The Populist Right's Main Characteristic: The Desire to Silence the Forgotten People

It seems as if the only place where there is still a left that hasn’t capitulated to the rule of ego is the Communist Party, which preserves the flame of political logic. But it’s too little.

Yitzhak Laor
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A member of the audience (R) stomps on a protester as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Tucson, Arizona March 19, 2016.
A member of the audience (R) stomps on a protester as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Tucson, Arizona March 19, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Yitzhak Laor

A real specter is haunting Europe – the specter of populism: Brexit, Donald Trump and Alternative for Germany. Here in Israel populism has already triumphed, unchallenged. It churned through the Likud Central Committee and the settlers, removing Benny Begin and Michael Eitan, supporters of colonialism who at least respected institutions like the courts and equality before the law for Arab citizens as well. Now the mob is even trampling on Israel Defense Forces generals, the heroes of yesteryear.

The main characteristic of the populist right is the desire to crush all institutions, including the discourse of civil and human rights – by the victims of course, the “forgotten people.” Coherence is unimportant; another major characteristic of populism is zigzagging between arguments.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is our ultimate exemplar, but whoever examines the speed with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved from objecting to opening the files of the Yemenite children to supporting it will recall that this populism was created when the good boy from upper-class Rehavia came to the Likud and changed it in the name of “fighting the elites.” Whoever listens to the rhetoric of Miri Regev can find what newspaper readers in the West are still having a hard time digesting: the appeal to the mob via incitement, i.e. the verbal trampling of institutions, as Shakespeare prophesied about the nature of the mob in an age of ego. It doesn’t matter what the leader in power said two hours before, because two hours hence he will give me the supreme pleasure – by sticking it to the institutions, the “elites,” or to the minorities. “Like.”

Let’s leave the EU as an institution that the British have sought to trample and don’t know now how to get out of, with Labour falling apart as a result of Conservative maneuvering. Take our miserable country and its main news channel – it’s not New Zealand here, or Canada, but a country in an ongoing political crisis. What does it deal with? Night after night it tries to ingratiate itself. Watch as Facebook sets the agenda, in a way it doesn’t (yet) in the West, as it quashes all talk of rights, from the right to be presumed innocent to the right to have water in the occupied territories, and see how deeply populism has seized control here.

And there is no populism other than that of the right, which is always shallow and comes from the powers that be, and look at the rhetoric of the struggle against it in the name of the victim, “the people.” Here we come to the dying left. Some of the slogans that serve right-wing politicians are also popular among the “radical left” – incitement against Mapai, which has been out of power for 40 years; a certain strain of feminism, and the betrayal of the refugees. Beyond this there’s a very large public of people who honestly call themselves the left, but they have no institution to turn to for the language of opposition, even though there is no other way to dissent.

Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015.
Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015. Credit: AP

A serious challenge to the system never happens without institutions. The ability to act as part of an organization has always been the most important component of left-wing politics. The fruitful tension between independent intellectuals and the left with its institutions has always existed, but this relationship has been turned on its head. The city squares are empty, despite the horror of Hebron and its satellites, for example, while there are thousands of left-wing intellectuals, writers of articles, posts, blogs, editors, lecturers, poets, hunters of Sara Netanyahu. There are very few members of organizations who are capable of initiating rather than just moaning, or who can provide information about victims. Solidarity? Only in writing. Passivity masquerading as activity.

It seems as if the only place where there is still a left that hasn’t capitulated to the rule of ego is the Communist Party, which preserves the flame of political logic; its members convene for weekly meetings and commit to connect with the leadership on the one hand, and with supporters on the other. But it’s too little.

There’s a narcissistic pleasure in crying out against creeping tyranny, but the desert of the ego produces tyranny.

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