Were the Prophets of Panic Right About The Threat of Trump Stealing the Election?

How warnings of catastrophe can help avert catastrophe

Last newsletter, I wrote about the passing of former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In reflecting on his legacy, I was inspired by how he regularly applied traditional Jewish ideas to incisively address contemporary problems. So over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to do more of that myself, and inject some Jewish insight into my general writing.

One example of this appears today in the Washington Post, where I turned to the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides, and Rabbi Sacks himself to answer a question that is on many minds right now: Did the media overreact to the prospect that Trump might “steal” the 2020 election? Was there ever really any danger that he would pull it off, or were coup concerns mostly a social media-driven panic?

To understand the question—and the answer—I argue that we need to look to the biblical prophet Jonah:

Yes, the social media and cable news chatter about Trump’s gambits did often seem like people catastrophizing and overreacting to the latest bit of information. But some of those catastrophes might have come to pass had people not reacted so strongly — even if sometimes too strongly — to the prospect of them.

In the Hebrew Bible, this is known as the prophet’s paradox. The problem is this: If you warn people about something, and they heed your counsel and avoid it, your prophecy ends up looking false. Does the lack of catastrophe mean the warning was mistaken — or that it was accurate? After the fact, it’s impossible to really know.

In the biblical book of Jonah, the titular prophet is instructed by God to warn the city of Nineveh that it will be destroyed if it does not mend its ways. But Jonah runs away rather than deliver this prophecy. Among several rabbinical explanations for this puzzling choice is this: Jonah knew that the people of Nineveh would listen to his prophecy of doom, repent and be forgiven, and he didn’t want to end up looking like a liar who promised a calamity that never came.

Precisely because of this paradox, the preeminent 12th-century Jewish jurist Maimonides ruled that one can be deemed a false prophet only if one predicts something good will happen and it does not. A negative prophecy, by contrast, cannot be so easily falsified, Maimonides wrote, because it’s entirely possible that a prophet’s premonition will forestall the foretold disaster, and so the misfortune’s failure to materialize does not discredit the prophet.

Read the whole thing for a thoughtful cameo by Rabbi Sacks, and be sure to get to the very end for an amazing Talmudic send-up of Twitter. I promise you, it’s worth it.

Recommended Reading

It’s an understatement to say that a lot has happened over the last month. Here’s some of the writing that has helped me make sense of the moment, and might help you too.

  • Sociologist Mijal Bitton writes about why so many Jews from minority backgrounds, from Persians to Syrians to Latinos, voted for Trump, and how these people and their experiences are often erased from the discourse.

  • Along similar lines, Antonio Garcia Martinez unpacks the diversity of the Latino community, and how the tendency of progressives to collapse it into a monolith leads them to misunderstand it.

  • Matt Yglesias writes on “what’s wrong with the media,” and gives a bunch of unusual answers, including the tendency of the New York Times to hoover up all the best journalists from its competitors—like a sort of New York Yankees of modern media—leaving fewer and fewer sharp voices outside to compete with and criticize it.

  • For those still confused by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communal debate over coronavirus restrictions, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier explains how the divisions among these Jews reflect an internal crisis of rabbinic authority, with everyone from far-right talk show hosts to more liberal philanthropists displacing rabbis as leadership figures, and pushing different political positions. It’s a breakdown that will have far-reaching consequences well beyond the present moment.

  • In the New York Times, Jessica Bennett profiles Smith College professor Loretta Ross, a lifelong racial and sexual justice activist who is teaching her students how to counter an unforgiving online culture, focusing on deescalating conflicts and winning converts over calling out and taking names. This is something I think about a lot in the context of my work reporting on anti-Semites and anti-Semitism.

As always, if you’ve got any thoughts or comments—or just things you think I should read—please feel free to reply and send them my way.

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