Opinion

Forget Breaking Up Trump and Netanyahu's Romance With the Working Class

You can't challenge the Mizrahi working class’ long-running affair with Netanyahu or Trump's success with white working class Americans with economics. The loyalty is tribal.

Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.
Mark Kauzlarich, Reuters

Why did all these unemployed and working-poor people vote for this rich ultra-capitalist, this leader of a party that never did a damn thing for the poor or the working class, this selfish, arrogant guy who never wanted for anything in his life? More importantly, how can progressives wake these people up and get them on their side? 

That’s what liberals are asking in America now. It used to be what the left was asking in Israel, too, but not anymore. 

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By now, most Israeli progressives have realized it’s hopeless: The unemployed and low-wage Mizrahim in the distant towns and the inner cities are in Netanyahu’s pocket for good. They’re still in the “development towns,” still in the urban “neighborhoods,” they’re still way behind and nothing has changed for them after all these years of Bibi’s rule, and they still love him. 

But while most progressives in Israel have sensibly given up on prying the Mizrahi working class from Bibi, progressives in the United States are now, understandably, obsessed with the question of why the white working class voted for Trump, and how they can be swung over to the Democrats in elections to come. 

Based on Israel’s experience, I’d say: Forget about it. The white working class’ romance with Trump is very, very similar to the Mizrahi working class’ long-running affair with Netanyahu – and it’s not about economics. It’s about what in America they call “identity politics,” and what in Israel we call “the tribes.”

Compared to progressives, America’s white working class, like Israel’s Mizrahi working class, tends to be nationalistic, religious, less educated and poorer. This makes for natural class resentment, and Netanyahu has been playing on it for 20 years. He pits the Mizrahi working class (along with the others in the right-wing tribe, the “Russians” and the middle-class Orthodox) against the opposing tribe – Arabs, refugees, leftists, the media, the elites, Tel Aviv – and they show their loyalty every time at the ballot box. 

It doesn’t matter if they go on hurting economically while Bibi’s in power, it doesn’t even matter if Bibi goes out of his way to hurt them. It was Netanyahu, as finance minister during the days of deep recession and bus bombings, who shredded Israel’s safety net and stared down Vikki Knafo’s galvanizing single-mothers’ strike, and it was Netanyahu as prime minister in summer 2011 who blew off the giant protests for economic justice. 

He’s a rich man’s politician, and he’s done nothing but hurt the poor, but when election time arrives he shouts “Arabs, leftists, the media!” and the non-Haredi Jewish poor, who are largely Mizrahi, throw their votes at him. 

Trump did the same thing with white working-class Americans, only he offered them a somewhat different cast of tribal enemies, including Latino immigrants, refugees, Wall Street, the Clintons and Obama (while going after liberals, the media and the elites, which he called the “establishment,” just like Netanyahu does). 

True, Trump also offered them populist economic salvation that Netanyahu doesn’t bother with – protectionism and a return of the coal mines and factories that have been shutting down for 40 years. When that fails to happen, when the white working class finds themselves in no better shape or in worse shape than they’re in now, will they vote Democrat? 

I seriously doubt it, because these people have been voting Republican since long before Trump, when the Republicans were talking about nothing but free trade, tax cuts for the rich and union-busting. The white working class started going Republican in 1968 as the bulk of Nixon’s “silent majority,” and they kept on going during the era of Reagan, who did for America’s have-nots what Netanyahu has done for Israel’s. 

These white Americans have been Republican since Nixon, just like the Mizrahi working class has been Likud since Begin in 1977. It’s a phenomenon that’s bigger than Trump, bigger than Netanyahu, bigger than any one leader. It’s about class, identity, tribe. 

The good news for progressives in America is that they have the demographics, the large and growing numbers of minorities, young people, women and the college-educated, to beat the Republicans next time. In Israel, unfortunately, we on the left are not so blessed. 

So I would suggest to the Democrats that they concentrate on finding a new party leader who’s charismatic and likeable, somebody who can get the progressive tribe to the ballot box in a way Hillary Clinton couldn’t. A strong message of solidarity with the working class might be helpful for this purpose, and morally it would be the right thing to do – but it’s very probably a waste of time with the white working class. For further explanation, there’s a long, long line of Israeli Labor and Meretz politicians with whom the Democrats can consult. 

Larry Derfner is a copy editor at Haaretz and he blogs at www.larryderfner.com . His memoir "No Country for Jewish Liberals" (Just World Books) will be published in April 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @DerfnerLarry