Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu don’t have much in common. Trump is a brash and mostly ignorant real estate mogul; Netanyahu is a crafty politician and gifted orator with a wide knowledge of Jewish and world history. Trump was born into real estate money; Netanyahu grew up in the shadow of a father who felt robbed of his glory. Trump is a novice who has no idea what he’s doing; Netanyahu is an experienced leader who has successfully defied the world for years without losing its support.
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Nonetheless, Netanyahu and Trump, whom I have dubbed Trumpyahu, often seem like identical twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two sides of the exact same coin. Both are enamored with Vladimir Putin. Both promote blanket suspicion of Islam. Both espouse ethnocentric chauvinism. Both disdain Europe and multilateralism. Both lack empathy for minorities and their rights. Both have narcissistic personalities that stir a potent mix of limitless arrogance and a perpetual sense of victimhood and resentment. Both are now besieged by criminal investigations that threaten their futures.
But mainly, both Trump and Netanyahu are inciters. Both are experts at spurring resentment, stirring hate and sowing division. Both made their way to the top by savaging the elites of which they are members. Both are world-class experts at manipulating their followers, stoking their anger and envy, turning their rage into political energy and using them as a locomotive that drives them to power.
And both Trump and Netanyahu have proven, in the last week alone, that they’ll never change. Netanyahu’s disturbing appearance at a Likud rally in Tel Aviv in which he attacked the left and the media and blamed them for the criminal investigations now hounding him was vintage Bibi. He was a hate monger before social media turned it into a political weapon of choice. It was the same Netanyahu who whipped up the agitated mob in Zion Square before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination; the same Netanyahu who portrays anti-occupation activists as traitors and foreign agents; the same Netanyahu who went full-on racist in the 2015 elections, when he rallied support by cynically claiming that “the Arabs are flocking to vote.” Now, with a legal noose tightening around his neck, when his 11-year prime ministership possibly slipping out of his grasp, Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops. He will demolish Israeli democracy, which he has already corroded, before allowing his real rivals and imaginary enemies to bring him down.
Trump showed his true colors on Saturday by condemning “many sides” for the atrocious attack in Charlottesville in which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist. Even if political pressure will now compel him to come out and say something stronger, Trump’s inability to condemn the racist nationalists who supported his election is no coincidence. It has been a constant feature of his of his short political career. Just as Netanyahu apologized to Israeli Arabs for his election-day incitement, Trump’s clarifications are meaningless. Both of them would do it all over again, if they thought it worthwhile.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are quick to denounce attacks by Muslims, slow to react to those carried out against them. Trump has yet to denounce the bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota while Netanyahu only rarely speaks out against so-called price tag attacks carried out by Jewish settlers against Palestinians. Trump and Netanyahu turn every fanatic imam into the face of true Islam but ignore their own proto-fascist fanatics or portray them as an aberration. Both owe their success to the support and enthusiasm of the most reactionary, racist and violence-prone segments of their societies.
Trump and Netanyahu rarely exhibit any empathy for anyone outside their electoral base. They are oblivious to minorities that did not vote for them. Trump is uniquely insensitive to African Americans, as witnessed in his participation in the odious Birther campaign. Netanyahu hasn’t made even a minimal effort to connect with Palestinians, especially those who have endured half a century of Israeli occupation. Both leaders cultivate a sense of “Us vs. Them,” in international affairs as well as domestic politics. They thrive on enmity and strife. They detest collaboration and mutual understanding.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are major league conspiracy theorists. Netanyahu’s grand scheme includes Israeli leftists, human rights NGOs, the European Union and, first and foremost, the media that manipulates the world. Trump places the media front and center as well and he has also conjured mysterious cabals of globalists who want to debilitate American through free trade. It’s hard to tell how much Netanyahu and Trump believe their own horse manure, though it’s fair to say that they seem to have slowly but surely convinced themselves.
Through these conspiracy theories, Netanyahu and Trump not only diminish and excuse their own misdeeds, they absolve their fans of any responsibility for their own predicaments. Working Americans were not hurt by the decline of industry but by a sinister conspiracy of unnamed financiers and conglomerates. Israelis are not to blame for the occupation, because that is the Palestinians’ fault, or for the bad image that it has created, which is the product of informers and defeatists who invent accusations against their own country.
It’s hard to point to any specific example of Netanyahu influencing Trump – though Trump’s harsh rhetoric against Muslims was certainly swayed by people close to Netanyahu - but the opposite is hard to ignore. Trump’s rise has increased Netanyahu’s use of social media, sharpened his direct assaults on the media and escalated his personal attacks against journalists who criticize him. The rage that his supporters showed toward journalists who covered his rally in Tel Aviv last week was identical to what happened at Trump’s political rallies during the 2016 campaign. Trump has emboldened Netanyahu, and not in a good way.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are the most powerful men in their countries, but both feel victimized, maligned and unfairly singled out for rebuke. Their narcissistic personalities prevent them from seeing any fault in themselves, so the problem must lie in their real and imaginary enemies. The worse their plight gets, the more embittered they become, the worse they agitate against others, the more they return to their bedrock of fomenting hatred and inspiring rage.
The inevitable result is a dangerous increase in internal hostility and mutual distrust. It’s not quite civil war, but if things got worse, it will be seen, in retrospect, as the writing on the wall. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Trump and Netanyahu are driven by the darkness in their minds and the hatred in their hearts. Both will never be able to make things better, only worse.