DURING A FOX BUSINESS INTERVIEW IN MARCH, Donald Trump’s former campaign advisor Jeff Ballabon called Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar “filth.” When host Stuart Varney suggested that, perhaps, “filth” might have been too strong a word for the Muslim congresswoman and Somali refugee, Ballabon doubled down. “She is a filthy disgusting hater,” he spat. It had been over a month since the start of the media fracas over Omar’s tweets criticizing the pro-Israel lobby, for which she faced calls to resign as well as death threats. By April, a 55-year-old Trump supporter was calling the congresswoman’s office and threatening to “put a bullet in her fucking skull.”
At first glance, Ballabon’s Fox appearance might seem like just another iteration of what has become a sad, dangerous routine in American politics—another Trump surrogate spewing invective and riling up the base on daytime TV. But Jeff Ballabon is not just another Trump surrogate.
A former media executive—he once headed communications for CBS News—and a veteran Republican operative, Ballabon has worked for roughly two decades to turn Orthodox Jewry into a mature political force allied with the Republican Party. Now, under Trump, that alliance has begun to pay big dividends—not only on Israel, long a focus of Orthodox politics, but on domestic issues as well. Indeed, never before has Orthodox Jewry, and the Jewish right more broadly, had such access to a president.
With this increased power and influence has also come a change in political style—one that Ballabon’s comments in March, as well as his Twitter feed at all times, exemplify. Angry, vitriolic, even vulgar, contemptuous of “political correctness” and unafraid to traffic in racist tropes, this is Jewish politics in a new key—and Ballabon wants to be a leading composer. His transformation from behind-the-scenes campaigner to aspiring movement leader reflects the emergence of an assertive, aggressive Orthodox Jewish right that has already reshaped American politics—as well as intra-communal Jewish politics—and could continue to for years to come.
Ballabon’s path from political fixer to Trump proxy maps the Republican Party’s trajectory from the “compassionate conservatism” of the George W. Bush era to the gleeful cruelty of Trump. He began his career not on the fringes of the right but at its center—as legislative counsel for Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who by today’s standards would be considered a moderate. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Ballabon cultivated close ties with the Christian Right, then at the apex of its power, which he identified as both a potential model for a new Jewish politics and a more natural partner for Orthodox Jewry than liberals in the Democratic Party, which was (and remains) the political home for the majority of American Jews.
After Bush’s victory in 2000, Ballabon became, as the right-wing Jewish paper The Algemeiner put it, the administration’s “unofficial liaison to Orthodox Jews.” In 2004, he worked on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, during which he devised a strategy to turn the Orthodox into reliable Republican voters. He succeeded. In Long Island’s heavily Orthodox “Five Towns,” for instance, support for Bush jumped from less than 30% in 2000 to more than 60% in 2004; in the ultra-Orthodox Rockland County enclave of New Square, which went for Al Gore in 2000, Bush won in 2004 with roughly 98% of the vote. The Orthodox communities that shifted to the right in 2004 have, for the most part, heavily favored Republicans ever since.
Having made his name as the keeper of the keys to the Jewish vote—Ballabon was the subject of a fawning 2005 New York Observer profile by Ben Smith, now the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News—he would go on to work for several Republican campaigns, among them Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.
Today, Ballabon has become one of President Trump’s most prominent Jewish surrogates, making regular appearances on various Fox News shows and weighing in on Jewish-related matters as an authentic, kippah-wearing spokesman. (Ballabon comes from a non-hasidic Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community.) He has appeared on the America First radio show hosted by Sebastian Gorka—a member of the Viteszi Rend, a racist Hungarian nationalist order founded by Hungary’s antisemitic, Nazi-collaborationist leader, Admiral Miklos Horthy—and he has defended Gorka from charges of antisemitism. While Instagram grifter Elizabeth Pipko has played the face of the bungled “Jexodus” initiative—which claims to be leading American Jews out of a Democratic Party turned irrevocably antisemitic—it is Ballabon who has led the astroturf movement from behind.