Just a couple of minutes into last night’s episode of Donald Trump performance art, otherwise known as the second presidential debate, my pander alarm went off. By pander alarm, I mean my American Jewish sensitivity to a politician blatantly playing for the pro-Israel vote.
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That moment occurred in Trump’s very first answer of the night, irrespective of the question that actually had been posed, when he brought up the Iran arms deal. “We made them a strong country from a very weak country three years ago,” Trump said. At the least, the riff proved that he could remember at least one talking point.
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Much later in the evening, toward the end of the 90-minute plus debate, Trump circled back to the same issue, calling it “the dumbest deal perhaps I’ve ever seen in the history of deal-making.” If you’re keeping a Top Ten ranking, though, keep in mind that Trump also called the NAFTA free-trade agreement the worst one “in the history of the world.”
Naturally, I don’t expect my Israeli Jewish brethren to watch and hear the debate the same way their American landsmen do. The disagreements between Trump and Hillary Clinton about tax policy and immigration and health care — why should an Israeli care about them as more than background noise?
Maybe even the Trumpian sneers and grimaces and threat about putting Clinton in jail and rampant lies, as catalogued by the numerous fact-checkers, qualify as blood sport as usual by standards of the Knesset.
But even if Trump rose above his incompetent and incoherent showing in the first debate, even if he managed to keep this debate from centering on the newly-released video of him touting his taste for sexual assault, the story of the campaign was not reset by the televised encounter. In the most charitable interpretation, the debate stopped, rather than accelerated the hemorrhaging of Republican support for Trump that was set loose by the revelation of the Access Hollywood clip.
Even before that bit of misogynistic braggadocio emerged from the NBC video vault, establishment Republicans had been separating from Trump. The patriots who did so months ago — Senators Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the Bush family — have now been belatedly joined by expedient rats abandoning the sinking ship.
Just a week or so ago, William J. Bennett, that self-appointed arbiter of national character and morality, signed onto an oxymoronic letter of “writers and intellectuals” for Trump. In the wake of Trump’s reverie about grabbing women’s genitals, Bennett humbled himself to reverse course. Newspapers around the United States that have not endorsed a Democratic candidate for president in decades have endorsed Clinton and, in some cases, urged Trump to resign from the Republican ticket.
Yet one of the most significant, powerful, influential Republicans has yet to be heard from. And that person, of course, would be Benjamin Netanyahu. During his years as prime minister, Netanyahu has made the strategic decision to align Israel with the Republican Party and specifically the Christian Right — two partnerships bound to alienate the vast majority of American Jews. Now, amid the hideous spectacle of Trump as the presidential nominee, you might hope he’d feel just a tad of buyers’ remorse.
Sure, Netanyahu and the 20 percent or so of American Jews who lean Republican would rather have had a presentable candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. They could have lived companionably enough with Ted Cruz, the most extreme conservative in the Senate.
What they ended up with in Trump, though, is the logical extension of the devil’s bargain that the Republican Party establishment made in order to mobilize the party’s resentful, intolerant base — right-wing talk-radio and cable; the online sites of the white supremacist alt-right; the demonizing of Muslims and Hispanics. It should surprise no one that the devil won the bet.
Indeed, the most powerful elected Republicans in Congress — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — keep sticking with Trump. A new poll by Politico found that a wide majority of Republican respondents continue to back Trump. The so-called “values voters” of the Christian Right continue to cling loyally to Trump, implying against all available evidence that he is a repentant sinner.
Donald Trump is all about branding; that’s much more of his business than building anything. Early on in his rivalry with Barack Obama, Netanyahu chose the Republican Party to be Israel’s defender in Washington. Now, with Trump at the party’s helm, his brand and Israel’s risk becoming the same. That stance may play well in the West Bank, where it appears Trump has more of a ground operation than in many American swing states, but it just compounds the catastrophe for American Jewry.
If Netanyahu has felt comfortable enough inserting himself in American politics to circumvent a sitting president in a speech orchestrated by that president’s political enemies, then now is no time to keep a distance. Either declare Trump unfit to be president, or let your silence, like that of Ryan and McConnell, stand for tacit alliance. A little bit of Trump’s sound-bite pandering, evidently, goes a very long way. All Israel has to lose, after all, is the vast majority of America Jewry.