The Jewish community can learn from its fears of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
by Marshall Breger
The election of Donald Trump has caused severe consternation in the mainstream, largely liberal Jewish community. Synagogues offered what can only be called grief counseling, rabbis trumpeted jeremiads as sermons and some actually “sat shiva” for America. Given all of this hand-wringing, it is worth looking back a generation to when the community was swept by another, similar sense of horrified disbelief: the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
In this election, around 24 percent of the Jewish community voted for President-elect Trump. Although he carried the Orthodox vote (in large part because of fears about Hillary Clinton and Israel), he lost big in the rest of the community. In 1980, in stark contrast, about 39 percent of Jews voted for Reagan, largely as a rejection of Jimmy Carter—and specifically out of fears about Carter and Israel.
In 1980, the Jewish Republican community had few, if any, ties to Reagan. Mega-donors such as Max Fisher and Gordy Zacks had supported George H.W. Bush in the primaries. They and other leading Republican Jews pivoted to Reagan in the general election, but the effect on the broader Jewish community was insignificant. Indeed, in 1985, when a national Jewish organization was formed to promote Republican principles, the group was called the National Jewish Coalition on the grounds that using the term “Republican” would scare the community away. It was not until 1989 that the name was changed to the Republican Jewish Coalition.
In the early 1980s, the Jewish community’s main domestic fear was church-state relations. The Moral Majority had gone full bore behind Reagan, and many were talking of a “Christian America.” Rev. Jerry Falwell proposed a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools. The Reagan administration supported this effort, although it stalled in Congress. A Human Life Amendment barring all abortions was bruited about but never took off.
For Jews, these church-state worries were strong enough to overshadow other fears. In the run-up to the 1984 election, I sat on numerous panels with Tom Dine, then executive director of AIPAC, who asked me after one panel why our audience seemed to have forgotten Israel. I responded that prayer in schools and in public spaces made many Jews feel that they were not at home in America. And that need to feel at home trumped concerns about Israel—at least, when both candidates could present plausible claims to support Israel.
Somewhat as American Jews in the 1980s feared America’s becoming a “Christian nation,” the Jewish mainstream today fears the normalization of “white power” and anti-Semitism. These fears have coalesced around the appointment of Steve Bannon as Donald Trump’s consigliere in the White House.
But there is an important moral and political distinction to be made. The mainstream Jewish community today, largely Democratic, is far more liberal than most Trump voters. Naturally it has significant differences with Donald Trump on issues of immigration, social justice, torture and women’s rights. Many Jews have had these sharp differences with Republican administrations in the past. And although the full picture has not yet emerged, it appears that a Trump administration will seek a less aggressive footprint for the United States abroad, and at home will focus (as we Republicans hope) on less regulation and less government. These positions can be attacked politically, but they are legitimate and should not be demonized. Indeed, it is likely that demonizing such views without truly arguing them is one reason why Hillary Clinton lost.
On the other hand, it is clear that President-elect Trump’s temperament and his fast-and-loose tweeting style provided tacit permission for all too many “swamp creatures” to move onto political dry land and gain legitimacy. As evidence, one can point to the uptick in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and xenophobic speech—and action—since the election (as reported by the Anti-Defamation League) and to the increase in loose rhetoric about “registering” Muslims or banning their immigration. These views should not be normalized. They are immoral and un-American, and those who hold them are the true “deplorables.” Nonetheless, Trump is still a New Yorker accustomed to cultural diversity (whether from Queens or Manhattan) and still a dealmaker. And, as his family and friends attest, he is absolutely not an anti-Semite.
The Reagan analogy should calm Jewish fears and foster more of a wait-and-see attitude than is currently on display. Although the Reagan agenda was clearly more conservative than the views of the Jewish community, over the course of his two terms Jewish fears of Armageddon diminished. The constitutional amendment for prayer in schools lingered on the back burner. Other issues of concern to social conservatives received rhetorical support but little political muscle.
Even on Israel, fear of Reagan proved to be unfounded. Although the 1982 Reagan Plan for Middle East peace was panned by both the Israeli government and American Jewish leaders, Reagan soon came to be seen as one of the best friends Israel has had in the White House. This evolution happened even though the original inner circle around Reagan had few relationships with the organized Jewish community or even with involved Jews. That is certainly not the case for Trump. His closest associates include Orthodox Jews (one nominated as ambassador to Israel) and, of course, his Sabbath-observing daughter and son-in-law. There are many more networks and relationships to build on. And the Republican Party itself has far stronger and more numerous connections with the Jewish world than it did in 1980. Liberal Jews may feel isolated, and mainstream Jewish opposition to Trump policies is understandable. But fearing the end of the world as we know it is not.
Marshall Breger is a professor of law at Catholic University. He served as special assistant and liaison to the Jewish community for President Reagan from 1982 to 1984.