This is part one of our two-part Oct. 16 print edition cover story, “Divided We Vote.” Part two, about Bay Area Jews who support Joe Biden, will is here.
Many American Jews believe Donald Trump has no business being president. Some say he’s downright dangerous.
But while prominent liberals like Thomas Friedman worry that Trump is leading the nation toward “cultural” civil war; or the Jewish Democratic Council of America compares Trumpism to Nazism; or the Anti-Defamation League condemns the president’s “racist” tweeting, there are Jewish Trump supporters in the Bay Area who see the exact opposite.
Representing a small minority, they are standing squarely behind the president as he seeks a second term. Some preferred Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or other primary candidates at the start of the 2016 campaign, but all except one voted for Trump in the general election, and all plan to vote for him on Nov. 3.
They are showing their support by donating money, disseminating press releases to tens of thousands of American Jews, rallying friends and members of their communities, and otherwise advocating vigorously on behalf of the president’s quest for re-election.
“I think Trump is a magician,” said ArLyne Diamond, an 83-year-old psychologist from Santa Clara, who eight years ago ran for state Assembly on a pro-business platform.
Diamond grew up in a liberal Jewish household in the Bronx that idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His fireside chats were “most reassuring,” she said. “He was a father figure in the loveliest way.”
She became a Republican in her teenage years, associating Republicans with “winners” and Democrats with “wannabes.” Today she leans Libertarian and voted for Gary Johnson in 2012, but she voted for Trump in 2016 and is supporting him again without reservation.
“He gives us all this ridiculous stuff to pay attention to while nobody’s paying attention to the deregulation he’s done,” said Diamond, who specializes in leadership management training (“I teach nerds how to be human beings,” she said). Trump can act “boorish” and arrogant (she often finds it humorous), but all the while “he’s gotten away with a lot of good things that nobody pays attention to.”
Like other Republican voters who spoke with J., Diamond finds Democratic governance so abhorrent that she is considering leaving the state. “People are leaving California like crazy,” she said, mentioning that her townhouse association fees were recently raised to $575 per month. “I’m thinking of moving to Texas.”
Of the eight Trump supporters interviewed by J., many expressed personal admiration for his resilience and support for what they perceived to be his pro-business policies, alongside a disdain for Democrats spurred by the view that the party has moved too far to the left.
It’s widely assumed that Jewish Trump voters are motivated primarily by support for Israel, but only one of the people interviewed mentioned the Jewish state first when explaining support for the president. Instead, many led with the economy, taxes or a strong affinity for the president’s leadership abilities even when under siege.
All, however, said Israel remained an important factor in their support.
Zvi Alon, a Silicon Valley energy CEO and Trump donor, acknowledged there have been some Trump policies “that didn’t quite work,” mentioning his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his rhetoric around the Black Lives Matter movement.
But he shares Diamond’s view of Trump’s one-of-a-kind gifts. He says he had predicted that Trump would be elected president the moment the real estate mogul and former reality TV star descended the Trump Tower escalator in 2015 to announce his candidacy.
“It’s not his personality, or the way he talks — whatever,” said Alon. “It was my assessment of his ability to execute.”
The Israeli-born former IDF Navy commando said he sees in Trump the same grit and determination he recognizes in successful leaders. “Even in situations where he fails, he manages to find a way to come back,” he said. “It’s an outstanding attribute in someone, from a business and a political perspective.”
With Trump, “the majority of his actions have been in line with what I believe is right,” Alon said, mentioning foreign policy in Iran and North Korea, negotiations with NATO, “addressing issues like terrorists,” and his tax policies.
Despite the view of many Republicans that polls are undercounting support for Trump — some even sharing concern about possible voter fraud via “ballot harvesting” in November — polling information shows that in the main, the president faces an uphill battle when courting American Jews.
Pew exit polls sampling American Jews in 2016 indicated that 71 percent voted for Hillary Clinton and only 24 percent for Trump. Rates of Jews identifying as Republican have been slightly higher; a Gallup poll released last year showed 65 percent of American Jews leaned Democratic while 30 percent leaned Republican.
In the same poll, 44 percent of Jews said they were liberal, making Jews “the most liberal of any major religious group we identify,” the Gallup report said. In the general population, only 25 percent of people identified as liberal.
To common criticisms of Trump, on issues ranging from race to climate change, the supporters who spoke with J. marshalled quick rebuttals. Some pointed to what they see as a biased, liberal media landscape, while others noted that Joe Biden is no saint, either. Many said that ultimately, the good outweighs the bad when it comes to Trump (although one supporter admitted to J. that he’d like to “cut his Twitter finger off.”)
As to Trump’s seeming comfort with white supremacist supporters, his backers had a common refrain: The president is not responsible for the views of his fringe followers.
“Any Jew that will suggest that Trump has an ounce of antisemitism in his bones is insane,” said Ricki Alon, who like her husband is a Trump supporter and donor. “Or is lying to himself.”
Of all those interviewed, she was the most direct in tying her support for the president to her support for Israel. Alon, who keeps a home in Tel Aviv, wrote in a 2018 essay that although she immigrated to the U.S., Israel remains “part of who I am and everything I do.” She is also an ardent supporter of AIPAC and explains her views through a Jewish lens.
“I look at it this way,” she said. “As a Jew, if we’re considering the history of the Jewish people, all the way from the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms of Eastern Europe, to the persecution of Jews in Arab lands, to the Holocaust, what can possibly be more important than the safety and security of the State of Israel?”
She believes the Democratic Party has shifted dramatically to the left and finds herself aghast at “a party that includes supporters of the BDS movement,” or the boycott, divestment and sanctions effort against Israel.
Alon admits she was unsure about Trump in 2016 (she preferred Rubio). But over the past four years her allegiance was cemented, she said, after demonstrations of support for Israel and his administration’s “brilliant approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“For 70 years-plus, everyone tried to make peace [with the Palestinians], and it didn’t succeed,” she said. “Trump is taking a totally different approach with Jared Kushner and others. He said, OK, let’s try to make peace in the region. And maybe once we have peace with other countries … it will be easier to approach the Palestinians,” she said.
“Now, we are totally supporting him from the bottom of our hearts,” Alon said about herself and her husband.
David Wanetick, an investment banker from Concord, chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition’s branch in Northern California. The strongly pro-Trump lobbying group also has a political action committee that this year alone raised more than $1.4 million to re-elect “the most pro-Israel President ever,” the RJC website says, and to support Republican House and Senate candidates.
Wanetick, though, says it was Trump’s no-holds-barred, pugnacious political style that drew him to the candidate early on during the 2016 primary, when there were still 17 Republican primary candidates vying for the nomination.
“I liked Rubio and Cruz as well,” Wanetick said. “But ultimately I supported Trump all the way.”
He said Trump’s appeal comes from his “straight talk,” the fact that he’s tough on his critics — he “defends himself from all the attacks” — and that he’s a “successful businessman” and has “done a great job with the economy.” He mentioned Trump’s deregulatory policies, including in the pharmaceutical industry, where he supported “right to try” legislation to allow unapproved treatments for life-threatening diseases.
“I think there’s a lot more Jewish support for the Trump administration and Republicans in general” than is known, he said. “I think the surveys are skewed.”
Wanetick, 53, said his RJC outfit has been using the organization’s large digital mailing list of more than 75,000 subscribers to disseminate updates on Trump’s successes. He believes Biden’s fundraising power and other factors will make this a close election.
“The media is completely in the Democrats’ pocket,” he said, and conservatives are “unfairly censored” on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, “so that’s difficult to deal with.”
Polish-born Ze’ev Wurman of Palo Alto told J. that he voted for Gary Johnson in 2016 but “changed my mind rather quickly,” and “today I would support Trump without hesitation.”
Rather than discouraging his support, the 70-year-old Wurman said, attacks by political opponents and critical coverage in the media early in Trump’s administration actually made him grow fond of the president. “Whether he did something good, bad or indifferent, everybody dumped on him,” he said. “It ticked me off. I thought, give the guy a chance.”
Like Zvi Alon and others, Wurman was struck by what he saw as Trump’s resilience, particularly during the Russia investigation and the impeachment proceedings. “If I were under pressure like he was, I wouldn’t survive. I wouldn’t be able to function,” he said.
Of Trump’s coronavirus response, “did it work perfectly? No. But America is not a perfect country. We pay a price for federalism.”
“He shows a healthy American instinct,” Wurman added. “This is what Americans are supposed to stand for.”
Howard Epstein, a 73-year-old retired business owner in San Francisco, said he grew up in a liberal household but switched to the Republican Party after opening a janitorial supplies shop in the mid-1970s and finding himself hamstrung by regulations.
“I’m looking at how the economy will be affected,” he said of his support for Trump. “And then individual rights.”
As to Nov. 3, most of the people interviewed were optimistic about Trump’s re-election prospects (the conversations occurred before his Covid-19 diagnosis), stemming from what they view as a successful first term.
“I think four years ago among our liberal friends and the general feeling was that Trump was a dangerous man. He could bring disaster to the U.S., to the world. He’s a madman,” Ricki Alon said. “What’s happened in the last few years … a majority recognized that he’s not a madman. He has done a lot of wonderful things.”