Wearing masks and maintaining social distance currently provide the most effective defense against the spread of the coronavirus, at least until a remedy or vaccine are found. Experts around the world agree that the efficacy of these simple safety measures has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Donald Trump nonetheless refuses to order his citizens to protect themselves and sets a personal example to the contrary. He continues to downplay the death and havoc caused by the pandemic, while also promising miraculous inoculations that are just around the corner. On Thursday, he hosted close to 1,500 unmasked and un-distanced supporters at the White House for his Republican National Convention acceptance extravaganza.
The next day, Trump officially launched his reelection campaign at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. His audience of hundreds likewise threw precaution to the wind, potentially exposing themselves to infection and risking illness or even death – like former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who contracted the coronavirus after attending a Trump rally in Tulsa and died shortly thereafter.
In normal, pre-Trump times, the president’s wanton, reckless and ultimately life-threatening attitude to the plague ravaging the United States would have been inconceivable. The entire country would have been up in arms, including the president’s own party. After nearly four years of Trump-inspired lunacy, however, the president’s disregard for a killer disease that has already felled 180,000 Americans – and counting, fast – was met by only token and short-lived criticism from his opponents, but also by emphatic approval from his fans.
But while U.S. public opinion has been shell-shocked into apathy by Trump’s incessant meshugas, most of the world, especially its democratic component, watched Trump’s White House pageant with disbelief and horror. In Trump-free countries, the U.S. president’s denial of the human and economic costs of coronavirus, obstinate refusal to accept the advice of experts and continued willingness to endanger his own citizens are seen as tell-tale symptoms of deranged leadership and a country gone off the rails.
Trump, for his part, had the time of his life during convention week, and for good reason. He produced, directed and wrote the screenplay for the four-day GOP pageant of kowtowing politicians and fawning family, which culminated in a typically garrulous campaign speech on steroids at a White House turned Imperial Palace. With the traditional convention format discarded because of the pandemic, Trump feted himself less as a president running for reelection and more as a caesar basking in the accolades of his loyal legions.
So loyal, in fact, that the overwhelming majority of his invited guests were willing to risk their lives and those of their loved ones to prove their allegiance to the revered leader. Some were driven by subservient adulation to Trump, others by fear that donning masks would cast doubt on their fealty and many, no doubt, out of sheer stupidity that makes them easy marks for Trump’s malicious distortions of reality. Their willingness to follow their presidential Pied Piper of Hamelin wherever he may go, no questions asked, appalled outside observers, especially in Europe, given the continent’s traumatic memories of other masses who blindly followed charismatic leaders to chaos, genocide and ultimately self-destruction.
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Trump, on the other hand, revels in the obedience and submissiveness of his loyal fans, but is equally gratified by the nearly universal condemnation of their behavior. The blind subservience shown by his supporters gives him license to accelerate his voyage from reality on the ground to Trumpland paradise. He knows full well that the more they are condemned by so-called elitist experts, the more they are convinced in the righteousness of their path.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach is seemingly identical. He rails against elitist condescension and a “hostile” press, while concurrently leveraging their criticism to rile up his Likud party’s base of voters and entrench their unswerving allegiance.
Netanyahu’s cynical manipulation of his base, however, is inherently inferior to Trump’s. The Israeli leader, for one thing, is an elitist himself: His father was a senior member of the Irgun pre-state underground and a renowned historian of the Middle Ages, albeit of disputed academic distinction; he went to the best schools and graduated from MIT; and his pathway to power was cleared by plum diplomatic appointments that set up the launching pad from which he skyrocketed to Likud leadership and an unprecedented 14 accumulated years as prime minister, so far.
The stark social, economic and intellectual gap that separates Netanyahu from most of his flock compels him to rely on polls and on politicians whose background is more similar to that of his Likud constituency in order to accurately gauge its sentiments and calculate his moves accordingly. Netanyahu’s skillful machinations and manipulations of public opinion, admired as they are for their cunning and effectiveness, do not come to him naturally.
Trump, on the other hand, has no need for polls and no reason to hear the advice of others. He may have inherited wealth, made a name for himself in real estate and proved his uncanny animal-like political instincts in conquering the White House, but in his essence, Trump and his base are one and the same. All he has to do to ascertain his supporters’ sentiments, and how far and zany they’d be willing to follow in his footsteps, is to stand in front of the mirror and ask himself.
Netanyahu is viewed by many of his fans as an exalted being, superior to his peers and worthy of blind allegiance. Trump’s die-hard fans see him as one of their own who just happens to be president. If he weren’t in the White House, he’d probably be joining them for a traditional Saturday night brawl at the local bar. They forgive and forget his mistakes, lies and even self-made catastrophes because that’s what they’d expect if their local punk suddenly became president. They will never abandon him, come what may, and likely regard his myriad faults as endearing.
The second reason that Netanyahu is constrained in his relations with his loyal base in comparison to Trump is that he can’t compete with the U.S. president in terms of crazy. Netanyahu is a creature of the establishment and while he has ventured far in his disruptive efforts to avert criminal trial, he can never separate himself completely from the norms and codes of behavior on which he was reared on to which he adhered throughout most of his life.
Trump, on the other hand, is no different today, in essence, than he’s ever been. According to most accounts, he was a bully in high school, a cheat in college and then an uncouth and unprincipled real estate magnate on the make, with more than a tinge of racism. Trump lacks Netanyahu’s elitist upbringing, his rigorous intellectual background, his 35-plus years of experience in wielding power and his acquired and undeniable talent for jockeying and maneuvering Israeli politics to his own advantage. Trump, on the other hand, is unburdened by his past, unrestricted by previously held values or morals and unhindered by norms, traditions or what others consider rational behavior. Trump’s sole guide is Trump himself.
Ironically, it is Netanyahu who admires Trump and not vice versa. In his increasingly desperate efforts to avoid his criminal trial, slated to open in January, and his consequent efforts to undermine Israeli democracy and cement his own authoritarian rule, Netanyahu is the one who often draws courage and inspiration from his U.S. ally.
The Israeli prime minister’s spurts of destructive derangement, however, aren’t in the same league as Trump’s overarching and comprehensive dementedness. In terms of irrationality, Trump is the real McCoy. Which is why Netanyahu would never dream of ignoring the coronavirus, imploring his country to do the same, or intentionally and actively exposing his fans to the virus – for the time being, at least. For Netanyahu, it’s still a bridge too far; for Trump, just another way station on the route to the mad, mad, mad, mad world of his dreams and desires.