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How Trump and Netanyahu Are Riding the Rising Tide of Neo-fascism

Both exploit the hyper-nationalism and adulation for strong leaders that brought the world to grief in the not too distant past

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017.Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II rid the world of fascism, at least for a while. Adolf Hitler’s megalomania destroyed totalitarian superpowers Japan and Germany and his crazed homicidal racism stained fascist movements throughout the West. It took 80 years for the deep currents that fed the rise of fascism to resurface, under other banners.

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Suffice to recall what Europe looked like in the 1930s to appreciate the immensity of the war’s impact. Fascist regimes – historians aren’t sure that Nazism actually fits the bill – ruled in countries throughout Europe, from Greece and Croatia to Portugal and Spain, with others poised to fall. They can be differentiated by the degree of their iron-handed tyranny and the intensity of their anti-Semitism, but they shared a broad common denominator: Nationalistic fervor, hatred of others, derision for democracy, hostility towards liberals and intellectuals, the fostering of a collective identity and the subordination of the individual to the needs of the nation. In many cases, clerical establishments encouraged, supported and in some cases participated in running the oppressive regimes.

History doesn’t repeat itself but similar circumstances can lead in similar directions. The flow of refugees from Islamic countries who are viewed as potential terrorists isn’t the same as the millions of strangers who streamed into Europe and America before and after the First World War and were viewed as potential communists, but the negative nationalistic reactions they spark among their host nations are comparable. The economic downturn of 2008 doesn’t measure up to the collapse of 1929, the digital and information upheaval of the early 21st century is distinguishable from the scientific and industrial revolution of the early 20th century, and the battles for minorities and equality were only in their infancy back then, but they all undermine the sense of security and wellbeing of significant parts of the population. Under such circumstances, people yearn for a savior, for a Duce, like Mussolini, or a Caudillo, like Franco, who would rise like a messiah to put their house in order.

Even if one rejects the diagnosis, it’s hard to ignore the neofascist symptoms that have appeared almost simultaneously throughout the world, from ethnocentric Hungary and Poland to France, Italy and Germany, where nationalism and nativism are gaining ground, to Russia, which Vladimir Putin rules as a dictator in everything but name, and China, which just anointed Xi Jinping as all-powerful president for life. And even after one dutifully proclaims the thousand and one distinct differences, and without anyone daring to mouth the word “fascist,” it’s hard to muzzle apprehension that Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, each for his own reasons and in his own style, blend in well with the overall trend.

Trump and Netanyahu are riding a wave of increasing nationalism, fear of foreigners and anxiety about the future. Both disdain elites, fight the media, denigrate liberal values and are waging a stubborn war, each in accordance with the crimes he is suspected of, against the rule of law. Both have formed alliances with devout believers, who advance their religious agendas in exchange for turning a blind eye to the leader’s transgressions. Both consolidate their power by virtue of their electoral “base,” which compensates for being a minority with ideological fervor and blind loyalty to the leader. The “base” terrorizes the party in the name of the leader, and the party runs the country according to his will.

Trump and Netanyahu have come to identify their personal fortunes with their nation’s futures, so that efforts to criticize them, probe their behavior or bring them to justice are inevitably presented as subverting the will of the people. From the outset Trump has displayed a willingness, which came to Netanyahu only in the last election, to ignore red lights, wake demons from their slumber and flout accepted norms in their battles for victory. If agents of the law don’t stop them, the battleground will shift to the public. Which is why the U.S. Congressional elections in November, just like an early ballot in Israel – on the assumption that Netanyahu will be the candidate of the right – could emerge as a historical turning point, a last opportunity, perhaps, to stop at the edge of a dark abyss that looks familiar, from yesterday and today.

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