acceptance in the Arab world. Since most Orthodox Jews, other than the charedi world, are ardent Zionists—myself included—the community’s support for the president was understandable. I welcome these policy achievements.
My question, however, is was it worth it?
In my opinion, the answer clearly is no.
Where to begin? Perhaps most glaringly, Donald Trump is largely responsible for the worst polarization of the American public since the Civil War. He has appealed to the worst instincts of American citizens. It is no accident that white supremacist groups see an ally in him. In his desire to prevent America from admitting people who come from the poor and largely black countries he referred to as “s…h… countries” in search of a better life. During the 2016 election campaign, President Trump infamously referred to Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” His condemnation of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville was lukewarm at best. Rather than speak out against violence at his rallies, he often has given implied encouragement to violent attacks against his enemies. This president welcomes any group that is allied with him, no matter how repugnant its ideology or outrageous its conspiracy theories. Check out what the Proud Boys and QAnon stand for, and questioners’ inability to get President Trump to condemn them and poison they spread.
This president has thrived on division, and America has suffered as a result.
Donald Trump has made lying so normal that media stopped counting the number of outright lies after they numbered in the thousands. His assault on the truth has been poisonous to political discourse and to the ethical climate of America. He shattered the rules long ago, when he started by declaring the lie that President Obama was not born in the United States. His statement that the crowds at his inauguration were the largest ever was a boldfaced lie. This set the standard for the avalanche of lies that has characterized his presidency ever since. And most recently, his claim that he won the current election “by a landslide” and that the election “was rigged” repeatedly has been proven to be the greatest lie of his presidency—with devastating results.
As far as his personal qualities are concerned, it is obvious that he is a malignant narcissist. He views everything through the lens of “what is in it for me.” Despite having become inured over the years to his ugly, untrue, and indecent remarks, I was taken aback when, based on reliable and multiple sources, rather than visit a cemetery where 2000 Marines were buried after a storied WWI battle, he was quoted as calling these dead soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” President Trump vigorously objected to lowering American flags after Sen. John McCain’s death because McCain was “a f…… loser.” Given the Trumpian approach to life, it is understandable that he would find it incomprehensible to give your life for a cause greater than yourself. Let someone else make the ultimate sacrifice.
Donald Trump is the very antithesis of the human values we Orthodox Jews try to teach our children. He is known for having withheld payment from the workmen who constructed his buildings; he is a pathological liar; he is an adulterer and sexual predator; he routinely engages in either false or true lashon harah; he belittles people with disabilities; and as events on January 6th showed, he incites his followers to lethal violence. Agreed, many politicians are not paragons of virtue, but Donald Trump’s indecency puts him in a class by himself. His meanness has percolated through the entire country, creating a new low for what is publicly permissible. His often-disgusting behavior has consequences. It is therefore one thing for many Orthodox Jews to appreciate some of his foreign and domestic policies; it is quite another to venerate him as a virtual messiah.
Finally, as a physician, I am incredulous at how Donald Trump has politicized the public health response to the covid pandemic. True-blue Republicans model themselves after the president by regarding mask-wearing and social distancing as medically worthless and an affront to their inalienable rights as Americans. His attempt to politicize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by requiring its public health pronouncements to be vetted by his staff for possible violations of the Trump political line is outrageous and a threat to lives.
America and the world witnessed the climax of President Trump’s poisonous megalomania on January 6, when, incited by the leader of the free world, hundreds of thugs forced their way into the Capitol building in Washington DC, with the ostensible goal of having the vice president and Congress overturn the election. Five people died in this assault, and even some Republicans—pathetically few—have concluded that the president should be removed from office.
Even the conservative Wall Street Journal has called for his resignation.
Was the Trump presidency worth it for Orthodox Jews? I do not believe so. Is there anything more important for us than what the president has done for Israel? Yes, there should be — the damage that he has inflicted on America. The president has let the genie of internecine hatred out of the bottle, and there is no putting it back in the near future.
I am afraid that the Orthodox Jewish community has made a Faustian bargain with its enthusiastic support for the president. In exchange for his positive policies toward Israel, I fear long term consequences of his presidency that will be harmful to America and therefore to Israel.
The president has unleashed antidemocratic forces that, historically, have not been kind to Jews. Among the potpourri of groups represented in the Capitol invasion were anti-Semites. I do not naively discount enemies of Israel on the far left, and I am concerned about the potential weakening of support for Israel as staunch supporters are voted out of office. But the security of Israel is not enhanced by the clear and present danger to American democracy and its moral foundation, resulting from the distrust of its institutions by millions of Americans, and the hatred of the other that Donald Trump and his enablers have fostered assiduously over the past four years. This hatred already has led to the unprecedented violence in the Capitol building on January 6 that led to the deaths of five people and injuries to many more. The mob even built gallows on which to hang Vice President Pence. It is most probable that more violence will follow.
There is a feeling of unease that pervades the country as President Trump reluctantly leaves the White House, no doubt secure in the belief that his followers will perpetuate a stabbed-in-the-back version of the election that he “won by a landslide.” He leaves a country in which people are divided into warring camps of Republicans and Democrats. Outrageous conspiracy theories abound, catalyzed by social media. This demagogic president has skillfully used his thousands of tweets to vilify his enemies, reward his sycophants, and propound egregious lies. The truth has been reduced to an option among the many versions of what has in fact transpired. This is President Trump’s legacy. It is bad for worldwide freedom and democracy, and I fear it is also bad for Israel and bad for the Jews.
Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood is a professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and the director of clinical ethics and the chair of the medical ethics committee there. He is a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.