On January 13, 1327, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, gave a groundbreaking speech in the English parliament entitled “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”, the voice of the people is the voice of God. Reynolds was a baker’s son who rose to prominence because of his close ties to King Edward II, but he later turned his back on his benefactor.
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Reynolds was part of a conspiracy headed by Edward’s wife and French princess Isabella that sought to depose the King, mainly because of his blatant homosexual relations with widely despised figures in the Royal Court. Reynolds based his support for getting rid of the King on what he described as the revulsion felt by the English people, their vox populi, towards their king.
In later years, the Latin saying became popular among reformists who sought to curtail the absolute powers of monarchs and then by supporters of democratic rule. The principle of Vox populi vox dei was also incorporated by Jewish scholars, who cited it as justification for retroactive codification of popular custom in Jewish law. The great scholar Maimonides ruled that widespread public protest is sufficient cause to nullify laws that are deemed too harsh for the public to bear.
The exact origin of the popular saying is unknown, though the logical assumption is that it came down from the Roman Republic that preceded the Roman Empire. The first documented use of the saying is found in a letter written to Charlemagne in the 8th Century AD by English theologian Alcuin, who served as the Emperor’s adviser. In his letter, Alcuin cites the Vox Populi saying as already being in widespread use, but unlike its positive connotation since the Middle Ages, he warned Charlemagne of its inherent threat. “We should not listen to those who like to affirm that the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the tumult of the masses is truly close to madness”, he wrote.
More than a thousand years later, Hannah Arendt depicted those same masses as a collection of individuals who had been cast adrift in the modern era and who seek an overarching narrative, even one that’s patently absurd, to give order and meaning to their lives. The great totalitarian movements that Arendt dealt with, Nazism and Bolshevism, expertly exploited these yearnings of the masses. They provided a comprehensive ideology that presumed to control and overcome reality itself.
But even if one avoids analogies that some find distasteful, Alcuin’s warning is relevant today more than ever, especially in Donald Trump’s United States and, with all the glaring differences, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. In both countries, the right wing is in power mainly because of the support it draws from the masses. In both countries, the right wing has rejected the elites that once backed it and has reframed them as enemies of the people. In both countries, the effort to curry favor with the masses and to maintain its loyalty is compelling leaders to adopt policies and positions that, in the eyes of others at least, are “truly close to madness”, as Alcuin wrote.
Unlike the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, who sought to debilitate organized religion and make it disappear, the secular right in both Israel and the U.S. has formed a coalition with religious fundamentalists - some would say that it has sold its soul - in order strengthen its hold on tradition-minded and devout masses. By its very nature, this unholy alliance with latter-day priesthood compels leaders to accommodate some of the irrational and messianic elements that form its beliefs. One can depict Trump as Israel’s soul mate who simply sought to confirm realities on the ground, but the main rationale for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was his wish to please Evangelicals who seek to speed up the arrival of Armageddon and End of Days. Jewish settlements in the West Bank can similarly be justified by security and economic considerations, but its true source is the mystical belief in the sanctity of the Holy Land and in divine intervention that will eventually save Israel from turning into an apartheid or a binational state.
One of the consequences of carrying out irrational policies is a rejection of established facts as well as the people who deal in them. This objective both nurtures and feeds on the masses’ resentment of privileged elites, including researchers, scientists, academics, intellectuals and, of course, journalists. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement against global warming was based on his preposterous assertion that the research on man-made global warming, which is endorsed by 99% of the scientists who deal with the environment, is a “Chinese hoax”. No less ludicrous is the effort being made by Netanyahu and his cohorts to convince the masses that organizations such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are more responsible for international criticism of Israel than 50 years of Palestinian occupation. In both cases, the allegations against foreign enemies and locally bred traitors exempt leaders from taking hard decisions that could enrage the masses. Right wing leaders prefer to shower gifts on the masses, even at a cost of undermining their national economies, rather than raising taxes or taking the difficult steps needed to extricate their countries from crisis. That’s a task that the right often prefers to leave to the left.
Netanyahu and Trump did not initiate the descent of the right to delusion but both have helped it along. The Republican candidacy of child-rapist Roy Moore in the special elections held this week in Alabama - a state has the words “Vox Populi” inscribed on the seal of its House of Representatives - can be portrayed as the rotten fruit of the Trump era, until one remembers that among Trump’s competitors in 2016 was one Ben Carson, who does not believe in evolution but does maintain that the Holocaust might have been prevented if only the Jews had guns and the Second Amendment on their side; that Sarah Palin was the GOP candidate for Vice President in 2008; that among the GOP candidates in 2016 was one who viewed some rape as “legitimate” and another who asserted that American scientists are creating man-animal hybrids; that right-wing broadcaster Alex Jones maintains that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag operation initiated by Obama or that the oracle of the extreme right Rush Limbaugh believes that feminism is but a ploy for ugly women to insert themselves into the mainstream of society. And so on and so forth.
Both Jones and Limbaugh are creatures of the changed landscape of right wing media, which not only enables but actually accelerates the detachment of the right from reality. Long before social media broke the monopoly of traditional news organizations and replaced the supervised and crosschecked flow of information with fake news and spurious conspiracy theories, the right had already taken over radio talk shows in order to convince listeners that the “mainstream media” was concocting a virtual reality that served liberal needs. Anyone who has followed Fox News in recent years cannot ignore the fact that the “news” network frequently seems to be reporting from another planet. This hasn’t prevented Fox from becoming the sole arbiter of truth for many American right-wingers, including supporters of Israel who are convinced that both the Palestinians and the occupation are the satanic brainchild of Israel-hating liberals.
One of the right wing media’s greatest talents is the inflation of controversies involving the left to monstrous proportions that serve the Republican agenda. Hillary Clinton’s handling of the 2012 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was transformed into the greatest scandal in U.S. history; the cockamamie libel about Obama’s birth certificate was pumped up till it became gospel truth for most American right-wingers; and Fox News is now an active participant in the plot to taint Special Counsel Robert Mueller and possibly prepare the ground for his dismissal with baseless accusations of his supposed anti-Republican bias, even though he has always been known as a Republican himself.
Another favorite propaganda tool is cherry picking individual sins and omissions of leftists and liberals in order to tarnish their entire political wing. Menachem Begin knew full well in 1981 that most kibbutzniks aren’t “millionaires with swimming pools”, as he claimed, just as Netanyahu didn’t think that more than a handful of leftists identify with poet Yair Garbuz’s description of Israeli right-wingers as “amulet-kissers”. Trump presumably realizes that isolated cases of rape and murder do not turn all Mexican immigrants into murderers and rapists just as he is supposed to know that a couple of Islamist terrorists in San Bernardino don’t really justify a blanket ban on Muslim immigration or the defamation of millions of Muslim-Americans.
One of the beneficial side effects of the right wing tendency to magnify infringements by the left is the creation of a false equivalence between both camps. This is what Trump did in August when he compared left wing protestors in Charlottesville to anti-Semitic neo-Nazis, one of which murdered an innocent liberal protestor by deliberately running her over with his car. In Israel, right wing apologists have to go back all the way to pre-state incidents such as the attack on the right-wing underground’s weapons ship Altalena or the Yishuv’s willingness to turn over activists of the right wing Irgun and Lehi underground to British authorities in the wake of terror attacks in order to create a false equivalence with modern political violence, which stems almost exclusively from the right, up to and including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
This does not negate due credit to the right that had a better handle on reality than the left in several critical junctures in history. In a 1989 Israeli cabinet meeting, Shimon Peres was wrong to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika would persuade most Jews to stay in the Soviet Union and Yitzhak Shamir was right to predict that over a million Soviet Jews would immigrate to Israel. In the bitter debate following the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, those who claimed that Yasser Arafat would not sign a final peace agreement with Israel read the situation better than those who thought otherwise. Nonetheless, ever since Ronald Reagan was credited with bringing down both communism and the Berlin Wall and the September 11 terror attacks vindicated those who had warned of the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism, the right has persuaded itself dangerously that is the sole bearer of truth while the left is at best too naive to deal with foreign threats or, at worst, is giving aid and succor to America’s enemies.
The radicalization of the right and its detachment from reality have accelerated in recent years, for both identical and different reasons. The irrational hatred fostered by the right towards Obama paved the way for the election of Donald Trump, which seems just as loony today as it did on November 8, 2016. Netanyahu’s overextended stay in power has turned him into a self-victimizing paranoid who seems to think that any transgression is kosher if it is meant to keep him in power. In both countries, values and ideology have been replaced by a kind of tribal loyalty that can sanitize any sin and cleanse any crime. The deteriorating discourse in politics and the masses’ blind worship of its leaders increasingly repel politicians who are burdened with integrity and a conscience, leaving only extremists, thugs, grovelers and apparatchiks to run the party and the country, along with shameless opportunists who find it expedient not to fight the rot that is spreading all around them. This is how unsavory characters such as great white hope Steve Bannon and serial perjurer Michael Flynn became the face of the Trump administration. This is why Netanyahu turned two mediocre lackeys named David Bitan and David Amsalem into giants of their generation whose word is law throughout his ruling coalition.
The Republican debacle in Alabama proves that, for now at least, resistance to the madness of the American right is alive and kicking. The surprise Democratic victory has even fueled hopes of a Democratic takeover of either the Senate or the House of Representatives in 2018, a victory that would spell the end, for all intents and purposes, of Trump’s radical populist agenda. In Israel one can sense that the opposition is stirring and street protests are expanding, but the fatalistic assumption is that what was - delusional and repellent as it may be - is what will be as well. At least until proven otherwise.