Over the coming years, environmental scientists will probably chronicle the many species that Donald Trump’s presidency has brought to extinction. Political scientists may add another: the conservative Jewish intellectual.
I’m using the phrase in a specific way. By “intellectual,” I mean someone who traffics in ideas, not tribal or partisan loyalties. By “conservative,” I mean someone whose views roughly approximate the views of self-described conservatives in America at large.
Reasonable people can quarrel with that definition. Conservatism, they might argue, is a set of enduring dispositions: reverence for tradition, fear of radical change, distrust of state planning. Its meaning should not rest on public opinion. But in common parlance, popular sentiment does determine political labels. Americans once used the term “liberal” to denote someone skeptical about government intervention in the economy. (Europeans still use it that way.) But in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt began employing the term to describe his New Deal agenda, and liberalism’s American meaning changed. To this day, some “classical liberals” or “libertarians” bemoan Roosevelt’s linguistic theft and insist that they — not Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama — are the true liberals. But that’s not how they’re generally described.
To understand why conservative American Jewish intellectuals, according to my definition, face extinction in the age of Trump, one has to understand what conservative Jewish intellectuals believe. Not all believe the same thing, of course, but it’s possible to make certain generalizations.
American Jewish conservatives tend to be internationalists. As members of a transnational people who suffered greatly from the absence of American power before World War II and have benefited greatly from it since, they believe deeply in the international order that America has sustained for almost 75 years. They believe it requires an America commitment to defend allies, resist adversaries and promote the free movement of goods and capital. They believe that those exertions benefit the United States even when they cost money and blood. And they believe that without them, the world will become less stable and more dangerous, not just for other peoples, but for Americans as well.
The most prominent Jewish intellectuals who joined the conservative movement in the 1970s — Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz — did so in part because they believed that American liberals were no longer willing to uphold those commitments in the wake of Vietnam. The conservative Jewish intellectuals of the George W. Bush era — William Kristol, Bret Stephens, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, John Podhoretz, David Frum, David Brooks — made a similar argument in response to liberal opposition to the war in Iraq.
But today a Republican President, overwhelmingly supported by self-declared conservatives in the country at large, is questioning America’s international obligations more fundamentally than any of his Democratic predecessors. On individual policies, Trump gyrates wildly from tweet to tweet. But since the campaign, his clearest theme has been that foreign policy consists of a series of transactions in which America has been getting ripped off. Trump’s transactionalism is amoral. He shows little preference for democrats over dictators. He celebrates autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, and berates an elected prime minister of Australia. All that matters is that the United States (and often the Trump and Kushner family businesses) get a good deal.
Trump’s transactionalism is also zero sum. Since the 1970s, Jewish conservatives have argued that America’s contributions to NATO and to the defense of Japan and South Korea benefit not only America’s allies, but also America itself. More recently, Jewish conservatives have argued for extending NATO into the former Soviet Union. They’ve argued that America benefits from an open trading system, too.
Trump rejects that. He has repeatedly suggested that the refusal of America’s European allies to spend more on their own defense makes NATO a bad deal. He’s suggested that America rethink its troop deployments in Japan and South Korea unless those countries pay America more. And he has described deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which reduce barriers to trade and investment, as bad for America’s workers.
Unlike most Jewish conservatives, Trump is less an internationalist than a nationalist. They believe America thrives by strengthening the postwar international system. He believes that system has blinded American leaders to the needs of their own people. And among conservatives in America at large, Trump’s vision is ascendant. Over the past three years, Republican support for free trade has plummeted. In polls, self-described conservatives now overwhelmingly support taxes on companies that outsource jobs. (Self-described liberals are much less supportive). Only a minority of Republicans still support NATO. Democratic voters, whom Jewish conservatives have long called isolationist, are today almost 30 points more likely to support the military alliance.
If Trump is making American conservatism more nationalistic, he’s also making it more tribal. Jewish conservatives are highly patriotic. But as members of a minority faith whose ancestors came to the United States relatively recently, they tend to identify American patriotism with a creed rather than a particular ethnic, racial or religious heritage.
Trump has shifted conservatism away from that notion. On the campaign trail, Ann Coulter — who later mused about restricting voting to Americans with four U.S.-born grandparents — sometimes served as Trump’s warmup act. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, ran the website Breitbart, which publishes endless stories about the supposed barbarism of Latino and Muslim immigrants. One of Trump’s top national security aides, Michael Anton, takes a dim view of diversity, characterizing it as a “source of weakness, tension and disunion.”
Jewish conservatives are generally optimistic about America’s ability to integrate people of different backgrounds. (There are exceptions like Dennis Prager.) “Immigrants,” David Brooks wrote in 2013, “are doing a reasonable job of assimilating.” Prior Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush shared that optimism. Trump and his top aides do not.
Under their influence, Republicans have embraced a more tribal notion of American identity. According to a March poll in The Associated Press, 57% of Republicans (compared with only 29% of Democrats) said Christianity was extremely or very important to what it means to be an American. Only one-third of Republicans stressed the benefits of incorporating a mix of global cultures. In 2015, Republicans overwhelmingly told the Pew Research Center that immigrants are not assimilating.
Trump has made immigration central to American conservatism. According to a CBS survey this past February, it is now the issue Republicans care about most. And it is an issue that pits most conservative Jewish intellectuals against most conservatives in the country at large.
Finally, conservative Jewish intellectuals generally distrust populism. Irving Kristol said he learned to distrust the common man during World War II, when he served in a unit “heavily populated by thugs or near-thugs from places like Cicero [Illinois],” the gangster Al Capone’s home base. Since then, while Jewish conservatives have understood the need to appeal to public opinion, they have resisted the claim that governing well requires no special knowledge or training.
By helping to create journals like The Public Interest, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and clubs like the Federalist Society, they have labored to give conservatism intellectual respectability. And as Jews, they have remained keenly aware of the way populism can degenerate into hatred of people deemed cosmopolitan, alien or subversive.
Trump has made the conservative movement more populist. He has flaunted his ignorance of public policy. He has denigrated intellectuals like Bill Kristol and George Will, and elevated know-nothings like Sean Hannity. And in the name of the people, he has attacked institutions, like the judiciary, the press and the civil service, that are supposed to restrain his power.
Prominent conservative Jewish intellectuals have responded with alarm. In May, Bret Stephens wrote in The New York Times: “Populism is not conservatism, which by definition entails resistance to public whims. Conservatives who seek to use populism for their own ends inevitably make a Faustian bargain. We are now living with the consequences of that bargain in the form of Donald Trump’s presidency.”
To say that Trump is driving a wedge between conservative Jewish intellectuals and conservative voters is not to say that he has no Jewish fans. He does. He performed well among Orthodox voters, and enjoys the support of some prominent conservative Jews, among them former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer, radio talk show host Mark Levin and Breitbart editor Joel Pollack. But none of these supporters qualifies as an intellectual. Fleischer is a public relations flack, more loyal to the GOP than to conservative ideology. Levin was a “Never Trumper” who became a Trump apologist to curry favor with his listeners. Pollack runs a website that specializes in sensationalizing crimes by immigrants. Its ethos is less ideological than tribal: White Christians and Jews are civilized, Muslims and Mexicans are not.
Conservative Jewish intellectuals, who have helped define conservative thought since at least the Reagan era, are now politically homeless. In the Trump era, they are not only out of step with the Republican Party; they are out of step with the conservative public, which is why so many of them — Brooks, Frum, Stephens, Rubin, Boot — now do most of their writing for publications that have primarily liberal audiences.
Could this change? Perhaps. Were Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Nikki Haley to become president, he or she might pursue a more internationalist, less tribal, less populist agenda, and conservatives in the country at large might fall in line.
But there’s no guarantee. Trump is not only the cause of the conservative movement’s shift, he’s also a product. Among grassroots conservatives, America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fomented distrust of the country’s commitments overseas. The election of an African-American president, combined with rapid demographic change and stagnating wages, has soured many conservatives on immigration. The financial crisis and the deepening economic struggles of white working-class men have sparked a populist backlash against conservative as well as liberal elites. These shifts may cause the next batch of Republican presidential contenders to move in Trump’s ideological direction (as Rubio did quite explicitly during the 2016 primaries). It’s significant that Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, a senator with national ambitions who has won praise from Bill Kristol, this spring proposed cutting legal immigration to the United States in half.
The last time conservative Jewish intellectuals found themselves in the political wilderness was the 1970s. After 1972, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern — a critic not only of Vietnam but also of the Cold War itself — men like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz no longer felt comfortable in the party. But until the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980, they didn’t feel comfortable in the GOP either.
Not coincidentally, Kristol and Podhoretz were at their most provocative during that interregnum. Their distance from both parties freed them to criticize liberal orthodoxy without substituting conservative orthodoxy in its place. In the decades to follow, their intellectual successors drew closer to the GOP and became more predictable as a result. Just compare The Public Interest, which Irving Kristol co-founded in 1965, to The Weekly Standard, which his son co-founded in 1995. The former published vastly more interesting work.
Thorstein Veblen famously argued that because assimilated Jews lived in an “intellectual no-man’s land” in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, alienated from their own religious traditions and yet denied access to the Christian world, they proved so creative. Perhaps the same will prove true for today’s conservative Jewish intellectuals, who are caught between a Trump-dominated GOP and a liberal Democratic Party they still deeply distrust.
Their position may not be personally comfortable. But it may produce a new burst of political imagination, from which both liberals and conservatives can benefit in this bleak time.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.