Donald Trump is a political genius. A calculating genius, and sometimes an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. And he is at his very best when it comes to manipulating the media.
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Trump is better than any candidate in recent history in getting the media and the American people to focus on what he wants to talk about rather than the real issues of the day. He is an absolute master of diversion, distraction and deception, brilliantly exploiting his telegenic family, his reality show experience, a gullible press, and a discouraged but gossip-hungry public.
Americans, it is true, are often disgusted by Mr. Trump’s non-stop blather and antics. But just as often they are amused, fascinated and entertained. And somehow, whenever confronted by an ugly reality or unpleasant fact, Trump has managed, with remarkable alacrity, simply to change the subject.
For a case study on how this process works, one need only look at Mr. Trump’s handling of the American Jewish community.
Trump's "distract and deny" strategy with the Jewish public
Mr. Trump has made a series of decisions that strike at the very heart of Jewish interests and values. And I am not referring here only to liberal values and to interests liberally defined, but to consensus matters with broad support across the Jewish spectrum in America. Anyone else taking these positions would likely be cast aside by the Jewish grassroots and leadership alike.
Still, while mostly reviled in liberal circles, Trump has done a remarkable job of retaining Jewish support on the right and in the center and of projecting an image of support for Israel and sympathy for Jews. How in heaven’s name has he done it?
And the answer is: By repeatedly denying that he has said what he has said and done what he has done. And by constantly feeding the media monster with an endless supply of competing stories that will distract the Jewish public from the truth.
The first example, of course, was the appointment of Steve Bannon as a senior strategist. For years, Bannon proudly provided a platform for some of America’s most prominent bigots, anti-Semites included. But Trump and his aides simply said it wasn’t so and moved on, and by and large, so did American Jews.
Another example of the “distract and deny” strategy was the appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Given that the Trump foreign policy on Israel was a bundle of contradictions, this appointment was a masterstroke. Friedman is a mini-Trump. He blusters, pontificates, and pouts. He spouts endless insults. He attacks ADL and J Street and promises to bar them from the White House. He delights in extremist statements on settlements and on Palestinians. He apologizes for nothing and retracts nothing. He is also ignorant of the issues and comes across more as buffoon than diplomat. But he makes great copy. Will the policies he espouses be implemented? Does he speak for the incoming administration? No one knows for sure. Nonetheless, Friedman continues to dominate the front pages and websites of the Jewish press.
Taking the Jewish celeb gossip bait: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner
And to this must be added the endless palaver about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The fact that the new president’s daughter and her family are Jewish is news, of course, and of legitimate interest to the Jewish community. But almost all of what we read is puffery, celebrity worship, and pointless speculation: What will be Ivanka’s role? Will Jared have an office in the White House?
The Jewish media are the primary culprits here, although Mr. Trump bears responsibility as well. In both the Jewish and general press, Mr. Trump and his aides spend far too much time speaking about the Trump family and far too little time holding press conferences and grappling with issues. And in this climate, gossipy family stories are clever tactics that serve to distract and deceive.
But there is a problem here. While American Jews are obsessing about Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and David Friedman, matters of consequence are getting pushed aside and left behind. What about Trump’s ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin? When Rex Tillerson was nominated to be secretary of state, there was a brief flurry of comments and questions in the Jewish media about Tillerson’s Russian connections. But it passed quickly.
While you were distracted, Russia and its allies are circling Israel
Yet for the State of Israel, there is no more important issue. Have we forgotten Trump’s “America First” campaign theme, redolent of 1930s isolationism? Have we forgotten Russian interference in America’s presidential election and the infuriating lack of response from Mr. Trump and his party?
To be sure, no one can say with certainty what the Trump foreign policy will be. But there are ample hints, and they are far from encouraging. And the major concern for Israel and American Jewry right now is not whether or not America’s embassy will be relocated to Jerusalem. (If properly done, I support the move.) It is whether President Trump will adopt a policy of “ultra-realism,” forsaking our traditional alliances and seeking a geopolitical “grand bargain” with Russia. Such a bargain might include, in addition to weakening our commitments to NATO, Russian cooperation in fighting Islamic terrorism in return for acknowledging Russia’s preeminent role as Bashar Assad’s patron in Syria.
Assad is a butcher, and a Putin-Trump alliance propping him up would be abhorrent. If it comes into being, Ronald Reagan will be spinning in his grave. And the geopolitical prospects are as grim as the moral ones. Let us imagine the possible scenarios for Israel. Let us suppose that Assad pushes the civil war to the south and his forces approach the Golan. Or let us suppose that prodded by his Iranian allies, he promises to transport heavy weapons to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. In both cases, Israel would wish to take military action. But what if the Russians say no, and back Assad? Then what? Can Trump be counted on to take on his Russian buddy? Why assume that an America that is disappointing its friends around the world will stand up for Israel?
But no one is talking about this, of course. Right-wing Jews in America and Israel focus on settlements and embassies. They congratulate themselves about the Kushners. They are in a state of euphoria about David Friedman’s appointment. And they promise a new era in Israeli-American relations.
And in the meantime, Steve Bannon, a purveyor of hate, prepares to take up residence in the White House. Personal ties to Putin have become a primary qualification for a senior foreign policy role in the new administration. Russia moves to displace America as the major power in the Middle East. Israel’s security is threatened by Russian hegemony in its backyard. Iran is strengthened by its cooperation with Putin. And the Western alliance that has kept the peace in Europe and much of the world for 70 years continues to falter.
My suggestion to the Jewish community: Forget about Ivanka Trump. Her father is taking us for a ride. Let’s focus on the real issues.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie