Analysis

Like Netanyahu, Trump Incites First and Cries Innocent Later

If Israeli history is any guide, the future could cast Trump as a courageous president unjustly maligned

Donald Trump smiles at Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on March 25, 2019.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Ever since he announced his candidacy for president four years ago, Donald Trump has relentlessly incited against illegal Hispanic immigrants who cross the U.S. border with Mexico. They are rapists, murderers and drug dealers, he says. They bring crime, spread disease, steal your jobs and undermine the American way of life, he’s warned his fans. It’s an “invasion” for all intents and purposes, Trump says, which must be stopped in any way possible.

The rabble-rousing hits its peak in the mass rallies that Trump continues to hold as if he’s on a perpetual campaign trail. In Israeli eyes, the crowd’s anger, sparked and fueled by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, is reminiscent of the angry protest demonstrations against the Oslo Accords that preceded Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. They resemble the infamous October 1995 demonstration in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, the one with Benjamin Netanyahu on the balcony – albeit on steroids.

>> Trump’s 'go home' invective echoes Nazi incitement against Jews | Analysis ■ Netanyahu was quick to denounce rival's 'anti-Semitism.' Here are 5 times he stayed silent

In one such rally held in May in Panama City Beach, clips of which have resurfaced in the wake of the El Paso massacre, Trump tells his crowd apologetically that unlike other countries, the U.S. cannot order its army to stop the “invasion” by force. “How do you stop these people?” Trump asked his inflamed mob, which responded spontaneously with cries of “Shoot them!” Smiling ruefully at the thought of such a brilliant but unattainable solution, Trump flattered his fans by saying, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.”

But notwithstanding his obvious wink at the concept of vigilante violence against the “invaders”; the fear and loathing of immigrants, African-Americans and other minorities that he nourishes and fosters; and the undeniable fact that the El Paso killer – like his predecessor at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Florida letter-bomber sentenced this week to 20 years in jail, and two dozen other hate crime perpetrators and wannabes who have been apprehended by the police – quoted his vile invective almost word for word, in his own eyes and in those of his disciples, Trump is innocent. Mental health, violent video games, “fake news” press, his political rivals and, of course, the hapless immigrants themselves are the guilty parties.

If and when Trump feels the need to defend himself, he will point to the otherwise worthy condemnation that he delivered to the nation on Monday, with all the enthusiasm of a robot reading from a teleprompter. Like Netanyahu’s brief effort to quell the crowd’s cries of “Rabin the murderer” during the second mass demonstration held in Zion Square, a month before the November, 1995 assassination of the prime minister – in the first, held a year earlier, Netanyahu made do with lifting an encouraging fist to the crowd – Trump’s statement was immediately coopted by kowtowing Republicans and like-minded pundits as incontrovertible proof of his innocence. They protested efforts to portray Trump as a hate-monger, despite countless hours of video recordings that prove otherwise.

Trump, in fact, is like a turbo-powered Netanyahu, albeit with worn breaks and a shorter fuse; not blood brothers, perhaps, but brothers in blood. They shoot first and cry foul later. Both have embraced a political strategy of inflaming their base by inciting against rivals, minorities and, of course, the media; both refuse to put out the fires they ignite for fear of antagonizing their volatile base, describing perpetrators of hate crimes as mentally deranged “bad apples”; and both take umbrage at any effort to link the fear and loathing they disseminate with the violence and murder they prompt. Like Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, Trump is now trying to control his hateful outbursts, but with him it’s only a matter of days, if not hours, before he goes back to business as usual.

Trump’s place in history depends on the future: If anti-immigrant and anti-minority violence persists, public outrage continues to swell and Trump loses the 2020 election, he will depart the stage as a freak accident. His repugnant rhetoric will be universally condemned as moral depravity and a losing campaign strategy to boot. If he wins, however, Trump’s sins will be bleached lily-white and even touted as a justifiable response to an existential threat.

If recent Israeli history is any guide, in half a generation the memory of the vile incitement that Trump has intentionally injected into public discourse will recede and fade into oblivion.  History, dictated by Trump, his fans and his successors, would recount how he courageously withstood a leftist witch-hunt to emerge as the greatest president in the annals of these United States.