Trump is Another False Messiah
Last week, I argued that Trump’s campaign of fear against the Other is anathema to the Jewish experience. This week, I summarize my Jewish aversion to Trump’s assertion that he and only he can bring salvation to our people.
Overwhelmed by Ego
Donald Trump wants us to see America as a bleak, threatening, and disintegrating landscape of poverty, danger, and fear. His campaign slogan is “Make America great again,” and the only way to do that is to “choose me.” Trump depicts himself as our savior.
This should come as no surprise. Launched to stardom on reality TV, Donald Trump’s brand is his bravado. The ghost writer of The Art of the Deal described Trump as “pathologically self-centered,” and the former Trump Organization executive vice president said of Trump, “I don’t think it’s possible to quantify the size of his ego.” Despite his humiliating track record of failures and bankruptcies, Trump seems to have convinced himself—and is trying to convince all of America—that his is a life blessed with a supernatural talent for success.
As President, he declares, his uncanny skills and abilities will save the day. He claimed in November (and recently claimed again) to “know more about ISIS than the generals do.” A few weeks ago, he said, “To those suffering, I say: what do you have to lose by voting for Donald Trump? I will fix it. I will fight for you as no one ever has before.” Last week, he said, “Everything that is broken today can be fixed, and every failure can be turned into a great success.” As he asserts again and again, “I alone can fix it.”
Another In a Long Line of False Messiahs
Jews have never fared well under self-promoted “saviors,” especially those that demonize foreigners and religious minorities. But Trump isn’t an outside invader or usurping dictator – he seeks democratically-elected office. He’s working within the system to earn a position of authority, and in this way, he resembles one of the many false messiahs that have led Jews astray.
Perhaps the most damaging of these false messiahs was Shabbetai Zvi, a 17th-century mystic who claimed he was God. Shabbetai Zvi’s delusions of grandeur combined with his mesmerizing personal presence and seductive promotion of radical rulebreaking convinced Jews around the world that this man could solve all their problems. His forced conversion ultimately disillusioned almost every person who had believed in him. A hundred years later, Jacob Frank passed himself off as the reincarnation of Shabbetai Zvi, and his popular following demonstrates just how alluring a message of redemption can be for a population that sees itself as helpless.
These and other false messiahs have shattered the hopes of Jews for centuries by peddling populist “quick fixes” and charming large groups of people through force of will. But it’s never ended well. So when Donald Trump casts himself as a mythic hero who can save America, my sense of Jewish history sounds the alarm.
Lacking a Hero’s Essential Quality
A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah that the Israelites were “free to set a king over” themselves (Deuteronomy 17:15). This king was expected to conduct a life of moderation and adherence to the Torah, regarding the wisdom of our tradition as a treasure (cf. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b). In this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded that the king and the people are intimately bound up with one another – if we go astray, the king feels the consequences just as powerfully (Deut. 28:36). This is because a Jewish king is not superhuman or truly even superior to his subjects; he is a man of the people, endowed with a special responsibility to bring the light of Torah to the world.
Though our people have never known an ultimate redeemer, the closest we’ve come was Moses. Moses, as it were, held God’s hand as he led our people out of Egypt, and Moses was the conduit for God’s revelation as the only prophet to speak with God face to face.
Even though Moses is regarded as Judaism’s greatest hero, he is remembered first and foremost as a man of superlative humility: “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Following Moses’ lead, our tradition holds that humility in some measure is a sine qua non of proper leadership.
Despite Trump’s claim that he’s “more humble than [Lesley Stahl] would understand,” humility is the last word I would associate with the candidate. He puffs himself up and oversells his capability. In peddling himself as a savior, Donald Trump is anything but.