Earlier this month, Eric Cantor brought the Republican Party to a turning point and failed to turn. In the days leading up to an address he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, many in the news media predicted a game changer: “GOP Leader Aims To Change Party’s Message,” The Wall Street Journal heralded, while Politico declared that Cantor was “ready to rebrand the party.”
Once reporters woke from the deep slumber induced by Cantor’s speech, they announced that it was hardly a rebranding, much less a reinvention than a tired recycling of traditional Republican talking points (and the occasional non sequitur). He expressed his opposition to Obamacare (which has made “access to quality health care and innovation tougher”), vouched for school vouchers (“Allow the money we currently spend to actually follow individual children”) and asked that universities confront incoming students with the unemployment rates according to majors.
I’ve played Cassandra for years with my students, yet they persist in their irrational desire to study history. Though they should be studying hotel and restaurant management, these same students might also hire themselves out to Cantor’s public relations firm. They could tell the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress a useful thing or two about Victorian England’s highest-ranking Jewish member of its own Conservative Party, Benjamin Disraeli.
Of course, Disraeli was not, strictly speaking, Jewish: At the age of 13, thanks to his father’s falling-out with their synagogue, young Benjamin celebrated not his bar mitzvah, but instead his baptism in the Church of England. And strictly speaking, Cantor is not the dazzling novelist or thinker that Disraeli was. (And through no fault of Cantor, he will also never be, as was Disraeli, an intimate of Queen Victoria or prime minister.)
But a comparison between the men does suggest what Disraeli got right for his conservative and Christian followers — and what Cantor and his mostly Christian party persist in getting wrong.
An accidental Anglican, Disraeli was essentially what his contemporaries described as a “Jew d’esprit.” Disraeli never disguised his Jewish origins — to the contrary, he tirelessly boasted about his religious background, baiting his enemies and beguiling his supporters with largely invented details of his family’s ancestry. As Isaiah Berlin observed, Disraeli was “the most brilliant performer of his age, and if he had not half-believed in the reality of his own invention, he could have scarcely mounted the public stage.”