The Holocaust Historian Who Loves Donald Trump
Eric Metaxas, the acclaimed biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, believes Trump is actually “culturally Jewish” and his bigotry is just “shtick”
Over the past several election cycles, there has been an increasingly vocal, and financially generous, class of Jewish Republican donors, men drawn to Republican fiscal policy and what they perceive as warmth toward Israel. And in their giving, they have often resembled conservative evangelicals, who are typically to their right on matters like abortion and gay rights but with whom they share a love of the free market, a fear of government intrusion, and strong support for Israel. Yet this time around, major Jewish conservatives—Sheldon Adelson and Bernie Marcus being prominent exceptions—have abandoned Donald Trump, rightly seeing in his campaign the kind of enmity toward immigrants, aliens, and underdogs that historically has boded very badly for Jews.
Meanwhile, evangelicals, for all their putative love of Jews, for all their pro-Israel rhetoric, are heavily in for Trump. According to polls, the vast majority of evangelicals will vote for the twice-divorced, biblically illiterate lapsed Presbyterian who has refused to say if he was ever involved with a woman who had an abortion. And not just the masses in the pews. Many of conservative Protestantism’s leading spokespreachers, like Richard Land, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell Jr., and James Dobson, have come out for Trump. (None of these men would speak with me.) This split between Jewish and Christian conservatives is troubling, not because I am rooting for conservative unity—as a liberal, I’m not—but because of what it says about Christians’ real agenda when it comes to Jewish interests. Despite serious Jewish misgivings about Trump, and despite the ominous historical parallels his campaign conjures, his status as the not-Hillary is what really matters.
Consider, for example, the strange case of author Eric Metaxas. He really should get Jews. The author of a best-selling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who resisted the Nazis, he is literate in Jewish history, and knowledgeable about our struggles. As the host of Socrates in the City, a New York speaker series that mostly features conservative men talking about the big questions of life, Metaxas has hosted live discussions with, in addition to Christian usual suspects like Mike Huckabee, religious Jews like physicist Gerald Schroeder and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And as a New Yorker, as a Yalie, as a media guy, Metaxas lives and works with Jews all the time.
Yet Metaxas came out for Trump last month, and has spoken widely of his support since. Metaxas’s cultivated persona—pocket squares are involved—and his demonstrated interest in the well-lived life make him an oddity as a Trump supporter, doubly odd because of his familiarity with Jews. But while most of the Jews I know—even the Republicans—are terrified by Trump, I was curious that, in interviews, Metaxas, in effect a historian of fascism, didn’t seem to perceive a conflict between his Jew-friendliness and his Trump support.
When I asked him about these conflicts, Metaxas basically agreed that Trump, and his supporters, have behaved badly toward immigrants, Muslims, and the disabled, but what he sees are the forgivable actions of cranky “uncle” who is basically harmless but doesn’t know when to shut up. When I turned toward Trump’s alarming attitude toward Jews—the tweet from his campaign that showed Hillary against a field of dollar bills and a Star of David; his reported comment about “my Jews” supporting Christmas—he grew more cautious, saying that if there were real evidence of anti-Semitism, he wouldn’t support Trump. Which was not, shall we say, a reassuring answer.
Metaxas said that he used to worry about Trump, but at some point, for some reason, he stopped worrying and learned to love. He had no come-to-Jesus moment about Trump’s fundamental goodness. Rather, he said that when he was working on a New Yorker piece mocking Trump, in September 2015, he realized the man had a better side. “I saw a humanity in him that I didn’t think was there before,” Metaxas said, “and I would put him more in the category of a relative who is basically a good guy, like an uncle, but he says a lot of things you don’t agree with. But in his core he’s not Machiavellian or genuinely xenophobic or bigoted. If I believed he were, I wouldn’t vote for him.”
He said he thinks Trump is less corrupt than Hillary Clinton: “I think Trump, for all of his faults, at this point is not somebody who would want to line his pockets at the expense of the nation.” And he is not worried about what some see as Trump’s fascist tendencies: “I came to the conclusion over time that Trump is not the person I feared he was in the beginning, when I was against him.”
I asked about Trump’s penchant for fabulism—some would say lying—like when he said there were some people who held a moment of silence for the cop killer in Dallas. Metaxas was blasé.
“You have to see it at least partially as shtick,” he said. “He doesn’t communicate the way a standard politician communicates. It is kind of a New York shtick. And the rest is sloppiness. But that is different from a brazen lie. There is a distinction.”
And finally I got to the Jewish question. I asked what Metaxas would say to Jews, like me, who worry about the mob mentality at Trump’s rallies? Or the online anti-Semitism of many of his followers? Or the tweet from Trump’s campaign of Clinton against the star of David, and a background of dollars? Metaxas said I was simply misunderstanding.
“You are the kind of a person least likely on planet earth to understand how he’s communicating,” Metaxas said. “If this is a guy whose daughter married a Jew and became Jewish, he has a history—there is no way you can get around that. Any of us who are from New York are culturally Jewish. He didn’t go to Yale or work for the Times—he is in his own cultural universe. You have to understand who he is really. You put these quotes in a paper, and all the intellectuals go clucking. But that is unfair.”
Metaxas said that he would “never give no credence” to Jews’ concerns. “As the author of Bonhoeffer, I was the first one thinking, ‘Is this somebody in the mold of Hitler?’” he said. “Because I wrote the book on Bonhoeffer, I was thinking about this Nietzschian will to power—if you worship power like Hitler did, this is a direction you can go. Since then, I have come to think on some level that is true of Trump, but it isn’t true to the extent that we should be fearful of … I get the parallels, but a lot of this is emotional. I don’t think Americans would put up for that. I think we are very different as a nation than Germany was.”
I wondered if anything would turn Metaxas against Trump. What if Trump was caught on tape talking about the kikes or Christ-killer? “Would you withdraw your support from him?” I asked.
“Hell yes!” Metaxas said. But such an idea was absurd, Metaxas said. “I can’t conceive of it. His grandchildren are Jewish, his son is Jewish. It becomes—to ask that question is silly.”
What, I asked, about disabled people who felt that Trump had already gone that far in mocking them, when he imitated a disabled journalist last November? Again, Metaxas was not concerned.
“When he did that, you have to say, ‘That’s stupid. It’s my crazy uncle, who has gotten away with it for 60 years, but he has to learn it’s no longer appropriate.’ I also think he is goaded by the audience. He is on the stump and he gets away with it.”
Where does one begin? In trying to explain away the signs that Trump has fascist tendencies, Metaxas—who, remember, thinks himself a historian—has, without realizing what he’s done, given a catalogue of the naïve ways that people have explained away budding fascist movements. Either the movement is just shtick; or mere politicking (he’s not “genuinely xenophobic or bigoted”); or the rantings of the harmless crazy uncle; or simple populism, not comprehensible by the elites. And if it is scary, it’s not that scary, because saner forces will keep it in check.
But there is something sinister in Metaxas’s rationalization. In giving Jews a privileged place—he would, he promises, ditch Trump if Trump ever said anything totally, irrefutably anti-Semitic—Metaxas has in fact insulted us. Jews know that demagogues who demonize immigrants and the disabled cannot, to put it mildly, be counted on to look out for the Jews. Fascist tendencies don’t always start with the Jews, but they end with us. That’s true even if their spokesperson is, as in this case, a father to Jews, a grandfather to Jews, and, by virtue of being from New York, “culturally Jewish.” What Metaxas seems to mean by “culturally Jewish” is, in the case of Trump, hard to say. That he’s brusque? That he drives a hard bargain? Trump is culturally Jewish only if you believe the worst in Jewish stereotypes.
To invoke the legacy of Bonhoeffer to explain away support for Trump is a crime against reason, unbefitting a serious thinker. We Jews are not, after all, just pawns in a New Testament end-times plan. We have reasons to be scared, and they are reasons that our so-called friends on the Christian right might want to hear. Socrates in the city, indeed.