Donald Trump and This Week’s Torah Portion
There was a very weird exchange on CNN this week during an interview with Donald Trump. I have watched the clip several times just to try and get my head around it, but I still cannot make any sense of it.
The interviewer told Trump that his candidacy had been endorsed by David Duke, a well-known white supremacist, antisemite, former KKK Grand Wizard and failed politician, who has also been convicted of financial fraud. The interviewer asked whether Trump would unequivocally condemn David Duke, and reject his support, as well as the support of any other white supremacists who might endorse him.
Trump was incredibly evasive, refusing to answer the question directly, or even indirectly. He claimed not to know David Duke, nor the group Duke belongs to, and would not condemn anyone, or disavow himself of any group, unless he had thoroughly investigated who they were. After his response generated a media storm, Trump made the ludicrous claim that his earpiece had been faulty during that part of the interview, which resulted in his not being able able to hear the questions properly. To know that this is a lie, you just need to watch the clip of the interview. But that is not what troubles me. What troubles me is how Trump hesitated to condemn David Duke in the first place.
The idea that Trump does not know who David Duke is makes no sense whatsoever. Of course he does, and, as numerous news outlets subsequently pointed out, Trump had already repudiated David Duke’s endorsement a couple of days earlier. Further, in 2000, Trump ran for president on the Reform Party line. After his candidacy failed to gain momentum, Trump dropped out, citing David Duke’s involvement with the Reform Party as part of his justification. All this makes his evasive response during the CNN interview even more puzzling. The only explanation for his cagey answer was his need to acquire as many votes as possible on Super Tuesday. By giving a neutral answer Trump probably believed he would make himself popular with white supremacist voters in the southern states and win those primaries. Sadly, it is likely this assumption was correct.
Not a day goes by without someone from the GOP distancing himself from Trump, or announcing he will actively battle against his candidacy. Besides Sarah Palin and a glum-looking Chris Christie, most senior Republicans have studiously avoided any contact with Trump. It seems no one likes him, and no one wants him, and yet he continues to win states and be the frontrunner. The situation is literally unprecedented. At this stage of the race, Trump should have dozens of mainstream endorsements as it becomes apparent that not only is he a successful campaigner, but also a successful vote winner. Surely Republican heavyweights want to win in November, so why are they not backing a winner?
I think the David Duke incident really brought it home to me. It exposed Donald for what he is — an amoral individual who will do or say almost anything to get elected. He is an expert deal-maker who knows the art of eleventh hour bait-and-switch tactics to get a deal done, and prevaricating about David Duke was exactly what he needed to do to get the racist vote. But although this kind of shenanigan has made him a very successful businessman, people who care about the “party of Lincoln and Reagan,” as Marco Rubio put it this week, instinctively do not want such a person to represent them. Sometimes it is not about success, or about winning — it is about your good name.
There is an interesting Midrash on this week’s Torah portion that perfectly illustrates this point. Moshe informs the nation: “God has called by name Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur.” With reference to this, the Midrash quotes a pasuk in Kohelet: “A good name is better than a good oil,” and explains that although one can detect the scent of a good oil from quite a distance away, a good name travels much further than that. The Midrash then asks a seemingly random question. How far should someone remove himself from contact with shatnez — the prohibited mixture of wool and linen? The Midrash answers that even if one is wearing 99 layers of non-shatnez clothing, the 100th layer must also not be shatnez. So what exactly is the connection between shatnez, Betzalel and a good name?
It is noteworthy that every time the Torah introduces Betzalel, it is with the following unique expression: “I’ve called him by his name.” It turns out that Betzalel was not chosen to build the Mishkan as a result of his architectural prowess or his design skills. He was chosen for the simple reason that he had a “good name.” His reputation was completely unblemished, and everyone knew it. The Midrash uses shatnez to explain how Betzalel obtained such a fantastic reputation. A good name is not achieved by doing the right thing, or by being right; it is achieved by avoiding even the slightest hint of impropriety. Even the hint of contact with someone or something irregular will shatter a good reputation forever.
People with good names are those who are above reproach; they are completely removed from any taint of scandal or transgression. And while one can become very wealthy or successful by playing close to the edge or bending the rules, that is not the way impeccable reputations are achieved. Donald Trump may be very successful, and many of the things he says may be correct, but by refusing to dissociate himself from David Duke, even if in reality he despises white supremacists, he is still contaminated by association. In the final analysis, it must never just be about winning, because it has also got to be about a good name.