Those tuning in to the president’s occasional exhortations to American Jews to love what he loves and to hate what (or whom) he hates may wonder why he seems obsessed with this relatively small category of Americans, to the extent of accusing the vast majority of them of “disloyalty” to Israel. This tendency feels particularly strange when he seems to be beating his head against the ancient wall of Jewish predilections for left-of-center politics, which he appears to find peculiar even though it’s one of the best-known and most durable phenomena in the politics of this and every other age and place. Why does the man keep excoriating Jews for voting for Democrats? Does he really not understand the bloody history of right-wing “nationalist” and “populist” movements when it comes to Jews?
Maybe he doesn’t; for an Ivy Leaguer, the president is impressively ignorant about an awful lot of things. But it’s more likely that all his talk about the Jews is really aimed at a very different audience: his white conservative Evangelical Christian electoral base, which has its own distinctive and unsettling form of philosemitism. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote in his explanation of Trump’s discussion of Jewry and Israel:
One of Trump’s most fervent pockets of support is white evangelical Protestants, a group which consistently sides with Trump on political and policy questions. His approach to Israeli politics often lines up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it also reflects priorities that have been central to evangelical politics for years.
In other words, Trump’s approach to the politics of Israel is likely driven in part by the same motivation that drives so much of what he does: Delivering for his base …
It’s somewhat akin to his campaign-trail outreach to black Americans, a superficial outreach that seemed, at least in part, to be aimed at demonstrating to his base that he wasn’t racist. His reflexive insistence that Democrats are anti-Semitic seems to be much more about demonstrating to his base the fervency of his adherence to Israel than to be offering real, considered criticisms of his opponents.
So why do Trump’s ruminations about Jews and Israel resonate so much with conservative Evangelicals? Strictly speaking, of course, they are largely of the opinion that Jews are going to burn in hell for all eternity if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But they also tend to view Jews through the prism of their own self-conception as the Chosen People of God — sort of the new, complete model for which Jews were a rough cut. Theologically, this is called “supersessionism,” the belief that a New Covenant God made with believers through Christ has replaced his Old Covenant with the Hebrews. It’s not an exclusive Evangelical belief; Catholic James Carroll wrote an entire book about it as the ultimate source of Christian anti-Semitism throughout the ages. But it shows no sign of fading among Evangelicals, who generally view the Hebrew scriptures as their own inheritance, and themselves as new, perfected Jews.
If you’ve grown up Evangelical, saturated in the Old as well as the New Testaments, the Jews are a mirror image of yourself, and Israel (or as it is more often referred to in these circles, the Holy Land, a tourist destination even more common for them than Rome is for Catholics) is your deeply familiar spiritual homeland. There is a long-standing strain of Evangelical thinking called Christian Zionism, based on the idea that the reestablishment of a Jewish State in Palestine is an important part of God’s plan for redemption of the world. For many, this idea is more controversially associated with the premillennial prophetic belief, rooted in a literal understanding of the New Testament, that Israeli Jews will go to war with their heathen neighbors in a literally apocalyptic battle (specifically, at a place called Armageddon) that will trigger the final judgment, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the end of the world (at which point, some believe, Jews will get a second and final chance to bend the knee to Christ the King).
In this scheme (mostly laid out in the New Testament Book of Revelation, an elaborate allegory probably written in the traumatic aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70), Jerusalem plays a key role. This is why American Evangelicals were significantly more excited than American Jews at Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy there, as theologian Diana Butler Bass explained at the time, drawing on her own Evangelical upbringing:
Jerusalem was our prophetic bellwether. God’s plan hung on its fate. Whenever Israel gained more political territory, whenever Israel extended its boundaries, it was God’s will, the end-times unfolding on the evening news. Jerusalem, as the spiritual heart of Israel, mattered. Jerusalem was God’s holy city, of the ancient past, in its conflicted present, and for the biblical future.
For many conservative evangelicals, Jerusalem is not about politics. It is not about peace plans or Palestinians or two-state solutions. It is about prophecy. About the Bible. And, most certainly, it is about the end-times.
And so, in tightening Israel’s grip on Jerusalem, and more generally supporting an aggressive and expansionist Jewish State, Trump may be appealing to Jewish solidarity with Israel, but more important to him politically is the demonstration to Evangelicals that in this, as in many other things (notably the fight to reverse LGBTQ and reproductive rights), he is an agent of the divine will, despite (or sometimes because of) his heathenish personal behavior.
From this perspective, Trump’s strange rhetoric begins to make sense: When he accuses American Jews of “disloyalty,” he really means they are not playing the role Christians have assigned them in the great redemptive saga of the human race. Voting for Democrats, from this point of view, isn’t a matter of abrogating Jewish self-interests as reflected in Israel’s interests (as exclusively vested in Trump and his close ally Bibi Netanyahu), but is an unholy betrayal of God Himself, who wants confrontation, not peace, in the Holy Land.
In other words, Trump’s not as interested in Jewish opinion as he often sounds. He’s just using Jews and Israel to express his solidarity with Israel’s, and God’s, truly loyal followers over there in that nice Evangelical church. He needs every one of them in 2020.