To understand why Donald Trump chose David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel, it’s worth reading a story written by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Uriel Heilman this April. With the New York Republican primary only days away, a group of Orthodox Jewish activists came to meet Trump at his office. According to Heilman, “One of the first things Trump did when he sat down in the sunny corner conference room at Trump Tower and saw that almost all the 20 or so faces around the room were Orthodox Jews was summon some Orthodox Jews of his own.” Turning to his then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, Trump said, “Maybe I can get Jason Greenblatt down here.” Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, is Trump’s chief legal officer. “And you know who else?” Trump added, “David Cohen.” Later, “Trump also talked about his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner.”
When Greenblatt arrived, Trump deferred several of the questions to him. He also told the group that his chief Israel advisors would be Greenblatt and David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has worked for Trump since at least 2001.
Neither Greenblatt nor Friedman is conventionally qualified to advise Trump about Israel. Neither has worked on Middle East policy. Neither has any diplomatic experience. Both have spent time in Israel, and feel strongly about the country. But that’s true of many American Jews, especially in the Orthodox community. As Lisa Spies, who did Jewish outreach for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign told Politico, “It’s almost degrading to say, just because you’re Jewish, you know this. This is degrading to people who actually do this professionally.”
Nonetheless, Trump has now named Friedman to be his ambassador to the Jewish state, a position usually held by senior diplomats and policy wonks. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump also suggested that Kushner might help negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace because “he knows the region, knows the people, knows the players.” That’s not true. When The New York Times called around, it found that “few of the Israelis and Palestinians who have been immersed for years in the fitful and frustrating peace process, such as it is, could recall ever meeting Mr. Kushner.”
What is Trump doing? The best explanation is that he’s evaluating people based less on their actual policy background or knowledge than on whether they look like the kinds of people who would have the relevant background or knowledge.
First, Trump himself lacks the policy knowledge to appreciate the difference between someone like Friedman and someone with a deep background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, after all, he couldn’t name the leaders of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Hezbollah; didn’t know what the nuclear triad was; and seemed unfamiliar with the term “Brexit” just weeks before Britons went to the polls.
Second, Trump’s thinking is often shaped by stereotypes. In a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition last December, he told the crowd that, “I’m a negotiator, like you folks” and repeatedly declared that he wouldn’t win the RJC’s support because “I don’t want your money.” In 1991, he allegedly said that, “The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.”
If Jews know about money and negotiation, they presumably also know about Israel. As Business Insider noted in October, Trump frequently refers to groups as collectives: “The blacks,” “the Hispanics,” “the Muslims, “the gays.” So if the Jews care about Israel, choose a Jew as ambassador. Problem solved.
Finally, Trump cares a lot about appearances. According to The New York Times, he said Mike Pence looked like a vice president out of “central casting.” When a crowd urged him to consider former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown for the job, Trump made the same comment about him. He reportedly used the same phrase to describe Mitt Romney as secretary of state. Earlier this month, Trump told a rally that his nominee for secretary of defense, James Mattis, is “the closest thing to General George Patton that we have.” Given that Trump, by his own admission, rarely reads books, he likely formed his image of Patton by watching the 1970 movie starring George C. Scott. (It’s among his favorite films.) What Trump was really telling the crowd, in other words, is that a guy with the nickname “Mad Dog” (Trump invokes Mattis’s nickname frequently) looks the part of a tough-guy general, just as David Friedman looks the part of an ambassador to Israel.
I’m not suggesting that this logic explains all of Trump’s picks, some of whom—like Mattis and Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao—are qualified for their jobs. But it does help explain some of odder ones. For instance, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, according to his own top advisor, Armstrong Williams, “feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency.” Carson also has no background in housing policy or urban affairs. Carson is, however, black. (Trump has a penchant for discussing urban policy with African Americans who have no expertise on the subject. He took former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault with him on a tour of inner city Detroit this fall. Last week, he held a meeting on inner-city violence with former NFL stars Jim Brown and Ray Lewis.) Then there’s Trump’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has never served in any diplomatic position or shown any particular interest in international affairs, but who is of Indian descent.
Perhaps some of these nominees will be confirmed, and excel in office, despite lacking the usual experience or credentials; certainly, some cabinet secretaries who seemed eminently well-qualified for their jobs have failed in the past. But there’s no question that these picks represent a sharp departure.
Republicans have long prided themselves on seeing people as individuals rather than members of ethnic, racial, or gender groups. But because Donald Trump doesn’t know or care what his appointees don’t know, because he trades in stereotypes, and because he’s highly attuned to the way people look, he appears to be practicing the most blatant tokenism of any president in my lifetime. And few Republicans seem bothered at all.