Liberal America, Don’t Get Cocky About Donald Trump - Take It From Israel

Looking at his recent polling disasters, some may think that Trump is finished. But 18 months ago, people said the same about Benjamin Netanyahu.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a coal mining roundtable in Glade Spring, Virginia on Aug. 10, 2016.
Evan Vucci/AP

With his poll numbers in free-fall and his campaign in total disarray, it’s become customary to assert that Donald Trump is, barring unforeseen circumstances, almost certain to lose come November. Time Magazine is saying it. GOP insiders are saying it. The Nation is saying it. Nate Silver gives Trump an 11 percent chance of winning. Michael Moore, who had Trump winning the election a mere month ago, is now saying Trump is self-sabotaging in hopes that the GOP establishment will replace him, because he doesn’t want to be president and only ran to get a better deal from NBC.

Trump himself has provided those believing he is deliberately throwing the election with plenty of evidence. Between sparring with bereaved parents, going and on about “election fraud,” implying that his rival could be shot by Second Amendment supporters and referring to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” it’s hard to picture how Trump will be able win after the disastrous month he’s had.

With Trump so far behind, a certain cockiness seems to have spread through America’s liberal class. In The Guardian, Thomas Frank has called an end to the “great populist uprising of our time” and to the campaign of its “last, ugliest, most fraudulent manifestation” – Donald Trump. Also in The Guardian, Michael Cohen is already anticipating “a liberal renaissance.” Others are already pondering what Trump might do after he loses – maybe launch Trump TV? Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Hillary Clinton is already making White House plans.

In the past year, a number of commentators (including the author of this piece) have made comparisons between the lunacy that seems to have overtaken American politics with the not-dissimilar lunacy that has become the dominant stream of Israeli politics in the past 20 years. From the leveraging of racism as a form of anti-establishment rhetoric, to a familiar mix of incoherent bravado and xenophobic populism, to the dangerous incitement that might eventually lead to actual violence, Americans can use the state of Israeli politics as a case study for what could happen in their own country.

But the truly important lesson American liberals can learn from Israel is this: Don’t get too complacent. It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.

Eighteen months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu found himself in a somewhat similar position to Trump. Days before the March 15 election, Netanyahu was far behind in the polls, lagging behind Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union. With his administration beset by controversy, nagging expenses scandals and a surging cost of living, polls showed that the Israeli public had grown tired of Bibi. And that was before Netanyahu ran a flawed campaign that made one colossal mistake after another.

In desperation, he went to Congress a month before the election to give a speech against President Obama’s Iran deal, thereby causing a diplomatic crisis with the United States – and even that didn’t work. Days before the election, the last polls showed Netanyahu’s party, Likud, trailing by four seats.

Much like Trump now, many considered Netanyahu all but finished. Pundits and political insiders in Israel and abroad said the public has had enough. That he probably wouldn’t win. His chances looked so bad, that Netanyahu himself publicly acknowledged that he might lose the election and began going on and on about a “tremendous effort, worldwide” to topple him.

And then he won, with a resounding majority. He did so, in part, thanks to a Hail Mary pass in the form of an impromptu YouTube video, released on election day, in which he warned Jewish Israelis about “Arab voters flocking to the polls in droves.” It was a cheap, racist ploy to mobilize right-wing voters, but it worked. In the last two hours of the election, no less than 600,000 people – most of them Netanyahu voters – cast their ballots, turning a surefire loss into a landslide victory. The result was the formation of the Israel’s most right-wing government to date.

Trump, of course, is not Netanyahu – Netanyahu, in many ways, was in a far more advantageous position as prime minister – and the U.S. is not Israel. But the point I wish to make here is this: It is possible to underestimate the power of racist fear-mongering to mobilize voters on the basis of sheer panic. This was one of the cardinal mistakes of Israel’s liberal camp: It was out of touch with Israeli voters, and too busy being overjoyed with its success in the polls, to notice the groundswell of support that Netanyahu managed to gather in a very short amount of time.

All of this isn’t to say that Trump will win. Most likely, Trump will indeed lose in November. But if the Israeli example can teach us anything, it is this: Don’t get cocky, liberal America. You’re not out of the Trump woods just yet.