The most startling moment of the Vice-Presidential Debate for me was the weaponization of President Trump’s grandchildren.
Even when I served the mostly insular community of a synagogue, I knew better than to exploit my kids (or anyone else’s) for effect. Their behavior, including the adorable things they said, were not fodder for my public pronouncements unless, as they got older, they agreed to be quoted. Now that I have grandchildren, I see how their parents (my aforementioned children) have embraced that protectiveness. The little ones rarely appear on social media, and then only to family and friends.
Vice President Pence, by contrast, tried to defend his boss’s credibility as a champion of tolerance and pluralism by noting that he has “Jewish grandchildren.” The comment came in response to a challenge familiar to Americans – the president has been equivocal at most in addressing the anti-semitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim bigotry of some of his supporters. Once you begin with “there are fine people on both sides” and end with “stand back and stand by,” it doesn’t much matter how you fill in the middle. Yet, as if Mr. Trump had anything to do with his daughter’s decision to embrace Judaism or to raise her offspring in a traditional Jewish family, Mr. Pence deployed the most stereotypical of excuses, essentially, “some of his best grandchildren are Jewish.”
The notion that the president’s policy decisions and public statements are swayed by children is laughable. I have no doubt he loves his family. But the body of evidence regarding his sacrificial attitude toward children in this country is overwhelming. He denies them a social safety net. He opposes their comprehensive health care. He diverts money from their schools. He wants to send them away if their parents are not legal residents. He insists, against scientific evidence, that they have immunity from a dangerous virus. And, oh yes, he separates them from their parents and puts them in cages.
Jewish grandchildren do not inoculate Grandfather Trump from the consequences of his dog-whistles and his encouragement of those out to do them harm. Indeed, even those Jewish Republicans who continue to support the president claim as his bona fides his relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem and other foreign policy victories. They know better – so many of them Jewish grandparents themselves – than to exploit the innocence of little ones for political gain. They know better because they heard him say to them, “I don’t want your money; therefore, you’re not going to support me.”
And with the exception of sidekicks like Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s xenophobic border policy, high-profile Jewish advisors from the respected, like Gary Cohn, to the opportunistic, like Michael Cohen, have distanced themselves from the president and reported his disregard for any real defense of the victims of anti-semitism and other racial and religious bigotry.
I am not reporting anything new, nor would I revisit this well-established record of insensitivity to both faith and youth were it not for the vice president’s outrageous attempt at innocence by association. I take Mr. Pence at his word – and his record – that he is motivated by his own religious convictions to protect and defend those he and his allies deem the “unborn” children, but he belies that commitment when he is willing to use little children as a tool of political rhetoric against an abundance of grown-up evidence.
Both debates have been a cavalcade of misbehavior and dubious representations. Perhaps we have come to expect that conduct from candidates for political office. But I am with the young student whose question was selected to end the Vice Presidential Debate: where are the role models for young people in this country who will learn by example? I most definitely hope that they have the native wisdom to resist the behavior that made Mr. Pence’s defense of the president necessary, and to refuse to imitate his willingness to turn them into a tool of politicking.