It sometimes seems as if Donald J. Trump is engaged in some secret experiment to see how many things he can say that are heretical to conservative and Republican orthodoxy without suffering electoral consequences. Last week at the South Carolina candidate debate it was a sharp attack on the last Republican president for both the Iraq War (still popular in many Republican circles) and for allowing 9/11 to happen (everyone knows it was Bill Clinton’s fault, right?). This wasn’t the conventional thing to do to protect one’s lead in a state that reveres high defense spending and that saved George W. Bush’s bacon during the 2000 primaries.
Now on the eve of a long string of primaries in southern states with large conservative Evangelical populations, Trump violated another Republican taboo that is of particular importance to conservative Christians: At a South Carolina “town hall” event with the Morning Joe crew, the Donald said he’d be strictly “neutral” in any conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians so as to preserve his ability to help work out some deal. This won’t be welcome news to evangelicals who closely identify with Israel via a lifetime of reading the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament); many also believe Israel has an indispensable role in touching off the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.
The last time I can recall this “honest broker” position being taken by a major Republican politician it was, ironically, George W. Bush in the 2000 general election. More recently, the accepted formulation, as memorably captured by Mitt Romney in 2012, is that there should be “no daylight” between the policies of the U.S. and Israel. At times, especially as the relationship between U.S. conservatives and Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government has grown, it has seemed that elevating Israel into a unique position as America’s closest and most important ally is the central organizing principle of Republican foreign policy.
Not for Trump, however. In December, at a Republican Jewish Coalition event, he declared his independence from Republican orthodoxy on the Middle East by refusing to come out for recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. This positioning was largely missed amid outrage over Trump’s allusion to Jewish stereotypes — “I’m a negotiator like you folks” — in the speech.
Perhaps keeping alive the idea that he is the indispensable deal-maker who could pull off some miraculous Middle Eastern diplomatic solution is more important to Trump than staying on the safe side — the “no daylight” side — of this issue. Or maybe after his town-hall comments he got an urgent phone call from his top celebrity Evangelical backer, Jerry Falwell Jr., and we won’t hear any more “honest broker” talk. But there are other candidates competing with Trump for voters who read their Old Testaments and identify with the Hebrew people or read their New Testaments and thrill at the prospect of some Israeli-triggered end of days. It would be surprising if one or more of them don’t leap onto this heresy.