On Saturday, Donald Trump gave a speech to the Israeli American Council in which he asserted that many in his audience were “not nice people at all,” but that “you have to vote for me” because Democrats would raise their taxes.
Was he peddling an anti-Semitic stereotype, portraying Jews as money-grubbing types who care only about their wealth? Of course he was. You might possibly make excuses for his remarks if they were an isolated instance, but in fact Trump has done this sort of thing many times, for example asserting in 2015 that Jews weren’t supporting him because he wasn’t accepting their money and “you want to control your politicians.”
Well, it’s not news that Trump’s bigotry isn’t restricted to blacks and immigrants. What is interesting, however, is that this particular anti-Semitic cliché — that Jews are greedy and that their political behaviour is especially driven by their financial interests — is empirically dead wrong. In fact, American Jews are much more liberal than you might expect given their economic situation.
This is, by the way, a distinction they share with some other groups, especially Asian Americans. More on that in a minute.
First, some background. The two major political parties in the U.S. really are very different in their policies toward the rich. President Barack Obama was hardly a radical, but when he left office the average federal tax rate on the top 1 per cent was 5 percentage points higher than it had been under George W. Bush. In 2016, Trump claimed that he wouldn’t do the usual Republican thing and cut taxes on the rich while trying to destroy the safety net. But he was lying.
And despite what right-wing pundits like to claim, high-income Americans are in general much more likely than others to support the Republican Party. In last year’s midterms, 52 per cent of voters with incomes more than $200,000 voted Republican, compared with only 38 per cent of voters with incomes under $50,000. The rightward tilt is especially strong at the very top; although there are a few high-profile liberal billionaires, most of the extremely wealthy are also extremely right-wing.
Given these realities, you might expect American Jews, who are in fact considerably more affluent than the average, to lean right. But they don’t. In fact, only 17 per cent of them voted Republican last year.
In other words, American Jews aren’t the uniquely greedy, self-interested characters anti-Semites imagine them to be. But it would be foolish to make the opposite mistake and imagine that Jews are especially public-spirited; they’re just people, with the same virtues and vices as everyone else. I think it was an Israeli friend who first told me that Judaism, unlike other faiths, has rarely been a religion of oppression — but that the reason was simply lack of opportunity, a diagnosis that recent Israeli governments seem determined to confirm.
An aside: American Jews almost all support Israel, but many don’t support the policies of its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But that’s presumably a distinction Trump doesn’t understand, at home or abroad.
Back to the question of what makes U.S. Jews politically different. Much of the answer is historical memory. Most of us, I think, know that whenever bigotry runs free, we’re likely to be among its victims.
The Trump administration is, beyond any reasonable doubt, an anti-democratic, white nationalist regime. And while it is not (yet) explicitly anti-Semitic, many of its allies are: “Jews will not replace us” chanted the “very fine people” carrying torches in Charlottesville, Virginia. You have to be willfully ignorant of the past not to know where all this leads. Indeed, it’s happening already: anti-Semitic incidents have soared (and my hate mail has gotten … interesting.)
Jews aren’t the only people who have figured this out. Many Asian American voters used to support Republicans but the group is now overwhelmingly Democratic. Indian Americans, in particular, are like American Jews: a high-income, high-education group that votes Democratic by large margins, presumably because many of its members also realize where white nationalism will take us.
In all of this, Republicans — not just Trump, but his whole party — are reaping what they sowed. Their strategy for decades has been to win votes from working-class whites, despite an anti-worker agenda, by appealing to racial resentment. Trump has just made that racial appeal cruder and louder. And one has to admit that this strategy has been quite successful.
But it takes, well, chutzpah, a truly striking level of contempt for your audience, to foment hatred-laced identity politics, then turn to members of minority groups and say, in effect, “Ignore the bigotry and look at the taxes you’re saving!”
And some of the audience deserves that contempt. As I said, people are pretty much the same whatever their background. There are wealthy Jews who are sufficiently shortsighted, ignorant or arrogant enough to imagine that they can continue to prosper under a white nationalist government.
But most of my ethnic group, I believe, understands that Trump is bad for the Jews, whatever tax bracket we happen to be in.
Paul Krugman is a columnist with the New York Times
New York Times service