While some Jews—like my boss at the Weekly Standard William Kristol, and Tablet colleague James Kirchick—are at the heart of the anti-Trump movement within the Republican Party, some Jewish Republicans continue to support him. There is mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, for one. There is also Trump’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law, and a host of corporate retainers. Yet there are also Jewish intellectuals who support a man from whom the entire American elite recoils in horror. So, who are these people?
In my first dispatch from Hollywood, I spoke with novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin and explained how the extinction-level events he imagines in his films and books are “in a sense, optimistic accounts of a collective fate that we can control through right action.” In this dispatch, I visited with two of the West Coast’s most prominent conservative Jewish intellectuals, David Horowitz and Roger Simon, screenwriter, novelist and publisher of PJ Media. Both of them are hopeful about Trump, the man many Americans—of both political parties—think likely to bring about the apocalypse.
Support for Trump does not appear to arise in either case from an obsession with Israel. Both Simon and Horowitz consider themselves Zionists, but there are probably Clinton supporters who spend much more time thinking about the Jewish state. In fact, Horowitz has never been to Israel—“I don’t like flying is one reason,” he told me.
And it’s not religion; both are proudly nondevout and liberal on social issues, like gay marriage—as is Trump. But that’s not why they support him, either.
For them, the problem, as Horowitz sees it, isn’t Trump, it’s the left: The left, in their view, has been telling the same lies for nearly a hundred years and will never change its ways. And that’s because, in Horowitz’s view, the left is primarily a secularized religious movement rather than a political one. “It’s a faith that seeks redemption in this life with itself as the savior,” he explained to me recently at his home in Simi Valley. “It’s such a beautiful dream, what lie would you not tell and what crime would you not commit to realize it?” Watching his parents grieve that they were deceived by Stalin’s lies, Horowitz resolved not to be played for a sucker. That’s why he jumped to the New Left, which he abandoned when he saw that he’d misled himself about its intentions, too.
I’d met Horowitz once before, at a Restoration Weekend that his organization, the Freedom Center, holds annually in Florida (one of this year’s speakers is Trump adviser [Ret.] Gen Mike Flynn), but barely had a chance to speak with him. The afternoon I met him he was in sandals and socks, grilling chicken breasts for lunch, and I felt like I was spending the afternoon with that part of the 77-year-old Queens intellectual that sunny California culture could never entirely have. “I came from a Marxist home,” he told me, but also a literary one. His own career has been starkly bifurcated between the literary output of a deeply cultured man whose political memoirs are American classics, and a propagandist who believes in fighting fire with fire.
I think one of the reasons that Horowitz is backing Trump is because, again, he doesn’t want to be taken for a sucker. And painting Trump as a fascist, as Himmler, is the kind of political rhetoric Horowitz recognizes as a matter of instinct. As Horowitz asks of his fellow Republicans, “Don’t they understand the seriousness of this election?”
Yet somehow, it doesn’t feel serious. Rather, it feels like the entire campaign is a gaudy ceremony where the red, white, and blue balloons fall from the ceiling and America must choose between either the gross Reagan parody who wants to “make America great again” or the Clinton reboot who may yet remember the incantation that will restore the go-go days of the tech bubble. Clinton is the first woman nominee, and Trump is uniquely outside the norms of Americans politics, but they’re both spent forces from the ’90s, the last of their kind. We’re far from the various energies of mid-20th-century America that shaped both Clinton and Trump—and neither candidate seems to have even the slightest idea of how to guide America into the future. Nor did Barack Obama, which is why his two key policy goals were about managing senescence: The Affordable Care Act to nurse aging baby boomers, and the Iran Deal to protect an America that no longer has the juice to handle its foreign-policy commitments in the volatile Middle East.
Simon and Horowitz come from different sides of the Cold War. “My father was peripherally a part of the Manhattan Project,” said Simon of the American nuclear weapons program that after WWII would be pointed at the Soviet Union that Horowitz’s parents saw as the great hope of mankind. We were having breakfast at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where the 72-year-old founder of the conservative website and news service Pajamas Media has just finished a bracing few sets of tennis. “I have a wife and college-age daughter to whom I am obliged to stay in good health,” he explained. We talked about movies for a while—he started in the film industry after he showed a talent for dialogue in his first novel, published at the age of 21, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1989 with Enemies: A Love Story, adapted from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.
And where Horowitz was a red-diaper baby in the boroughs, Simon’s childhood was solidly middle-class, growing up on the Upper East Side. Even their Southern Californias are different—desert for Horowitz, and the city for Simon.
The latter’s vision of Trump is more pragmatic than the former’s: “Trump’s not a politician, so he’d be easier to co-opt,” said Simon. The stuff Trump says that sounds outrageous, like his statement about turning away Muslims, aren’t political opinions, Simon explained, “but negotiating positions.”
Simon is known as a Sept. 11 conservative, a liberal whose worldview was changed partly by the attacks themselves and maybe more by the response of large parts of the elite classes he comfortably counted himself among. “Many of my compeers went back to type,” said Simon. “I didn’t.”
Then he offered a subtle correction of the record: “Actually, I started to change in the early ’90s,” he said. “But I didn’t know it then. The O.J. trial took over Los Angeles. I was a mystery writer so I was used to lawyers’ tricks, but this was a vast miscarriage of justice. He was exonerated for reasons of black racism, or the idea that you guys have screwed us so long that you had it coming.”
Which is finally what both men’s political conversion stories have in common: race, or more particularly, the tragic American romance between Jews and blacks. Simon was shaken by the O.J. Simpson trial, which centered around the murder of a Jewish man, Ronald Goldman, whose brutal execution was virtually ignored in a trial showcasing the instrumental uses and actual legacy of racism, and of violence against women. Horowitz’s conversion to conservatism was shaped in a similar but more personally immediate crucible, when the Black Panthers, with whom he had worked very closely in Oakland, murdered his friend Betty Van Patter, their bookkeeper, in 1974. The story of her death and Horowitz’s eventual realization of who was responsible, recounted in his memoir, Radical Son, and in an essay in his collection Destructive Generation, boxed him into an intellectual and ethical corner.
Jews, for obvious historical reasons, have an emotional need to connect with the oppressed, especially with those who had been physically enslaved in their Golden Land, as the Jews once were by the pharaohs. Jews represented a disproportionate bulk of the whites who marched alongside African-Americans in the civil-rights movement—“Andrew Goodman was my best friend in kindergarten,” said Simon—even though, of course, Jews were a small minority who had no role in establishing the institution of slavery in America, or in passing Jim Crow laws, or in other racist social practices. While Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century had nothing to do with America’s racist institutional past either, when a guilt-ridden America belatedly recognized its debts, it stuck the immigrants it had also scorned with the slave-masters bill. Paradoxically, in the minds of the descendants of the black slaves and other members of the political community they formed, it was Jews who owed them the most.
“Large parts of the black community legitimized anti-Semitism,” said Horowitz. Simon argues that some of the anti-Semitism comes from the fact that the Jews are successful. Prejudice against Jews comported with the political temperament of the Black Power movement, which saw itself as part of a larger international revolution of the South against the North, uniting brown and black people against the racist, imperialist oppressor who controlled the means of production. Capitalism was the mechanism by which the Jews fed off the wretched of the Earth.
“It’s hard sometimes to deal with people who tried to help you,” said Simon, nearly putting his finger on what may be the key psychological issue—what did American Jews expect in return for (sometimes) marching alongside blacks? Yes, the Jews had suffered throughout history, and no time more profoundly than merely a decade before the civil-rights movement began, when the Jewish community of Europe was nearly exterminated by the Nazis, in the modern world’s most deadly episode of racist violence.
Did the Jews want to share with African-Americans their own experience of suffering, even though the two catastrophes were, by definition, particular and not capable of being assimilated or perhaps even learned? Did the Jews want black gratitude? Forgiveness for something they had no hand in to begin with? Perhaps they sought credit from the cosmos. Or maybe they just did the right thing. Simon redirected: “The anger of the black community,” he said, “should be directed at the Democratic Party, which co-opted and ruined the civil-rights movement and failed to address the problems of black society.”
I don’t see how the Democratic Party can possibly be at fault. If African-Americans themselves aren’t responsible for the anti-Semitism that scars large parts of their community, what role can they claim in their own emancipation? It wasn’t Barack Obama’s responsibility to correct Jeremiah Wright for his anti-Semitic comments (though he should have walked out of Wright’s church long before he was called on the floor for it). Worse was when some commentators explained Obama’s presence at the church as an attempt to establish his bona fides in the African-American community. If this is what parts of the community need, that’s a problem.
And not just among African-Americans. Anti-Semitism is the one prejudice that right-thinking people have left, in America and nearly everywhere else. Imagine if the Lebanese Olympic team refused to get on a bus with the Nigerian delegation? It’s hard to imagine the kind of nuanced explanations of the geopolitical niceties that made it impossible for white people to share the same bus with black people – or men to share buses with women. But Jews? No problem.
Trump is how people like Simon and Horowitz are pushing back. Yes, he’s vulgar, rich, and a bigot, which is to say he’s a Jewish-establishment nightmare—and he’s not even Jewish. He’s in their face. He may say bad things, and some of his mistakes might be awful—but he’s not a sucker. In that oppositional stance, and wised-up attitude, I think some Jewish Republicans recognize themselves—just as they likely recognize the people attacking Trump as the same people who repeatedly wounded them. Whether all of those understandable emotions add up to anything good for the country is another question.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).