Trump, Israel and the evangelical vote

The results from South Carolina are in, and Donald Trump continues to defy electoral gravity. His most recent trick involved outperforming both Ted Cruz (who opened his victory speech in Iowa with "To God be the glory"), and Marco Rubio (who declared from the debate stage that his faith in God is "the single greatest influence in my life") among evangelicals.

This outcome seems odd, to say the least. In recent elections, this same voting bloc has gone strongly for George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—all known for their personal devotion and their public embrace of Christian values. To suggest that flamboyant libertine Donald Trump does not fit neatly into this same mold is to understate the obvious.

Donald Trump
Tami Chappell | Reuters
Donald Trump

Trump's popularity among evangelicals suggests that either evangelical priorities have shifted, or that they (like many other voters) are more focused on aspects of Trump's cultivated personality that they find appealing than they are on his policies.

The Obama years have been brutal to voters who prioritize traditional values. Not only have they lost decisively on a number of issues, but they have awoken to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of playing defense. Following decades of fighting to enshrine their views of life and marriage into law, they now stand accused as civil rights violators merely for holding traditional values.

Today's battles focus on whether the government can punish Christian bakers who prefer not to partake in gay weddings and force nuns to distribute abortifacients.

That shift from offense to defense explains in part the shift from champions who exemplify communal standards to a champion who is willing to fight as hard—and as dirty—as the opposition. Trump's every utterance, his very existence, is an assault on political correctness. His cheerfully dismissive iconoclasm empowers many Americans with a distaste for the oppressive moralizing of the progressive elite. How much sweeter must it sound to the Christians standing most directly in their crosshairs?

That insight feeds into policy. Evangelical voters understand that regaining lost ground in the culture wars will be a slow, slippery slog. While they appreciate leaders who reflect their own beliefs about life, marriage, and family, many appear attracted to a campaign focused less on the promise of a better future than on what it already has delivered: a real-time national anti-PC offensive.

Cruz and Rubio, whose policies and lifestyles actually reflect evangelical priorities, have not found a way to counter Trump's visceral appeal. After all, if you can't win the evangelical vote with an appeal to traditional values, how can you win it?

One answer may be Israel.

Support for Israel is often mislabeled a "Jewish" issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jews make up less than 2 percent of the electorate, while 72 percent of the country (and 83 percent of Republicans) support Israel. Conservative Christians dominate this pro-Israel camp. In addition, unlike liberal (non-Orthodox) American Jews who typically rank Israel as a low-priority issue, these Christians perennially list Israel as one of their top two election issues.

Between daily terror, international BDS libels and American support for Iranian nukes, Israel is in trouble. And when it comes to Israel, Donald Trump does not stand where Evangelicals need him to be.

Marco Rubio has stated that as President: "Instead of pressuring Israel to make unreciprocated concessions, I will work with its Prime Minister on areas of mutual interest. I will finally move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I will help ensure that Jerusalem remains the Jewish State's undivided and eternal capital. I will…help ensure Israel has defensible borders, including through its continued control of the Golan Heights."

Ted Cruz, who led the fight to restore commercial flights to Israel when the Obama Administration halted them during Israel's most recent war against Hamas terrorists, once walked off the stage at a gathering of anti-Israel Middle Eastern Christian groups announcing: "If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you." Last week, he introduced legislation to restore American recognition that the PLO/PA is a terrorist organization rather than a partner for peace, and shut down its Washington office.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, notoriously told the Republican Jewish Coalition that he wondered whether Israel was willing to make sacrifices for peace. Last week, he pitched himself as neutral in the fight between Israel and the terrorist organizations arrayed against it. Numerous pundits have noted that when it comes to Israel, Donald Trump sounds more like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than he does like a Republican. In fact, on the Israel issue, Trump sounds positively PC.

Trump's suspicions about Muslim immigration may win him points with this key demographic, but his moral confusion about Israel should create an opening for other candidates. If Cruz and/or Rubio want to win the evangelical vote, they must convince those voters that their defense against the PC onslaught will be as strong as Trump's; and they must highlight their differences with Trump on the morality of supporting Israel at a time when so much is on the line.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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