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Never Trump vs. Never Again
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Never Trump vs. Never Again

Does ‘never’ mean never?

Donald Trump is introduced at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas on October 28, 2023. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

We begin with a tautology: If there are circumstances under which you’re willing to vote for Donald Trump, you’re not actually “Never Trump.”

And if you’re not, I understand. Sort of.

Take it from me, it’s not a club anyone should be eager to join. Membership means losing most of your friends in politics and trading them for a small clique of idealistic nerds prone to quoting Michael Oakeshott. (No offense, Jonah.) Unless you’re an idealistic nerd yourself, as I am, it’s an awkward place to be.

Also awkward is the fact that no one who’s part of it is truly “Never Trump.”

As loathsome as the Republican nominee is, American politics doesn’t want for profoundly loathsome figures. You might have to reach very far into dark fantasy to find someone so repulsive that you’d prefer to be governed by Trump than by that person, but it can be done. Meditate on these three words: President Alex Jones.

The “Never Trump” club would empty out mighty quickly if we were facing that, I suspect. Given the trajectory this dumb country is on, we might test my theory in 2028.

The question of how conditional “Never Trump” might be is on my mind because of something a well-known member of the club posted online last week. Financier Clifford Asness has been a righteous opponent of you-know-who, backing Nikki Haley in the Republican primary and laughing at Trump’s threats to excommunicate anyone who persisted in donating to her campaign. (He is so much of a Never Trumper that our own Jonah Goldberg holds the Clifford Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.) If anyone is primed to cross the aisle and back Joe Biden in November to thwart a MAGA restoration, it’s him.

But Asness was irate when the president declared his intention to stop shipments of certain weapons to Israel if it proceeds to invade Rafah. “I hope Dearborn and the loyalty of spoiled stupid malevolent brats are worth it, Joe,” he tweeted, “as you have me perilously close to the formerly (and still kind of) unthinkable: #TRUMP2024.” If that wasn’t clear enough, he went on to frame the stakes starkly: “My #NeverAgain is trumping my #NeverTrump these days.”

When a conservative Jewish friend brought those tweets to my attention, I did what any self-respecting Never Trumper would do and threw a tantrum. How could Asness be so irresponsible as to condone restoring a fascist to power? Why isn’t he thanking Biden for supporting Israel steadfastly for seven months while the dregs of American politics chanted “Genocide Joe” at him?

Maybe Asness is secretly uncomfortable with being part of the “Never Trump” club, I initially speculated, and looking for excuses to rejoin Team GOP. Biden’s Rafah policy conveniently provided one to him. How cynical. How pathetic. And how absurdly hyperbolic of him to invoke the Holocaust as a fig leaf for that decision.

To my surprise, my Trump-hating friend was having none of it.

Many people in her politically attuned social circle of fellow Trump-haters share Asness’ sentiments, she warned me, echoing a point Jonah made last week, and it’s not because they’re Republican partisans eager to get back in the party’s good graces. It’s because American Jews are experiencing real anxiety in this political moment to a degree that non-Jews like me will find difficult to grasp. As repugnant as the thought of a second Trump term is, asking Jewish voters to turn a blind eye to growing left-wing hostility towards “Zionists” by supporting the Democrats is a big ask. And it’s getting bigger by the day.

I was taken aback.

How are classically liberal Jews supposed to navigate a choice between “Never Trump” and “Never Again”?

What I failed to understand about the intense backlash to Biden’s retreat on Rafah, a second Jewish friend explained to me, is that it’s not ultimately about the war. It’s about what the policy represents.

Cutting off offensive weapons may or may not meaningfully affect Israel’s operations in southern Gaza. (News broke as I was writing this that the White House is moving ahead with a $1 billion package of new weapons.) But the mere fact that Biden has been successfully pressured into easing off his support for the Jewish state means that the ugly progressive agitation we’ve seen on college campuses and elsewhere is working.

The Hamasniks are gaining influence over American policy despite their eliminationist agenda. Calling openly for the land “from the river to the sea” to be “free” is now sufficiently mainstream in American politics, it appears, that a movement known for it can twist the arm of the leader of the free world into doing its bidding even as it goes about doing Hamas’.

That’s not as bad as “Never Again” but it’s alarming. And that’s not all.

The first friend I mentioned has been struck by how reluctant Biden’s Justice Department has been to prosecute pro-Palestinian activists for interfering with public accommodations. When protesters associated with right-wing causes take it upon themselves to occupy buildings and obstruct access, the law is merciless. When those associated with a left-wing cause do so, the current DOJ seems to have better things to do.

That too sends a signal about what is and isn’t acceptable in American politics when Democrats run the White House.

The grassroots left also gets a say in what’s acceptable, of course, and the signs there are ominous as well. Spend some time on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter and you’ll find the hot new trend in canceling people for their political views is to identify “Zionists” and target them for professional reprisals. “Jew lists are back in fashion,” one former member of the Israeli military said of the phenomenon, without exaggeration.

Both of my friends zeroed in on progressives dividing Jewish Americans into “good” and “bad” Jews based on whether they oppose Israel and the broader leftist agenda. Joe Biden doesn’t do that, they conceded, but Joe Biden is 81 years old and out of step with a youthful base that already favored the Palestinians over Israel before the war in Gaza began. To reelect him as the lesser of two evils relative to Trump risks signaling to his base that they needn’t reconsider their toxic attitudes about Zionism and those who support it. 

That’s what “Never Again” means in context—not that there’s necessarily a second Holocaust in the offing but that there’s a segment of the American left that’s increasingly comfortable with treating “bad Jews” as an enemy. Handing them an electoral victory in that climate might embolden them to keep going in the direction they’ve been going and to eventually remake the Democratic Party in the process.

The friend who pointed out Asness’ tweets to me specifically wondered how Kamala Harris might govern if she succeeded Biden in a second term. Harris is more progressive politically than the president and (a little) closer in age to the Democrats’ young pro-Palestinian cohort. As such, said my friend, her choice as a voter in this election feels like it’s between a right-winger who might try to throw her in jail for her anti-Trump activities and a left-winger who might try to throw her in jail for being the wrong kind of Jew.

Which, I must say, sounded a tad overwrought.

After all, Harris’ own husband is Jewish. And if she were to ascend to the presidency, her popular support would be extremely weak, constraining her freedom of political movement. (She’s viewed less favorably than both Biden and Trump.) She’s not charismatic either, which is a basic ingredient for authoritarian persecution campaigns. My guess is that, upon taking command, she would tack toward the center rather than the left in hopes of broadening her appeal and shedding her reputation as too ideological to win a national election.

Making yourself feel ambivalent about reelecting Trump by envisioning President Kamala as a scourge of American Jewry is a variation of my Alex Jones point earlier. It’s possible to concoct terrifying hypotheticals that would balance the moral scales between our two choices this fall, but you need a lot more imagination to make yourself sick about what Democrats might do than what Trump would.

Having said all that, it’s very hard to tell someone who’s Jewish that they’re being irrational about a threat of persecution.

There is, of course, the entire scope of Jewish history as context to contend with. And not ancient history either: Many American Jews have family members who perished overseas within living memory in extermination camps. We’re currently in month eight of a progressive political effort to shield the perpetrators of one of the worst pogroms since World War II from consequences. All of that being so, try looking a Jewish American in the eye and assuring them that they’re overreacting. You’ll never feel more ridiculous.

My friend flatly told me that I can’t understand the degree of fear she feels because I’m not Jewish myself. I didn’t care for that point, as it suggests callousness on my part and implies that Jews will necessarily assess the risks of a second Biden administration more accurately than I can. But there is truth to it. If we end up in a progressive dystopia down the road in which “bad Jews” need to watch their backs, she’ll suffer in a way that I won’t. She needs to weigh that in her vote this fall accordingly.

I sympathize with all of that. But I think the catalyst for this recent burst of anxiety, Biden’s retreat from Rafah, is premised on a misunderstanding.

It’s not fear of campus Hamasniks that has the White House inching away from Israel, I suspect, it’s the fact that American opinion writ large regarding Israel’s operations in Gaza turned negative several months ago. Since October, the president has proved that he’s willing to endure the vitriol of the “Genocide Joe” cohort; what he’s afraid of, I think, is a bloodbath in Rafah that will send wider public support for Israel tumbling and, ultimately, will sink his reelection bid.

That’s not a defense of his policy, merely a theory that insofar as he’s been “captured” by any constituency, that constituency is the American electorate more so than the “from the river to the sea” droogs. (Various polls have indicated that campus protests aren’t moving the needle, which would make this a curious moment for the president to surrender to them.) That’s cold comfort for Israel but should offer a bit of reassurance for Jewish Americans that Biden—who spoke capably about what “Never Again” means last week—isn’t under the thumb of the filthiest elements of his base.

And it brings us to this question: How much better would Donald Trump be for American Jews in a second term than Biden? By what logic does Clifford Asness treat “Never Trump” and “Never Again” as a binary choice?

It cannot be that a man who’s chummy with Nick Fuentes, Kanye West, and Tucker Carlson is the great hope of American Jewry. 

That’s not to say that Trump is himself antisemitic, merely that he’s amoral to a degree that’s unusual even for members of his profession. There’s no sin of which one might be guilty that he won’t overlook in exchange for personal loyalty. Insofar as he might regret dining with Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago, that regret assuredly lies with the bad press the incident brought him and not with the encouragement Fuentes must have taken from the meeting for his brand of politics.

Someone who lacks a moral intuition can never be depended on to do the right thing, by definition. Instead, that someone will be coldly transactional in his relationships and ruthlessly selfish in pursuing his personal interests, up to and including condoning religious prejudice if necessary. If the political winds were to shift on the American right toward antisemitism, there’s no moral qualm that will keep Trump from shifting with them.

And those winds might already be shifting, albeit not as quickly as they are on the left.

To be fair, there are reasons besides morality to believe that Trump wouldn’t follow the impulses of his sleaziest supporters on what we might call “Jewish issues.” For starters, like Harris, he has Jewish relatives. As a matter of policy, he’s doubtless hoping to build on the success of the Abraham Accords in a second term by brokering formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would improve the Jewish state’s security. And all sides agree that Trump, being amoral, would be less squeamish than Biden and the Democrats about allowing Israel to behave ruthlessly with its enemies. If the Israeli leadership chose to level Gaza, President Trump might—might—shrug.

He would also eagerly make a political foil of pro-Hamas campus protesters, needless to say. Aligning himself with the forces of law and order against leftist disruption is his authoritarian bread and butter. The prospect of having them as an enemy might be enough to keep him onside as an ally of Israel for the duration of his second term.

But here’s where we come to the first major downside of Trump. He’s so personally obnoxious, and so boorish in his demands for loyalty and obedience, that he makes “resistance” compelling.

His presidency began with a massive “Women’s March” in Washington and wound down with gigantic anti-racist demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. His demagoguery about pet issues also sometimes inspired a backlash in public opinion, with the share of Americans who want more immigration exceeding the share who want less for the first time in the history of Gallup’s polling during Trump’s last year in office.

Having him as a foil might provide a similar PR boon for pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S., especially if Trump does end up encouraging Israel to be as ruthless as its most hawkish proponents demand in its military conduct. What do we think the net effect will be on American and global support for the Jewish state if Israel is increasingly linked with popular revulsion toward Trump?

Relatedly, how confident are we that having Trump in office would reduce, rather than increase, the risk of a regional war in the Middle East?

It’s received wisdom among his fans that because he’s “erratic,” shall we say, America’s enemies dare not challenge him by behaving aggressively toward U.S. allies. Maybe so; his first term was conspicuously free of major wars. But he’s also vocally skeptical of the American security umbrella overseas, foremost with respect to NATO and the Korean peninsula. It’s hard to believe some enemy power won’t want to test that skepticism during the next and possibly last four-year window they’ll have of an isolationist being in charge of the U.S. military.

That might mean nothing for Israel, as Trump’s antagonism toward Iran probably makes Tehran unlikely to press its luck. But one never knows how a war that starts somewhere else might spill over into other theaters. If Russia made a move on Poland or China made a move on Taiwan, each believing that Trump would slink away from a fight on “America First” grounds, would one of Israel’s enemies look to capitalize on the chaos by attacking the Jewish state? If it did, raising the risk of a world war upon America’s entry, how would that affect Trump’s calculus about coming to Israel’s aid?

The fact that he’s unpredictable makes the behavior of America’s enemies unpredictable too.

But lay all of that aside. In fact, let’s stipulate that unconditional support from a second Trump administration would be better for Israel than the merely very staunch support minus some weapons for Rafah that it’s received from Biden’s administration. And let’s not think too hard about the contradiction involved in Republican nationalists, usually so quick to ask “What’s in it for us?” about foreign entanglements, suddenly demanding unconditional support for an ally.

What price civically should American voters be willing to pay to ensure somewhat greater aid for Israel by reelecting Trump?

You know the stakes of this election. I write about them every day. If Trump returns to power after attempting a coup, inciting an insurrection, and getting indicted, he’ll conclude that he has a mandate to do much more than seal the border and reduce inflation. He’ll believe that the people have ratified his authoritarian ambitions and consented to place him formally above the law.

And it’ll be hard to dispute that interpretation. Americans will have chosen post-liberalism, knowingly and deliberately. If the great fear in reelecting Biden is encouraging the worst elements of the left, consider what we’ll be encouraging by choosing the alternative.

I can’t get a scale to balance that has the end of the constitutional order on one side and extra bombs for the IDF on the other. And to those who would respond that it’s not bombs but rather fear of persecution that’s on the other side of the scale, I would say simply this: I find it very unlikely that a post-liberal America will be more welcoming to Jews long-term, here or abroad, than the United States is now.

Post-liberalism isn’t known for its tolerance of minorities. The whole point of it, one might even say, is to rid the dominant cultural tribe of its obligation to respect the rights of those who don’t belong to it. For ages, the Jewish people have been a convenient scapegoat for tribal authoritarians; it boggles the mind to think anyone could believe the path away from “Never Again” runs toward America’s version of tribal authoritarianism.

I think it runs toward the legal protections afforded by the classically liberal system that Trump’s movement hopes to smash. Biden isn’t the best guardian of it that we could have hoped for, but he’s the one we’ve got. And so the choice, unpalatable as it is, remains obvious. “Never” means never, still.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.