Roy Moore seems like a man after Donald Trump’s heart. He was twice suspended from his role as Alabama’s chief justice for refusing to comply with Supreme Court decisions on removing the Ten Commandments from his courtroom and recognizing gay marriage. He claimed that the 9/11 terror attacks are some kind of divine retribution for America’s sins, compared the Quran to “Mein Kampf”, described minorities as “yellows and reds” and still can’t accept that Barack Obama was actually born in Hawaii.
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But Trump nonetheless decided to stick with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and with the Republican establishment and to support Moore’s saner and more moderate rival, Luther Strange, in this week’s GOP primaries for the November special elections for the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But even before the voting started, Trump realized that he was faking it. I could be making a mistake, he said, and right he was. Moore’s victory humiliated Trump as well as all the other GOP leaders who endorsed his defeated rival.
The U.S. media depicted Trump’s loss as a resounding victory for Steve Bannon, his former adviser. Bannon went to Alabama to support Moore, describing him as the candidate of the real Donald Trump. We have to help him drain the swamp in Washington, Bannon said. But the former and current Breitbart CEO actually played only a trivial role in Moore’s victory, especially compared to the one filled by Trump himself. The New York real estate tycoon’s astounding victory in the 2016 elections wasn’t enough for the masses who propelled him to power. On the contrary, the win only whetted their appetite for more. They want Trump to not only clean out the DC barn but to replace all the old horses with kicking and screaming stallions as well.
In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism - which, despite 80-year-old backdrop, still reads at times like a lucid commentary on current affairs - Hannah Arendt describes the development of such masses. First comes the mob, dregs of society and its rejects, whose only creed is fanaticism, whose hatred for the other is the air that they breathe and who yearns for a strong leader unafraid to use force. After them, given the right circumstances, come the classless masses, isolated and resentful, who feel that their world is crumbling in front of their eyes, against their will and contrary to their interests.
This was true following the global upheaval of World War I, as Arendt argues, but also, arguably, in the wake of globalization, technological revolution, information explosion, social media, atomization of society, the rise of radical Islam and mass migration from the Third World to the First. All that’s needed in order to make this mix toxic is a charismatic demagogue who talks to the masses in slogans they understand, who defies morality and breaks with convention, who fuels hatred and sows fear and who promises to return everything that has been unjustly taken from the masses.
Arendt describes cases in which elites collaborate with the demagogue and the mob that backs him. These haves enjoy the fact that have-not hordes are dismantling the bourgeois establishment and undermining its values. The elites that are egging Trump on, even though they stay away from the limelight, are the Evangelicals, who want to see Trump destroy the citadel that liberals have built over the past half-century, especially around abortions and gay marriage. Next to the believers are the elites of money, big business and greed. The sweeping tax reform introduced by Trump this week is portrayed as a blow for liberty and release from the yoke of federal interference but in practice it is likely to simply put many more billions of dollars into pockets that are already full, with the hope that some of the money will trickle down to spur the economy and benefit the masses. It’s been tried before, of course, and while the rich did indeed get richer, all the others remained the same, at best.
The mirror image to the forces lined up behind Trump can be found in Israeli police files on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, in the mass rallies organized by the Likud in his support and in the ceremony held in Gush Etzion on Wednesday to mark 50 years of occupation or “the jubilee of the return to the historic homelands,” as the official invitation phrased it. In the corruption probe known as “Case 1000” as well as in the chronicles of three decades of Netanyahu’s political career we find the same kind of tycoons and financiers who seek relief from regulation and supervision.
In the Likud rallies we see the mob that has now turned into a mass, united in its worship for the leader, its resentment towards the establishment and its hatred for everyone who’s different. In Gush Etzion one could see the elites of the national religious and settlement movement, who are often backed by the ultra-Orthodox, that are urging Netanyahu to vanquish the last remaining holdouts of liberal Western values and the rule of law to pave the way for an unbridled Jewish regime. In this regard, the well planned damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t ambush that Supreme Court President Miriam Naor walked into before deciding to boycott the ceremony was part of the setup. Israeli judges would be tainted if they legitimized a ceremony marking Jewish settlements, which the world sees as illegal. By staying away, however, Naor allowed the Supreme Court wrecking crew of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and her cabinet colleague Yariv Levin to depict the judges as leftist lackeys who deserve to be diminished and replaced.
The very fact that Netanyahu’s government is holding a state ceremony in an area that it refuses to attach to the state is part of the alternative reality that Netanyahu and his government try to create on a daily basis. One should consider the possibility, Arendt writes of totalitarian movements, “that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will and the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.” Instead of wasting energy on introspection, on the complexities of the world and on the need to discern nuances, Netanyahu is marketing a binary black or white reality that even penguins can discern, as he told the United Nations last week. In this world, there is no occupation, and if there is, it is benign. Anyone who says otherwise is almost by definition a hater, traitor, leftie or anti-Semite.
Trump convinced the public that followed him that the entire world is the problem but only he is the solution. He persuaded his fans, contrary to all evidence and research, that immigrants and refugees threaten their lives and their livelihoods. He buried political correctness and said in public what run of the mill politicians no longer dared to say even in private. He asked the masses to send him to Washington to burn down the establishment, in their names and for their benefit. He found and created new enemies, from foreign leaders to Hollywood stars to protesting NFL quarterbacks, so that the mob will be able to sink its teeth into someone and hate.
Trump thought he would master Congress and the bureaucracy with the same skill-set that won him the elections, but he discovered the world was more complicated. After 253 days in office, he has relatively meager accomplishments compared to the moon that he promised. He tried to preserve the radical populism with which he feels most comfortable while trying to build the coalitions necessary to pass legislation and manage a superpower. But he failed, as perhaps all would, to bridge the gaps between the Republican old guard and the irreverent rebels of the Freedom Caucus who have been getting steadily stronger since their sensational ascent as the Tea Party in the 2010 elections.
By endorsing Strange, Trump had hoped to defuse tensions with McConnell that had accumulated the more the GOP racked up failures in Congress. But the Republicans of Alabama let him know they were having none of it. They continue to support Trump, but on their conditions, not his. They’re not willing to make do with change in Washington. They want a full-fledged revolution.
Many Republicans are worried that the rebellious spirit is alive not only in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama but throughout the country as a whole. Even though the 2018 Senate elections are relatively convenient for the GOP - only 8 contested seats are held by Republicans, compared to 23 for Democrats - Bannon’s white intifada could spread internal strife wherever GOP primaries are held and could bring forward candidates who are just as extreme and bizarre as Moore, for both the Senate and the House. These might unexpectedly lose to Democrats because of their eccentricity or, just as worse, they could actually win and strengthen the rebellious wing in Congress that doesn’t play by any rules besides those they make up by themselves. Tennessee’s Bob Corker surveyed the landscape, factored in frustrations and humiliations that await him down the road and announced this week that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018.
Nonetheless, Trump can’t afford to surrender completely to the mob that is spurring him on. He needs the entire GOP caucus as well as Democrats to enable any legislation, including his coveted tax cuts. At the same time, Trump will think twice before hitching his wagon again to McConnell’s. His ego won’t stand another embarrassment like the one he suffered this week in Alabama, after which he immediately deleted all his Tweets in favor of Moore’s defeated rival. Trump will feed his minions with objects of hate but henceforth, in case of doubt, he’ll follow Bannon and the core instincts of his base.
The result is likely to be more incitement and less moderation, more delusion and less reality. Just as Netanyahu learned from his limited experience in actual peacemaking to beware retaliation from his right, so Trump is unlikely to confront his core supporters ever again. Both leaders have gotten back on the tiger they themselves let loose, but while Netanyahu will try to conceal the ride behind fancy words and claims of victimhood, Trump will shouting giddyap to the tiger until he gets to the bitter end.