Analysis

The Israeli Left Needs a Trump to Make Voters Roar With Rage

Though condemned in most situations, anger can be an admirable human response to corruption, ineptitude, stupidity and injustice | Analysis

An anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Tel Aviv in March 7, 2015.
AP

Two weeks before the November 8 elections, Barclays Research published an extensive study of “The Politics of Rage.” Although the media uncovered the layers of public anger that spawned Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump, this article shows that the phenomena started almost a decade and a half ago, before the onset of the great recession. In many Western countries, the political center had already been disintegrating, giving way to fringe alternatives. The trend, this research notes, isn’t going away any time soon.

Using complex statistical models, the research proves that the left is suffering more from the disappearing center than the right. Working class voters, who are the backbone of leftist parties, in Europe at least, are especially prone to radical populists on the right. Their proposals, including the strengthening of national sovereignty at the expense of international obligations, as well as steps to curtail immigration, seem to provide a better answer to their voters’ concerns, even though reality is quite the opposite. The implementation of these steps is bound to curtail economic growth and limit credit and equity markets and the slowdown will be felt by all.

The paper, written by Barclays head of FX strategy Marvin Barth, a former U.S. Treasury expert on currency markets, calculates various data in 22 democratic countries and lists the various factors that contribute to voter ire, including globalization, accelerating technology and the growing income gap, which hurts those with median incomes the most.

But the overriding factor that enrages voters, according to this paper, is a sense of disenfranchisement and betrayal. The voters are angry at the so-called “elites.” They have lost trust in the institutions these elites have created, including banks, universities, government bureaucrats and the very pillars of democracy. Because of their disillusionment, such voters have typically drifted away from politics and refused to take part in elections, until the right demagogue comes back to make them roar at the ballot box.

Donald Trump gestures as he is introduced at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, November 7, 2016.
CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS

At this point, many Israelis will react with disdain and ask – so what else is new? Popular anger with “elites” is a permanent staple of Israeli politics. It reached its peak in the 1981 elections, probably the most volatile in history, in which Shimon Peres got shouted down by hecklers near Beit Shemesh and Menachem Begin described pioneering kibbutzniks as “millionaires with swimming polls.”

But the same sense of neglect and resentment was the instrument with which Benjamin Netanyahu assembled his “coalition of the disenfranchised” that gave him his amazing 1996 victory – over Peres, who else – six short months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And the politics of rage are still Netanyahu’s main ploy today, a sort of political perpetuum mobile, severed from logic and history. In the 39 years that have passed since the Likud first came to power in 1977, the left has ruled in only six – ten, if you want to add Likud-mutant Kadima and 16 if you need to factor in jointly held national unity governments as well.

The rest is pure Likud, all alone, yet Netanyahu and his cohorts still manage to persuade their voters that the left is responsible for all their woes. Netanyahu’s biggest problem, meanwhile, is that he is so persuasive that he has apparently convinced himself that his cynical propaganda is reality.

The trend of votes moving from the sane center to the more lunatic fringes also exists in Israel, though it may not seem so if you simply look at the numbers. It’s true that the two major parties will never approach the 95 Knesset seats (out of 120) that they received in the eighties, but there really isn’t much difference between the 76 seats that Labor’s Rabin and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir picked up in 1992 and the 75 seats that Netanyahu picked up in 2015 together with Yitzhak Herzog, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon.

But this stability is an illusion, because the Likud has gradually evolved from a liberal, more or less law-abiding party to an alt-right entity that uses “politics of rage” – and incitement – not only to get elected but as a permanent fixture of governing as well.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on the balcony of a hotel overlooking Zion Square during a right-wing demonstration in 1995.
David Mizrahi

Barclays did not invent the term “Politics of Rage.” It was used, among other places, in the title of U.S. historian Dan Carter’s biography of George Wallace, the racist Alabama governor who ran for president several times, both as a Democrat and as an independent. During the recent election campaign, several American commentators compared Trump to Wallace, who gained international notoriety in 1963 when he was televised trying to block the entry of black students to the University of Alabama.

The analogy, of course, is far from perfect, but a 1996 speech that Carter gave in New Orleans nonetheless turned out to be eerily prophetic. Speaking a few years after the candidacy of Ross Perot, Carter predicted that angry voters are bound to be disappointed and may go off “in search of Oz, chasing will of the wisp candidates like Ross Perot who offer little more than slogans and the promise of voter ‘empowerment’ through the global village of television town meetings. Or,” Carter added ominously and presciently, “they will turn to other, far more dangerous demagogues.”

More than any other politician who competed in the 1960s and 70s, Carter notes, Wallace “sensed the frustrations – the rage – of many American voters, made commonplace a new level of political incivility and intemperate rhetoric and focused that anger on a convenient set of scapegoats.”

George Wallace 'Segregation Forever' Speech YouTube

After his so-called “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” made him famous, Wallace “instinctively understood the lesson that the so-called political spin doctors would soon grasp: in the world of television and politics – and they were increasingly becoming the same – the powerful totality of visual and verbal impressions shaped viewers’ and voters’ opinions.” He recognized that the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and the anti-Vietnam riots were viewed by a substantial portion of the American electorate as “symptoms of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family and country.” 

Wallace was particularly effective, Carter notes, “in exposing the hollow core of the Democratic Party, which had disintegrated into a little more than a political clearing house for rewarding constituent interest groups.” He railed against “hypocritical New York intelligentsia” that “send your kids halfway across town [to study at integrated schools] while they have their chauffeur drop their children off at private schools.” He attacked academics, Supreme Court justices and liberal journalists, as if nothing has really changed.

Though his speeches seemed unintelligible and disjointed in reading, Wallace enthused tens of thousands of supporters in political rallies across the country. The basic bond of the governor and his audience, Carter said, in words that sound creepily predictive, “was the ethos of the locker room, of a man’s world, free from constraints of women and their weaknesses.” Wallace, Carter says, “was the first politician to sense and then to exploit white backlash, the silent majority, the alienated voters, but – beyond a general hostility to federal government – had little to offer in terms of policies or solutions.” Instead, he offered rage.

His true heir was Newt Gingrich, Trump’s steadfast supporter who was helped, at the time, by Netanyahu’s right hand man, Ambassador Ron Dermer. In what sounds like a page from Netanyahu’s standard playbook, Gingrich told his party to treat Democrats as “enemies of normal Americans.” He urged Republicans to turn politics into a “battleground” between godly Republicans and the “secular anti-religious view of the left” that shaped the Democratic Party. This shift in tone, Carter noted, came in the midst of the growth of a “culture of aggression” in the American media, which “found that it could capture the attention of readers and viewers only by increasing the level of hyperbole, sensationalism and cynicism.”

In this battle, Carter notes, the left is at a disadvantage: the demons it tries to portray are never as convincing as those conjured by the right. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland expressed the same idea, in a different way: the left’s deficiency is that it plays by the rules, that the alt-right views as tools of a corrupt establishment anyway. It’s hard to imagine, after all, how Trump and his supporters would have reacted had it been Clinton who won a majority in the Electoral College while Trump held a three-million vote majority in the popular vote.

All the party switches in recent U.S. presidential elections included a distinct element of voter rage. George W. Bush would not be president were it not for the Christian right’s rage, in Florida as well, at what it perceived as Bill Clinton’s debauchery and corruption. Barack Obama would not have become the first black president in 2008 – or would not have enjoyed such a large majority, at least – were it not for the left’s outrage at the war in Iraq and the crippling economic downfall.

And a candidate as ludicrous as Trump would never have been elected, of course, were it not for white resentment of Obama’s presidency and the sense that East Coast liberals have taken over America. And unless it suddenly turns out that there is a God after all and that he has miraculously made a great president out of Trump, it is inevitable that vote outrage will boot Trump out of office in four years or eight, on the assumption that elections are still legal by then.

There are many reasons why this ebb and flow of political fortunes doesn’t work in Israel, first and foremost being the primacy of the security situation, the occupation and the external threats that overshadow everything else. Like in Israel, the American left is nurtured by “elitist” anger over external entanglements or culture wars, but it is also fed by the frustrations and resentment of disenfranchised minorities. In Israel most of the public has adopted the hawkish and fatalistic world view of the right and is inclined to docilely accept the religious parties’ political prowess that allows them to dictate their will in the local version of “culture wars.”

But the Israeli left cannot be fueled by “working class rage” because it has no standing with the proletarian or with historically disadvantaged minorities:  it neglected and then abandoned Jewish North African immigrants and it unfortunately views the Arab minority as beyond the pale.

The last time rage swept the center-left to victory was with Ehud Barak in 1999. Not only were voters fed up with Netanyahu’s governing style and his sabotaging of the peace process in the wake of the Wye River Accord, the left was still itching for revenge for Netanyahu’s shocking upset in the 1996 elections. Barak, though it's hard to fathom it today, knew how to inflame and then tunnel public rage so that his voters gave him an overwhelming 56 percent to 44 percent majority in the direct personal elections that were still in force then.

Perhaps because of the crushing sense of failure after Barak’s term was over, and the devastating political effects of the wave of suicide bombings that followed, the left and center have never recovered that sense of rage, despite their sense that Netanyahu is leading the country to ruin.

The left suffers blow after defeat – this week alone it was hit with the law authorizing expropriation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, with a law against muezzins in mosques, with proposed “blacklists” of alleged BDS supporters and with Netanyahu’s irresponsible and dangerous incitement against investigative journalist Raviv Drucker. But instead of rage erupting from their guts, most lefties read some carefully written article in Haaretz and continued groaning and moaning in their admittedly elitist enclaves in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the left will never get back into power in Israel, but it certainly won’t if it doesn’t find the kind of leader who can pour fuel on its embers of anger, a firebrand rabble-rouser who can inflame supporters, jolt indifferent voters out of their complacency and win over those Likud supporters who have been blinded by hate and incitement. It can be a Donald Trump even, but without the race-baiting, malevolence and basic inability to formulate a sentence. Someone for whom the end is the only thing that’s important and who views the means are secondary. Though condemned in most situations, anger can be a basic tool for survival in nature as well as an admirable human response to corruption, ineptitude, stupidity and injustice. But even if it doesn’t work and it’s a lost cause “Do not go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas wrote “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”