To understand Trump’s move over Jerusalem, you have to look to his fanbase and his finances, suggests ALBERT SCARDINO
Donald Trump may soon be allowed to build his wall, but it won’t be where he wanted it, along the US-Mexican border. It will be around a new US Embassy compound in Jerusalem.
Trump has never claimed to be a student of the Bible, but the millions of Americans who identify as Evangelical Christians read the Good Book intently. They speak of Trump as God’s tool to help prepare for the second coming of Christ. That arrival, according to the Gospels, will take place in Jerusalem, specifically on the Mount of Olives. And it is imminent.
Trump continues to have record low approval ratings in the US, down to 32% in some reliable polls, but among the 60 million self-identified Evangelists, those who voted last year cast their ballots for him by a margin of four to one, according to post-election surveys.
In many areas, particularly in the southern and midwestern parts of the country, that was enough to give him his margin of victory in critical states. He needs evangelicals in the same way he needs those whose religion is the right to bear arms. He defends them against a political and legal establishment hostile to their most cherished beliefs; in exchange, they forgive him his crude and cruel behaviour.
These voters have an even more intense interest in foreign affairs than either oil company executives, such as Trump’s Secretary of State, or foreign policy analysts, most of whom are missing from the Trump government because he has failed to fill the vacancies. They engage in extensive missionary work in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. They make pilgrimages to the site of Biblical events, without regard to current political boundaries. The outlines of the Holy Land represent more important frontiers than any divisions created or resolved by European powers.
They take Scripture literally. In one congressional district in eastern Kentucky, more than a third of voters in the Republican presidential primary said they believed that Jonah did live in a whale. In a few more isolated communities in the Appalachian Mountains, Fundamentalist believers follow rituals that first appeared about 100 years ago instructing them to ‘take up snakes and handle them,’ as described in the New Testament gospels of Luke and Mark. Their faith in divine protection is expected to shield them from the bite of poisonous reptiles. Those who die after being bitten simply do not have sufficient faith in the Lord.
Many evangelicals spend more time in worship and Bible study than contemporary urban teenagers spend on their phones and tablets. More importantly, they are having personal conversations with God, trying to discern his will, not just stimulating themselves on a social network.
They believe that abortion is murder, a heinous act that society has an obligation to prevent. The right of women to make their own health care decisions in consultation with professional providers must not override criminal assault on defenceless beings. No room for compromise. Not even room for discussion.
All the world’s scientific facts cannot counter the evidence presented in the Scriptures. They don’t object if state schools teach children about Darwin, so long as they also teach them the Biblical details of Creationism. Climate change is both true and irrelevant. It has been going on ever since God placed man in the garden of Eden 6,000 years ago.
Over the past 70 years, Evangelicals have come to see the Jewish state as a useful security shield for the Second Coming, not a secular democracy. After last week’s announcement, the pastor of an evangelical congregation in Georgia told the Christian Broadcast Network: ‘We share this heritage in Jerusalem as our spiritual capital while Israel also legally proclaims it as her national capital. Their national history has become our spiritual history.’
Many evangelicals believe that although Jews do not share their belief that Christ was God on Earth, they may yet be converted in time for his return. Muslims, however, remain beyond the pale. Their belief that the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven from Jerusalem makes them feel that Jerusalem is every bit as much theirs as it is for Christians and Jews.
They rightly see US recognition of the city as the Israeli capital as more than just a political gesture. For them, it is also part of a spiritual conspiracy to confiscate one of their most sacred sites. The confiscation makes Evangelicals ecstatic, as Christian news outlets reported last week.
The religious and political right in Israel share the evangelical view of their country as a religious state. Yet, they see Israel not as a servant of the Christian right but rather as a safe haven for Jews from around the world. Their parallel view of Israeli exceptionalism propels much of the fervour of the Netanyahu government. To the extent that the Evangelicals can help them persuade the US government to continue its financial and political sponsorship of Israel, they are useful.
This is the circle: Evangelicals need Israel to help them prepare for the Second Coming. Trump needs Evangelicals to have any chance of a successful presidency. Israel needs Trump to ensure a continued flow of foreign aid and weapons.
It was this relationship that led Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to refer to Trump as Netanyahu’s chump. What Friedman missed is that the president is also a tool of the Evangelical Christians. He has now expanded the alliance between right-wing Christian and right-wing Jew and pushed Europe, the Muslim political world and the United Nations further to the side. He is preparing for war, a stimulating environment for an authoritarian.
The rope binding the three parties to one another has other strands: campaign contributions, political enemies, cultural demons. Campaign contributions may be the easiest to identify. Before he took the Republican presidential nomination by storm in the summer of 2016, Trump often boasted that he had self-financed his own campaign to avoid being beholden to anyone. Disclosure documents showed that at the time, Trump had indeed put his own money into his campaign, but he did it as a number of personal loans, nearly $50 million worth. Much of that money went to purchase goods and services from his family and from his own companies at market rates. This is all perfectly legal under US campaign laws – so far as we know. As he redeems those loans with new political contributions to his campaign fund, he may succeed in one of his earliest boasts about his political activity: ‘I may be the first person in history to make money by running for president.’
Here are the numbers to consider:
A $25million campaign contribution. After he had secured the nomination, Trump met privately several times with Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Adelson focuses his political attention on American-Israel relations. He had pledged to donate $100 million to help get candidates elected who would pledge to look after what he calls Israel’s security interests. In September, at the start of the presidential election campaign, Adelson announced that he would give Trump $25million to help him get elected – and he did. Again, this is perfectly legal.
The $47.5million loan to his own campaign: Trump reported that he made loans to his campaign of $47.5million leading up to his inauguration. In total, he spent about $350million. The bulk of the difference came from other registered campaign groups. In the year to October, he has raised a further $25million in contributions. The records show that none of the loan has yet been repaid, and the cash on hand is $18million. As Trump knows well, the money on hand in the coffers of other campaign committees that support him may not be traceable. And there is no time limit on their transfer of their cash to his campaign fund. His loans may not be at risk at all, so long as these donors to other funds will allow their money to be transferred to his accounts to allow him to repay himself. In another time in another place, this arrangement may fit the definition of a bribe. Not now.
It is usually difficult to see a clear path that led Trump to issue an executive order or to support a candidate. He has never exhibited an interest in religion of any sort, but his eldest child, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, are both fervent practitioners of a conservative Judaism popular among the New York City business elite. Kushner has become Trump’s guide to the Middle East. There are no other voices in the room. The State Department has been gutted, with even key ambassadorial jobs vacant for a year now. Kushner reportedly counselled him not to recognise Jerusalem as the capital six months ago but went along with the proposal now.
No contact has been reported recently with Adelson, but then Trump no longer discloses who visits the White House and his phone calls are not disclosed. He has continued his practice of withholding his tax returns from public view, so we don’t know the source of his $47.5million in loans. And we will have no way of discovering who donates the money that he may use eventually to repay himself. In the meantime, the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital appears to have riled up Palestinians, the Arab political world, European leaders, the US press and broadcasters and liberal Jews in Israel, for no apparent gain and considerable loss to the effort of peace in the Middle East.
Look behind the façade though, and what you may find is an elaborate political payoff for a self-serving financial arrangement with one character benefitting at the expense of everyone else in the game.
• Albert Scardino, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a freelance commentator on American affairs, living in London