Last February, against the backdrop of allegations of corruption in Benjamin Netanyahu’s dealings with Israel’s telecommunications giant Bezeq and fresh reports of a new witness willing to turn state’s evidence against him, Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom daily published a poll showing Likud jumping to 34 Knesset seats in new elections. Netanyahu promptly published a post on Instagram citing an Exodus verse “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.”
The original context was the resilience shown by the Children of Israel against the Egyptian Pharaoh’s persecution, but it also serves as a useful slogan for deciphering the political strategies of both Netanyahu and Donald Trump: The more they are criticized and attacked, the more their political bases support them.
The phenomenon was prominently displayed in Sunday’s New York Times, which reported on surging Republican support for Trump. Although the latest polls may not have fully accounted for fallout from the child-separation scandal, the Times noted that GOP support for Trump is higher than for previous Republican presidents at a similar stage in their tenure, with the exception of George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Based on conversations with Trump supporters, the Times concluded that one of the main reasons for the strength of GOP support for the president is a gut reaction to the overwhelming criticism that engulfs him on a regular basis. The more that Trump is “oppressed,” to use the biblical term, the more his right-wing support multiplies and spreads.
The trend is an outgrowth of the growing tribalism in American politics, a topic recently tackled by Yale Professor Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mom” fame, in her newest book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.” Chua observes that one of the main reasons for the foreign policy failures of both Bush and Barack Obama was their failure to account for the enduring power of tribalism, especially in the Middle East. Trump, on the other hand, based his successful run on the White House, as well as his enduring support in office from his Republican base, on constant stoking of tribalism in modern American society. The basic instinct of anyone who identifies with the Trump tribe – mainly less educated white Americans – is to rally round their besieged chief, no matter what.
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This is the main rationale of the constant campaign waged by leaders such as Trump and Netanyahu against “elites” in general and the “leftist”, “liberal” or “mainstream” media in particular. The media is portrayed as the spearhead of the rival tribe that seeks to deprive the so-called “downtrodden” supporters of the leaders of their recent gains, to enslave them and impose their reviled values on them. It’s a two-headed onslaught that aims to discredit both the messengers and their tidings.
On the one hand, the media’s reports and opinions are depicted as “fake news,” the catchy phrase coined by Trump that seem taken, by coincidence or design, from “Lügenpresse,” or lying press, the notorious term used by German nationalists – especially the Nazis – since the mid-19th century. On the other hand, and alternatively, the media is constantly depicted as hostile and even treasonous – to the nation and the tribe – so that its reports are rejected even if they happen to have facts on their side.
Netanyahu is a master of such diversionary tactics. When Ilana Dayan, one of Israel’s most respected journalists, broadcast a detailed report last year on the outrageous behavior of Sara Netanyahu and her improper influence on top appointments in Israel’s civil and security services, the Prime Minister’s Office made no effort to dispute the allegations. Rather, it published a lengthy ad hominem attack on Dayan, which she read on air, alluding to her alleged ties with the New Israel Fund, her admiration for Haaretz and her supposed role as “one of the ringleaders of the orchestrated campaign against Netanyahu, which seeks to depose the right-wing government and to establish a leftist one in its stead.” The message to the admiring masses was clear: Forget about facts, they don’t matter. It’s enough that Dayan was the one to report them for the faithful to circle the wagons and rally around their leader.
Other right wing leaders follow in Netanyahu’s footsteps. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, for example, rebuffed a Sunday editorial in Haaretz that blasted her efforts to politicize the appointment of ministry legal advisers by noting that “someone is not following the ‘correct agenda’ and Haaretz is fuming with rage.” Shaked, it seems, is also an adherent of the strategy that can be summed up, to paraphrase an old White Russian anti-Semitic slogan, as “Smite the media and save the right.”
The success of this modus operandi is the result of many years of sustained delegitimization of the media. Amazingly, it continues to achieve results despite the emergence of strong partisan media on the right – see Fox News – and the exponential growth of alternative news sources on social media. The gambit continues to rouse the right-wing base, despite the fact that many of its members are no longer exposed to the mainstream media at all. They hear of its reports and critiques solely through the distorting filter of their leaders.
The same method has been used for years by Trump, Netanyahu and others to discredit the judicial system and the apparatus of law and order, in a way that is reminiscent of the famous story about the man who murdered his parents and then begged the court’s mercy because he was an orphan. After systematically eroding public trust in the integrity of the courts, right-wingers cite the drop in public approval of the judicial system as proof of its biased performance.
For Trump and Netanyahu, who are both facing the threat of criminal prosecution, it is also a means of preparing their minions for the dark days that may lie ahead. They will claim that the charges against them are false, and that the very fact that they are being made by the legal system is enough to refute them. Trump and Netanyahu are certain that, faced with such a winning argument, their respective political bases will react with their usual blind support.