WASHINGTON — Throughout Donald Trump’s improbable rise to the Republican nomination, self-proclaimed Jewish neocons have mostly responded aghast. From William Kristol and Robert Kagan to Joshua Muravchik and Max Boot, the notion of a President Trump has been more than a little too much to bear.
Kristol has worked incessantly to recruit an alternative to run as an independent candidate; Kagan wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying Trump is bringing fascism to America; both Muravchik and Boot have said they plan to vote for Hillary Clinton; and Boot has insisted that Trump killed the Republican Party.
And yet, one of the intellectual godfathers of neoconservatism disagrees with all of them. When it comes to this roller coaster of a presidential election and the man who continues to confound virtually all of the political class, Norman Podhoretz is not exactly Pollyanna, but he does think the choice is easy, and that the vast majority of his ideological descendants are making a mistake by not embracing the GOP nominee.
“Many of the younger — they’re not so young anymore — neoconservatives have gone over to the Never Trump movement. And they are extremely angry with anybody who doesn’t share their view,” he recently told The Times of Israel. “But I describe myself as anti-anti Trump. While I have no great admiration for him, to put it mildly, I think she’s worse. Between the two, he’s the lesser evil.”
In a wide-ranging phone interview last week, the former longtime editor of Commentary magazine discussed what he thinks of the race and its implications for Israel. A critic of the Clintons since they gained national prominence decades ago, Podhoretz said the former secretary of state’s role in creating the conditions for the Iran nuclear deal is itself enough reason to support her rival.
“I think the Iran deal is one of the most catastrophic actions that any American president has ever taken. That’s how seriously I regard it. It paves the way for Iran to get a nuclear weapon,” he said. “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I think that we would be in great danger of seeing an outbreak of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel. So that alone would be enough to turn me against the Obama administration and virtually everyone who took part in it, and certainly Hillary Clinton. It overshadows everything from my point of view.”
But what makes Podhoretz, who once urged former president George W. Bush to bomb Iran, more confident that the former reality television star would prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons capability? “Well, I’m not 100 percent sure, not even 50 percent sure,” he said. “[Trump] has described it as the worst deal ever made, and he has said he would renegotiate it — and he may very well mean that.”
In the past, Trump has given conflicting answers over how he would address the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. During his address at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, he said, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” And then, minutes later, he also said, “We must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”
It is not lost on the 86-year-old Podhoretz that Trump has a tendency to fluctuate on issues. “I find Trump impossible to predict,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows exactly what he would do about anything. But the fact of the matter is, you’re dealing here not just with two individuals, you know, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you’re dealing with two political parties.”
The prominent conservative thinker has never been shy to express his loathing of the Democratic Party. Two years into Obama’s first term, he penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal saying he “would rather be ruled by the Tea Party” and “would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.”
One of the reasons for his repeated repudiation of Democrats has to do with what he sees as their collective stance on matters relating to the Jewish state. “I think there is no question that on Israel the Democrats can no longer be trusted,” he said. “The liberal community, generally, and the Democratic Party, particularly, have grown increasingly unfriendly to Israel over 50 years, and it’s reached a point now where there are elements within the party who are positively hostile to Israel, and many who are simply cold and unfriendly.”
Since the Iran deal made it through Congressional review — clearing the way for its implementation — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made several overtures to demonstrate his commitment to maintaining Israel as a bipartisan cause.
Democrats who supported the landmark pact, or who have differences with the current Israeli government on certain issues, claim those positions derive from their concern about the country’s interests, which include arguments that the Iran deal makes Israel safer and that expanding settlements in the West Bank impairs the goal of a two-state outcome and places Israel’s Jewish and democratic character in long-term jeopardy.
President Obama himself once told The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that, “There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as, in some fashion, opposing Israel. And there has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat.”
‘If Trump were to be elected, he’s not an emperor, he’s just one person … you’re not voting for king’
Nevertheless, Podhoretz remains firm on his belief that Clinton and the Democrats cannot be relied upon when it comes to Israel. That informs his support for Trump, who, despite some of the strongman tendencies other neocons have castigated, Podhoretz contends would not pose the kind of threat that Kagan and others have warned against.
“If Trump were to be elected, he’s not an emperor, he’s just one person, and he’s got a whole party and constituency coming along with him and so does Hillary,” he said. “You know, you’re not voting for king. You’re voting for a president whose powers are limited and circumscribed by the Constitution and by the other branches of government. So to me, it’s just a no-brainer.”
“While I can’t predict for you what Trump will do about anything,” he added. “I can predict for you what Hillary will do about everything.”
Trump vs. Hillary
Despite Clinton’s signaling she would restore a closer relationship with Israel than was seen under Obama, Podhoretz asserted she would do the opposite.
“I think she would continue the policy of daylight between Israel and the United States that Obama inaugurated. And by the way, she played along with that completely,” he said. “There was the 45-minute harangue, the chewing out she gave to Bibi at one point. So I think this distancing from Israel would continue and probably grow worse.”
During her address at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, Clinton indicated she would seek a reset from the Obama years, of which she was a part as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. “If I am fortunate enough to be elected president,” she promised, “we will never allow Israel’s adversaries to think a wedge can be driven between us. When we have differences, as any friends do, we will work to resolve them quickly and respectfully.”
Clinton has also insisted on her pro-Israel bona fides — and adroitness at conducting foreign policy — by often citing her role in brokering a 2012 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas amidst a violent eruption in the Gaza Strip.
None of which matters to the Cambridge-educated former literary critic. His distaste for Trump is superseded only by his disdain for Clinton, whom he considers to be not only unappealing politically, but unacceptable personally.
“Hillary has a worse character than Donald Trump,” he said. “She’s a thief and a liar and a brazen unprincipled opportunist. She has never done anything good in her entire political career. Even as a woman, she has gotten to where she is on the shoulders of her husband, not on her own merits. No, I have no respect for her whatsoever on any front.”
‘I would not bet my life on anything about Trump. I can imagine him going the opposite direction on everything that he says he’s for’
When asked if it was contradictory to cast Clinton as wanting to put distance between the US and Israel when the candidate he supports wants to be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Podhoretz shrugged off the possibility that Trump would actually pursue such a policy.
“That’s a long time ago, and he’s said more reassuring things since then. He’s gone out of his way in several speeches to describe Israel as our strongest ally. And I think he would no longer say that he’s neutral,” he said. “But I would not bet my life on anything about Trump. I can imagine him going the opposite direction on everything that he says he’s for.”
While Trump has suggested recurrently he would be close with Israel — after angering many in his own base over his vow of neutrality — he has not explicitly retracted that promise, and his website contains a video in which he says, “I want to remain as neutral as possible because, if you’re not somewhat neutral, the other side is never going to do it. But just remember, Israel, I love you. We’re going to see if we can get something done. It has to be done for both sides. It cannot continue to be the way it is.”
Regardless, Podhoretz, who has also long been opposed to the peace process, doesn’t buy it. “I once said that Trump is Pat Buchanan without the anti-Semitism,” he said. “By that, I meant that he seemed to be a nativist, an isolationist, and a protectionist. Those are sort of the three pillars of the Buchanan political creed. But whereas Buchanan really believes that stuff, I don’t think Trump does. I think he’s perfectly capable of turning on a dime on each one of those issues.”
Because Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is an Orthodox Jew and his daughter, Ivanka, converted, he said Trump would likely be “predisposed” toward sympathy with Israel. “But again, I’m not saying I would confidently predict what he would do as president,” he added. “I only have a sort of hunch.”
The Jewish vote
Shortly after Obama became president in 2009, Podhoretz wrote a book about why most American Jews identify as liberals and consistently vote Democratic. Since 1928, for instance, an average of 75 percent of the Jewish vote has gone to the Democratic candidate in each presidential election.
One of the central arguments of “Why are Jews Liberals?” is that because America’s existing “social, political and moral system” has fostered Jewish prosperity in ways unprecedented in the people’s history, they should embrace an ideology that seeks to retain that system as much as possible (conservatism) over one that seeks to gradually transform it (liberalism).
While critics have countered that Jews in America did not see much success until Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and the progressive era, Podhoretz quarrels with the political orientation and voting patterns of the majority of his fellow Jews.
He had hoped that “disappointment with President Obama” would begin to effect future elections. Indeed, President Obama did lose nine percent of the Jewish vote from 2008 to 2012, going from 78 percent to 69 percent.
Barring some unforeseen situation, however, Podhoretz feels he can confidently predict the trend of Jewish support for the Democratic candidate will remain in 2016.
“I think the Jews will vote for Hillary,” he said. “They’ll revert to their old obsession with sticking with the Democratic Party, I think.”
But has Trump — who has a mantra that “the system is rigged” — destroyed the opportunity for the Republican Party to make the case with Jews for which Podhoretz advocates? He doesn’t necessarily think so.
“Trump is running against an administration that’s been in power for eight years. And any one of those candidates who got the nomination would naturally be saying how terrible things are, blaming it all on Obama,” he said. “That’s natural. The party in opposition has to say that the party in power has done a terrible job, and the country is in desperate straights.”
“Trump certainly believes in the traditional American system, I think. He has no reason not to, and when he keeps saying that he wants to ‘Make America Great Again,’ that’s not that different from what Reagan was saying, ‘Our best days lie ahead,’ and so on.”
Reagan, who was president from 1981 to 1989, did better with Jews than any other Republican candidate since Dwight Eisenhower, taking in 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Trump, however, could do as poorly with Jews as Barry Goldwater, who, in 1964, received just 10 percent of Jewish support, Podhoretz posited.
And while he plans to be in that minority, many of his ideological bedfellows continue to publicly decry Trump, as well as privately convince Podhoretz to change his mind, including another prominent neoconservative pundit: his son, John Podhoretz, the current editor of Commentary.
Earlier this summer, the younger Podhoretz argued that any maneuvers to strip Trump of the nomination at the Republican convention “might not only be a wise thing to do,” but more so would be “the moral thing to do.” Such efforts that were put forth by delegates in Cleveland were unsuccessful — and so, too, have been his attempts to convince his father to reject Trump, according to the elder Podhoretz.
“He thinks that Trump is worse, and I think that Hillary is worse,” Podhoretz said. “He keeps trying to persuade me. He sends me things, articles, showing how bad Trump is. And I keep saying, ‘I know all this. I don’t need to be persuaded.'”