President Trump‘s repeated comments this week about “disloyal” Jews drew attention because the ugly theme of divided loyalty has long taken a prominent role in anti-Semitic attacks.
But Trump’s remarks said less about anti-Semitism than about his tribal view of politics. That same view also shapes his approach to policymaking and was on display this week in what he said about gun control.
More than any other president in memory, Trump defines himself not as a potentially unifying leader, but as the head of a tribe, dealing with other, competing tribes. That approach has solidified his bond with his supporters — fellow members of his tribe — but it severely limits his ability to reach beyond them, as our latest USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed.
THE TRIBAL INSTINCT
Trump ignited the controversy on Tuesday when he said that Jews who vote for Democrats — and 70%-80% of Jewish voters do — show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
As Chris Megerian reported, Trump at first didn’t clarify to whom he thought Jews were being disloyal. That allowed some of Trump’s Jewish supporters to claim that he wasn’t suggesting that Jews have dual loyalties, only that Jewish Democrats were being disloyal to themselves or to some abstract notion of their own best interests.
The next day, as he often does, Trump undercut those same efforts to explain away something he said.
“If you vote for a Democrat, you’re being disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” he declared.
Earlier in the day, as Eli Stokols wrote, Trump had admiringly retweeted a comment by Wayne Allen Root, a right-wing writer and conspiracy theorist, who said that Trump was “the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world.” Israeli Jews love him “like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God,” Root wrote. “But American Jews don’t know him or like him.”
Set aside for now the narcissism involved in publicly repeating a remark comparing oneself to the Messiah. Instead, focus on what the two sets of remarks say about Trump’s view of tribalism and loyalty. The syllogism runs something like this: Jews, regardless of their American citizenship, owe loyalty to Israel. I, President Trump, have done a lot for Israel. Therefore, American Jews owe support to me, and those who support my opponents are disloyal.
Jews aren’t the only minority to whom Trump applies that logic. He’s taken a very similar approach to black Americans, although he’s been somewhat more careful in how he talks about it.
Last year, when he granted a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion who was convicted more than a century ago of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes, or earlier this year when he intervened with Swedish officials to try to win release from jail of the black rapper ASAP Rocky, Trump implied that those acts should prompt African Americans to support him.
In both cases, the argument is similar: I’ve done something for a member of your tribe, so you should repay me with support.
THE TRIBAL CONSTRAINT
Every president has, to some extent, view himself as the representative of the people who voted for him. Most have tried to balance that tribal loyalty with a broader sense of obligation to the best interests of the country as a whole. Trump stands out for his focus on what his side wants.
As his response this week to gun control proposals made clear, that sort of tribalism in policymaking severely limits his options.
Earlier this month, after mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, Calif., Trump expressed support for “strong background checks” on gun sales, although he was careful not to commit himself to any specific policy. A few days later, he went further, although still stopping short of a commitment, as Stokols noted.
“There’s a great appetite — and I mean a very strong appetite — for background checks,” the president said. “And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before. I think both Republican and Democrat are getting close to a bill on — they’re doing something on background checks.”
But as many predicted he would, Trump quickly backed down in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Assn. and other gun groups. The explanation he offered in comments to reporters perfectly encapsulated his self-conception as the leader of a specific tribe.
“A lot of the people who put me where I am are strong believers in the 2nd Amendment,” he said. “I am also,” he added, leaving out the fact that only a few years ago, before launching his presidential campaign, he publicly advocated gun control. “We have very, very strong background checks right now.”
THE TRIBAL REWARD
Trump’s constant tending to his political base has paid off — to some extent. As our latest USC/L.A. Times poll showed, a large majority of Republicans like the direction in which he’s moved the party, and about 40% would like to see him have even more influence in the GOP.
But as the 2018 midterm elections showed — and as the poll also highlighted — the approval of Trump’s base has come at a high price. Trump’s policies have unified his opponents, driven away independents and alienated a small but important slice of Republican voters. Among those who defined themselves as independents who lean toward the GOP, about three in 10 said they would be unhappy to see Trump reelected.
Trump will try to win back those Republican leaners by appealing to their partisan loyalties and warning of Democratic extremism. “Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me,” he said last week at a rally in Manchester, N.H.
That approach will surely work with some voters, and a second Trump term is certainly possible. But he’s starting out the campaign in a deep hole, much of which he’s dug himself.
By 54% to 29%, eligible voters in the poll said they would be unhappy to see Trump reelected.
AN INTERNET SENSATION ON THE RIGHT
Dennis Prager, the L.A.-based radio commentator, has long had a prominent voice as a conservative ideologist. But for most of his life, he’s had a relatively limited audience. Suddenly, at age 71, he’s become an internet sensation through his PragerU — which isn’t an educational institution but a registered charity that produces short videos aimed at spreading conservative ideas on college campuses and elsewhere. Evan Halper takes an illuminating look at Prager and his impact.
FALL IS COMING, CANDIDATES ARE DROPPING
Start saying goodbye to the field of two dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls. As the summer starts giving way to autumn, the winnowing of the field has accelerated. This week, John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, Jay Inslee, the current Washington governor, and Seth Moulton, the congressman from Massachusetts, all dropped out of the race.
Hickenlooper plans to run for the Senate, as Stokols wrote, and has a good shot at defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Inslee plans to run for reelection as governor, Matt Pearce wrote. He is considered likely to win.
Wednesday brings the deadline for candidates to qualify for the September round of debates. So far, 10 have met the criteria. In addition to the four top candidates (Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris), the qualifiers so far are South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur.
One or two more candidates remain close to qualifying and could make the cut either for September or the next round in October, with Tom Steyer, the billionaire political activist, being the closest to success. The rest, however, are likely to see their fundraising become even harder and their chances more tenuous. Look for a few more to withdraw after Wednesday’s deadline passes.
The dropouts could make life easier for voters like Cheri Schmitt, a 56-year-old elementary school teacher in New Hampshire who has set herself the goal of meeting each of the Democratic candidates. Pearce has her story, from a state where retail politics still matters.
REPORTING FROM THE TRAIL
Warren and Sanders have similar ideas but competing paths to victory in 2020, Janet Hook wrote, after observing rallies by the two candidates in New Hampshire.
Warren has steadily gained support among Democratic voters over the last four months. Sanders’ campaign, by contrast, seems stalled. He has a loyal corps of supporters, but has had trouble expanding beyond that.
And as Seema Mehta, Anthony Pesce and Maloy Moore reported, the vast group of donors that Sanders amassed in his 2016 presidential bid have been split in the 2020 field. Many have sat out the race so far, others have donated to some of Sanders’ rivals.
The fact that Sanders has a lot of former donors who haven’t contributed to him this year could give him a well of potential support down the road. But it could also be another indicator that he’s not entirely rekindled the fire that sustained him in 2016.
Tryrone Beason went to South Carolina to talk with African American voters about the renewed debate over reparations for slavery. He came away with a richly nuanced account of how descendants of slaves feel: A reparations check won’t make the pain go away.
The Democratic National Committee is meeting today and tomorrow in San Francisco, and that’s brought many of the candidates to California. At a town hall in Los Angeles, Warren’s crowd had a new chant, Melanie Mason reported: “Two cents! Two cents!” referring to her proposal for a 2% tax on fortunes over $50 million.
And Sanders talked about “silver linings” and his climate change plan while visiting Paradise, the town devastated by last year’s fire.
TRUMP SEEKS TO LENGTHEN DETENTIONS FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
The Trump administration has long opposed the limits on how long immigration officials can detain families arrested at the border that were spelled out in the settlement of a court case in 1997. This week, the administration officially proposed scrapping the so-called Flores agreement and ending the limits on child detention.
As Molly O’Toole and Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported, immigrant advocates said they would go immediately to court to try to block the move.
G-7 LEADERS HOLDING THEIR BREATH
Trump heads to Europe today for the G-7 summit in France this weekend. With signs of looming economic downturns across the globe, this might seem like an ideal time for the leaders of the world’s biggest economies to pull together. That’s what the G-7 was set up to do. But as Stokols reported, instead, discord dominates as Trump talks about inviting Russia back into the G-7.
Earlier this week, Trump canceled another foreign trip, saying he wouldn’t visit Denmark because the Danish prime minister had dismissed as “absurd” his idea of the U.S. buying Greenland.
Before Trump left for France, however, his administration did decide to back off foreign aid cuts that budget officials had pushed for. As Tracy Wilkinson reported, the cuts had drawn opposition from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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