Historians of the future will marvel at how hyper-partisanship in the early 21st Century detached the right from reality. They will explore why mega-polarization turned political parties that once put country above all into mortal enemies of its democratic institutions. What was the process that transformed proponents of national unity into obsessed pursuers of enemies within? When did a political ideology that once cherished law and order turn into a lethal threat on the rule of law?
In the United States and Israel, the catalysts - as opposed to the underlying historical, psychological and anthropological trends - are obvious. In both countries, populist right wing leaders are fighting for their political lives. Both are trying to escape prosecution. Both have decided that rather than proving their innocence they would put a paralyzing spoke in the wheels of justice, undermine public trust in policemen and public attorneys and incite their followers to believe in deep states and sinister plots and lurid conspiracy theories. They would use the power and pulpit of their office to pulverize their pursuers, even if that meant destroying public trust in the institutions that kept societies together.
Both Trump and Netanyahu claim they have no case to answer, despite the overwhelming evidence that, at the very least, they certainly owe some explanations. Both are impugning the integrity and motivations of their investigators, accusing them of undue media influence and improper political links. Both are playing on their followers’ prejudices, paranoias, resentments and sense of perpetual victimhood to incite against the justice apparatus and to describe it as an instrument of their enemies, who are depicted, by definition almost, as enemies of the state. And both are directing the misguided outrage of their voters to pressure their increasingly spineless political minions, in Israel’s case, to legislate laws specifically aimed at exonerating Netanyahu or at least making life difficult for his probers or, in the American case, to issue the preposterous Devin Nunes’/House Intelligence Committee memo on the FBI, which Trump has eagerly embraced as tantamount to an acquittal, which it certainly is not.
Nonetheless, there is an essential difference between the two that could ultimately lead them in diametrically opposed directions. Netanyahu, despite his self-exculpatory shenanigans, is bound not only by his more limited constitutional powers but also by his basic acceptance of the rules of the game. Netanyahu would like the Israeli justice system to be more zealous in its pursuit of Israel’s real and his own perceived enemies, but he doesn’t want – or possibly doesn’t have the guts – to upend it altogether. When and if things go south for him and Israel’s amazing procrastinator, aka Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, decides to put him on trial, he’ll face the music, albeit kicking and screaming. Trump, on the other hand, will shoot the piano player and everyone standing nearby.
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Netanyahu likes to depict himself as a much-maligned outsider, but he has spent most of his adult life inside the establishment. Unlike Trump, he didn’t parachute from outer space into the top position, but built himself up, admittedly quickly, from diplomat to member of Knesset to deputy minister to prime minister and back again. Unlike Trump, Netanyahu didn’t buck the system to reach the top - he played it like a master, and to the hilt. He may try to manipulate rules, regulations and even reality, but in the end he is bound to the foundations upon which he climbed to the top. He won’t destroy them.
And while Netanyahu has developed an arrogant and unhealthy l’etat c’est moi view of his place in the world in recent years, he is an avid student of Jewish history. Unlike Trump, he knows that his predecessors weren’t all losers and fakers, and his successors won’t be either. Trump, on the other hand, sees himself as an American sun king, and, like Louis XIV, the God-given. He knows very little about the history that preceded him and even less about the future that will follow him, and probably couldn’t care less. He is the be-all and end-all of his own presidency.
Netanyahu is an astute practitioner of realpolitik. He fended off Barack Obama for eight years like a pro and swiftly cultivated Donald Trump and brought him to heel. Trump, on the other hand, lives in a world in which reality is a nuisance and facts don’t matter. When he cites the Nunes’ memo as proof of his claims that the entire U.S. justice system is out to get him, it’s hard to tell whether he’s completely delusional or thinks everyone else is. If he’s putting us on it’s shameful, but if he believes what he says, it’s terrifying.
Unlike Netanyahu, Trump will stop at nothing to undermine what he views as an outrageous challenge to his legitimacy. While Netanyahu tries to mastermind his escape carefully and discreetly, Trump has launched an all-out, brute force assault. Unlike Netanyahu, who can erode confidence in the police but can’t fire its chief, Trump not only dismissed FBI Director James Comey but openly confessed that he did so because of an ongoing investigation of a criminal conspiracy of which he, personally, could theoretically be the ringleader.
Trump has already shown how disdainful he is of accepted norms and practices. He promised to produce his tax returns? So he promised. It’s unseemly to appoint his relatives or for his properties to make money off his presidency? That’s just jealousy talking. He insults foreign leaders and has tanked America’s international standing? Fake news; America has never been greater. He ignores facts and makes up alternative realities? Who are you to say whose reality is realer?
When Trump boasted that his voters wouldn’t abandon him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, everyone thought it was joke, possibly including Trump himself. It’s now chillingly clear that Trump had simply diagnosed the alarming malaise with which his brand of nativist populism has infected right-wing public opinion. Armed with his self-fulfilling prophecy, Trump now feels emboldened and unrestrained in dealing with what he obviously senses could soon become a clear and present danger. Despite widespread dire warnings that the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller could trigger an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis, Trump seems to be steaming full speed ahead to that potentially cataclysmic confrontation. Like Tom Petty but unlike Netanyahu, he won’t back down either.
Which means that, contrary to analogies that are often popular with some pundits – including this one – Trump and Netanyahu may often sound alike and seem alike, but in the end they are totally different. Netanyahu will do whatever he can to avoid indictment but will ultimately bow to the system that fostered him. Trump looks at the constitutional checks and balances that confront him like one of his demolition crews surveying a recently purchased structure that will soon make way for another garishly gleaming Trump Tower. He has no doubt that people will love it.