Donald Trump and an unreasonable number of his advisers, associates and family members have tried to deny, hide or minimize their extraordinarily extensive ties with Russia and/or the Kremlin. U.S. intelligence services assert that the Kremlin intervened in the 2016 elections in Trump’s favor and now there is strong evidence to suggest that he was aware of the Russian efforts, welcomed them and possibly collaborated with them. Trump has tried to stifle the FBI probe and to muzzle media coverage of his possible collusion with Russia. He has also persisted in his uncomfortably fawning attitude towards Vladimir Putin and his incomprehensibly appeasing response to Russian aggression around the world.
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The mountain of evidence against Trump’s ties with Russia may still be circumstantial, but it is daunting nonetheless. By law, Trump may be innocent until proven guilty, but the only way to deny that something is rotten in his ties with Moscow is to shut your ears, eyes and mind to the glaring facts before you. One has to be extraordinarily stupid, biased, corrupt, cynical - or any combination thereof - to believe that this is all some vast liberal conspiracy or what Trump describes as a Democratic hoax or fake news. Or so one would assume.
The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with Benjamin Netanyahu. An inordinate number of his advisers, associates and family members have been interrogated, investigated, disciplined and prosecuted in recent years for a variety of crimes and misdemeanors, from sexual harassment to massive corruption. Netanyahu himself is the target of two separate police probes that we know about and he recklessly turned a blind eye, at best, to the involvement of his closest confidantes in two of the most recent and potentially most devastating investigations in Israel’s history, the first concerning the multi-billion dollar purchase of German submarines and the second involving mammoth government perks allegedly given to Israel’s largest communication company, which just happens to be owned by Netanyahu’s friend.
And yet, despite the preponderance of separate corruption cases with Netanyahu seemingly at their center, and despite the fact that both the attorney general and the chief of Israel’s police were appointed by Netanyahu himself or that their decisions to investigate against him were taken only after months of hesitation and foot-dragging, Netanyahu has the temerity to argue that he is the victim of a sinister plot. That the Israeli media, over which he exerts more control any other leader in the democratic world, have joined forces with his political rivals and, somehow, the New Israel Fund and possibly George Soros, to oust him from office and to undermine his democratic election by the Israeli people.
In order to be able to stick to his outrageous assertions, Netanyahu has refrained from giving interviews to Israeli media for over a year, a boycott he bizarrely interrupted close to midnight on Thursday in an interview with two sycophantic “journalists” from a right-leaning television channel that would have been deemed overly obsequious even in Pyongyang. Adding insult to ignominy, Netanyahu even adopted Trump as his role model. After blasting his media enemies and their hoax news in the interview, Netanyahu went to Facebook to lambaste the media’s efforts to “brainwash” the Israeli public. He plastered the words “fake news” over the logos of Israel’s main media outlets, with the obvious exception of those owned by his benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, or those that agree with him otherwise.
And just as Republican lawmakers have continued to defend Trump, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and Republican voters rebuff the allegations against him as a feverish liberal invention, so have some - though far from all - Likud figures adopted Netanyahu’s outlandish accusations and conspiracy theories to attack the leftist media’s insidious plots and, by their twisted extension, Israel itself. We don’t have the same up-to-date polls, but rest assured that a solid bloc of Likudniks and right wing voters are convinced that the suspicions against Netanyahu were trumped up by his political opponents, aided and abetted by self-hating Jews, who joined forces to exert pressure on the police and law authorities to launch four separate investigations in which Netanyahu is directly or indirectly involved, against their better judgment.
There are various reasons for this willful suspension of disbelief, many of which have been widely discussed in the U.S. media in recent weeks. These include, hyper partisanship, which idealizes unquestioning loyalty and demonizes the other side; social media echo chambers, which encourage outlandishness and corrode objectivity; sheer stupidity, of course; and what Jennifer Rubin has scathingly described as the GOP’s “moral rot.” The willingness of millions of people, in America as well as Israel, to prefer unhinged claims about secret cabals hatching mysterious plots over what seems to be basic logic and incontrovertible evidence, supported by supposedly trustworthy public institutions including courts, attorneys and police investigations, should not surprise Jews. Throughout their history, they have frequently been the victims of similar artificially induced cases of mass hysteria aimed at diverting attention from someone else’s political woes.
What is left unresolved, at least for this writer, is the degree to which both Netanyahu and Trump actually believe their own BS. Have they deluded themselves to the point that they are convinced of their own spotlessness or are they cynically inciting against the leftist/media cabal in order to provide a scapegoat for their base and to keep its members focused and loyal. Here the two leaders are not exactly the same: Netanyahu is an intelligent, well-read and often careful leader who has often proven his ability to conduct himself rationally, as in his handling of this weekend’s terror attack on the Temple Mount. Trump, on the other hand, is all over the place about everything, and has yet to reassure the world that his rants against the media are somehow separate from his overall perceptions of the world.
In both cases, however, Trump and Netanyahu are using the same diversionary tactics and inflammatory incitement employed by authoritarians, strongmen and dictators since time immemorial. In the "Origins of Totalitarianism," Hannah Arendt writes about the appeal of overarching, mysterious conspiracy theories for what she condescendingly calls “the masses.” The masses are not interested in facts but in the “consistency” of their world. They long to escape coincidences and vagaries of fortune and yearn for “an all embracing omnipotence, which is supposed to be at the root of every accident.” They seek a “consistency which is more adequate to the human mind than reality itself.” By providing this need, she writes, totalitarian movements shut off their constituents from the real world and thus enhance their hold over them.
The objects of their suspicions can be Jews, Freemasons, Trotskyites, Capitalists, Catholics, Templars, Reptilians, Illuminati, Bilderberg or Elders of Zion. In the alt-right that Trump caters to sometimes, the eternally guilty are the globalist elites, the international conglomerates, the bloodsucking free traders or the federal interventionists. For Netanyahu the culprits are the leftist media, liberal NGOs, Western European anti-Semites and, if Barack Obama is in power, the U.S. president as well. Both leaders allude to mysterious links between external enemies and internal turncoats who are the root cause of whatever difficulty or trouble they or their countries are facing. Rather than tell America that the world economy is changing and that Americans must quickly and painfully adapt, Trump blames foreign devils and domestic saboteurs. Rather than compel Israel to face up to the ramifications of 50 years of occupation, Netanyahu prefers to conjure a conspiracy of anti-Semites and self-hating Jews without whom, it sometimes seems, Palestinians would not exist. And because he increasingly believes that l’état c’est lui, it is a small leap for Netanyahu to assert that the same villains are hounding him as well.
Whether they are true believers or cynical manipulators, both leaders are now using the same line of propaganda in order to try to extricate themselves from a legal noose that seems to be inexorably tightening around their necks. Hopefully, their eerily similar and equally outlandish accusations, which we can describe as the Trumpyahu cult of conspiracies, can only take the two leaders so far. “Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity,” Arendt wrote. Unlike pre-Nazi Germany and pre-Bolshevik Russia that Arendt deals with in most of her books, in modern America and start-up Israel common sense can still prevail. Or so we hope.