Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director and Philadelphia-area native Matt Brooks can’t remember if they used to burn him in effigy or just hang him when he was an undergrad at Brandeis University in the 1980s.
What the founder of both the Brandeis AEPi chapter and the revitalized College Republicans club can remember is how critics registered their level of displeasure with him: two to three pillows used for his stomach for a low-level offense, four to five for more serious missteps. He remembers the way his name was mentioned in the student newspaper: “Matt Brooks, sexist, racist, elitist, homophobic, ageist, misogynist,” he recalled with a laugh.
“I figured out a way to piss the entire school off and have fun at the same time,” Brooks said.
Brooks certainly had fun on April 6, when President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew to Las Vegas to address the annual conference of the RJC.
“It is a testament to how they and the party now view the importance of outreach to the Jewish community,” Brooks said.
As Trump gears up for his 2020 campaign, Brooks’ organization will be there to provide support. Though there’s a lot of pressure, it’s a good time for Brooks.
Brooks did not grow up in a conservative home (nor a Conservative one; he attended Main Line Reform Temple with his family). On his mother’s side, his grandmother and grandfather were both active in Philadelphia Democratic politics. When Brooks was born, his grandfather received a letter from Mayor James Tate congratulating him — “Thrilled that we’ll have one more Democrat on the rolls,” the letter read.
His parents, however, became disenchanted with the dominant strain of Jewish liberalism during the 1970s, and Brooks, then at Harriton High School, took notice. During his politically formative years, he watched as Jimmy Carter, “feckless and weak,” in Brooks’ estimation, “talked about malaise, and presided over a weakening of America around the world.” When Ronald Reagan came into office, Brooks fell for a new brand of conservatism.
When he started at Brandeis in 1983, the plan was still typically Jewish: Go to college, then medical school to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. But a friend told him he should major in something else while he fulfilled his medical prerequisites, if only to give himself a more well-rounded education. Political science seemed like a good way to spend some time, he thought.
Politics turned out to be a passion, and college was an electric time for him. As Reagan reshaped America, Brooks took a moribund, six-person College Republicans chapter to 300 members. He was so successful, in fact, that as the state chairman of the College Republicans, he was able to secure an internship working for soon-to-be presidential candidate Jack Kemp.
Kemp, with whom Brooks had forged a “special relationship,” asked Brooks to take a year off from school to work for him. Kemp’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” Brooks said, remains his “true north in politics.”
As the campaign wound down, Brooks started to look for another job. He got a call from the still-young RJC, asking him to interview to be the organization’s political director. Brooks started March 8, 1988. On March 9, he went to the White House and met Reagan, a surreal experience.
“I was the most dumbstruck I’d ever been,” he recalled.
The first presidential cycle for Brooks’ tenure with the RJC returned the lowest Jewish vote share for a Republican presidential candidate since such things have been tracked: just 11 percent for George H.W. Bush in 1992. Though the RJC is invested in helping to elect Republicans they see as good for American Jews and good for the U.S.-Israel relationship, getting Jews to vote Republican would be nice, too. It’s just that more-or-less unchanged Jewish loyalty to the Democratic party remains so pesky.
Brooks has done his best, though. By the 2012 election, Mitt Romney secured 31 percent of the Jewish vote, the highest since the elder Bush won 35 percent in 1988. Given that no Republican presidential candidate has ever topped 43 percent (Warren G. Harding), that represented a substantial number.
Then came Donald Trump.
Brooks remembers the first time he knew Trump was going to be the nominee. It was Dec. 3, 2015, a few days before Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” At the RJC presidential candidate forum, Trump started off shakily, receiving a few boos here and there. By the end of the speech, he got a standing ovation.
“I remember standing there and thinking, I’ve never seen that before,” Brooks said. “This guy’s got it.”
Trump won just 24 percent of the Jewish vote, but Brooks believes that number will rise in 2020. He won’t say whether he believes Trump is a uniquely divisive persona for American Jews, and he somewhat moderated Trump’s comment that the Democratic Party was “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish,” saying that only “elements” of the party could be described that way. Brooks points out that he and the RJC criticized the president for his response to the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally.
That early RJC forum also happened to be when Trump said to the crowd, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” a comment that many called anti- Semitic. One of those people was Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Trump, she said, “displays an astonishing level of ignorance, if not blatant anti-Semitism. I actually don’t think [the RJC is] representing Jewish values at all,” Soifer said.
Brooks is used to hearing that.
“Have I paid a price for the positions I’ve taken? Yeah. I’ve had strained relations with friends and family who don’t quite understand how I could be a Republican or how or why I could be so enthusiastic for President Trump or how or why I worked so hard for President Bush,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier going through life if you don’t give a sh–,” he added. “You do what you think is right.”
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