Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and professor of law at New York University, what are the dangers inherent in the rise to power of a leader like Donald Trump, who relies solely on charisma, without an underlying rational element or ideological foundation?
Charisma as such is not problematic – that’s how politics works. [President Barack] Obama also had a type of cool charisma that got him to where he is now. The problem with Trump lies elsewhere: in the ability to take genuine hardships and give them a dark interpretation. I’m referring mainly to the hardships of the Rust Belt, which the Democratic Party neglected. Trump says: What’s killing you is immigration and global trade agreements, and I will eradicate both. It’s not by chance that those are the only two elements of substance that he raised in his campaign. The message that arises from them is that America as a closed unit no longer exists – it’s been breached, it’s border-less. And those who created that situation are people who have no loyalty to the place – be they immigrants or an elite class, like those banker Jews.
During the election campaign, you said in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth that “people have reached the conclusion that information and complexity delay action,” and you predicted that “because Trump doesn’t have a clue, nothing will stop him from doing what needs to be done.” Is that assessment still valid? In other words, will he be an effective president in the sense of implementing the policy on behalf of which he was elected?
No. I think he will fail with the people who brought him to power – the white working class whose jobs he promised to restore. These are industrial jobs, most of which no longer exist. This is due both to processes of automation – the development of technological means that make human intervention unnecessary – and because the attempt to overhaul trade and customs policy will exact a very high price from the American economy, not least from Trump’s voters, and therefore he will not dare embark on that path. After all, part of the intention of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], which shifted significant sectors of manufacturing and industry to Mexico, is to put a stop to Mexican migration to the United States. In other words, because of the necessary forms that the trade agreements take, Trump will not succeed in bringing jobs to the Rust Belt [by canceling NAFTA]. What he will do, and with possible success, is to flood the market with public works involving infrastructure.
A kind of New Deal of planned projects?
Exactly. Because we have to remember that when the radical right comes to power, it adopts – but only at the beginning – a socialist policy. So there will be investment in infrastructure, which will restore a few jobs for a certain time, will jump-start the economy and create a semblance of an influx of money. But he will not succeed in alleviating the basic distress of this social class. One of the significant buttresses of that class is the power of the unions. This protection has been lost, and Trump won’t help [restore] it.
Because he was elected as the Republican Party’s candidate?
Yes, and because he wants to go on crushing the unions, which are already suppressed. That social class will also be affected by the changes Trump might initiate in the public health system, in an attempt to reverse Obamacare. My assessment is that, in another year and a half or two years, when the first signs of the failure of his policy appear, Trump’s dark side will surface. He will need an enemy, domestic or external, around which he can create and focus that feeling. It could be [radical] Islam, the Mexicans, the blacks. A scapegoat will always be found. I can definitely imagine a case in which race riots break out in an inner city, with Trump fanning the flames.
At the same time, he will constantly reiterate that he is not the one who is ruling, because the system is still rotten. He will say that there are other elites – economic, cultural – that are effectively the ruling power. That’s the paradox of people who are elected on an anti-establishment ticket and then become part of the establishment.
Is there a way out of that trap?
Trump has confronted it from the very first – in a way that’s familiar from certain patterns of the radical right, but unprecedented in American politics – through the message that the governmental system is not legitimate: “Your president [Obama] stole the last election, because he is not American-born, and I don’t intend to accept the election results if I lose.” The message he’s sending to his supporters is that the democratic process is a façade, a pretense, that this isn’t the issue. By the same token, he doesn’t consider himself the leader of a party but the head of a movement, whose power can be wielded whenever troubles crop up.
Steve Bannon, his senior strategist, whose name has been linked to racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic statements, said that the advent of the Trump administration is the start of a “completely new political movement” and predicted that it will be in power for 50 years.
Exactly. So it follows that it’s not that our rival is wrong – he’s not legitimate. In other words, Trump’s default approach is that the democratic structure – by which distresses are channeled into an election process that can foment change – is effectively void of content. Party politics can be countered by the movement. When Trump said, after the election, and this is truly amazing, that he actually did not lose the popular vote [Hillary Clinton’s final popular vote margin exceeded 2.8 million], but that there was voter fraud – he is thereby sustaining Bannon and all he stands for as an available option.
How might this be manifested once Trump takes office?
The presidency is an institution with a great many unofficial norms, and Trump will be occupied relentlessly in shattering them. His wife will be in New York, he himself will be in the White House off and on, he will renovate, move the Lincoln Bedroom to the basement, coat everything in gold, hire private bodyguards. All to create an unmediated ethos with his movement. And the sucker media will pounce on this because of its inexhaustible need for ratings.
Do you also see incipient indications of this in his staff appointments, such as that of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to a crucial albeit quite fluid advisory role?
He will constantly play with the definitions, create dualities; there will be a wild mixture of professional and unprofessional elements, which can always be used against each other. On the one hand, there are the secretary of defense and the secretary of state, and on the other, Michael Flynn [Trump’s national security adviser, who’s called Islam a “cancer” and said he rejects the premise that “all cultures are morally equivalent”]. Trump will have to be interpreted and translated through filters – when he’s being ironic, when he’s being serious – in a way that will allow him to preserve an unmediated relationship with the movement.
During the campaign, it was thought that Evangelical leaders and their followers would not be able to bring themselves to vote for an adulterous candidate who engaged in sexual harassment and is twice divorced. That turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of the Democrats.
In the context of the Evangelical leadership, when you get Democratic politics flaunting the banners of single-sex marriage, transgender rights and a permissive abortion policy – they will do everything in their power to rebuff that wave, even if it entails voting for bigger con artists than Trump.
The question is whether Trump will feel a commitment to reward that public, which in the end did support him, by adopting pro-life or anti-gay measures, even though he himself does not come from a conservative tradition.
The abortion issue is more acute from his point of view, and he will serve up that pound of flesh to this particular public by appointing a conservative judge to the Supreme Court. I don’t see him taking measures that will hurt the gay community.
How is it possible to resolve the contradiction between the campaign slogan, “Make America great again,” which harps on an emphatic national sentiment, and the promise to concentrate on domestic policy and let other countries, including allies, stew in their own juices, or at least pay for the aid they receive?
That’s an intriguing point of tension. A possible solution is that Trump’s isolationism, ostensibly, is not based on a principled approach of “We don’t want to lead the world,” but on the feeling that “We’re sick of being the world’s chumps.” In other words, it’s not an isolationist policy that recognizes the fact that America is not an empire and therefore must look after itself instead of dictating to all the rest – on the contrary: It’s a superpower stance that will take less account of international cooperation and binding agreements, based on the approach that until now others have taken advantage of us.
One of the great disasters that can befall a country is that its leader is influenced by personal financial considerations. Although there are no indications that Trump intends to initiate an economic policy that will benefit his own business concerns, his secretary of state-designate, Rex Tillerson, was CEO of a company that signed collaborative agreements with Russia, and he can be expected to oppose sanctions against Moscow. Is there, then, a danger of this type of corruption?
I would assume that they will tread very carefully in these areas, even if they’ll constantly test limits. What we can expect, and this is not necessarily connected to the business concerns of any specific individual, is a return to a certain type of realpolitik that is not circumscribed by human rights issues. Tillerson, for example, could spearhead a policy based on the principle that, “if we can sell oil and do all kinds of deals, don’t bother me now with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who’s taking over Ukraine.” By the way, this could result in the sacrifice of parts of Eastern Europe, former Soviet-controlled countries such as Estonia, Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania. The same could apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is, the introduction of a policy that doesn’t take into account civil rights considerations.
In the name of what interests?
Domestic American interests or Middle Eastern interests that we’re unable to map at the moment. I can surmise with a quite high degree of probability that in the case of legislation against a human rights organization in Israel, the U.S. ambassador will not call [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to say that the State Department looks askance at such a move. The Israeli nationalist right will have more freedom to initiate moves of that kind.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett responded to Trump’s victory by saying that it “is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause.” Do you expect Trump to back that approach, even to the point of approving the annexation of parts of the West Bank?
One possible scenario is definitely the lifting of restrictions on the settlements, in a way that will hinder the prospects of implementing the two-state solution. But to isolate Israel and say that Trump is our global prop, is not only a dark and gloomy statement with regard to ourselves, it’s also one that’s dangerous to our future, because this is someone who is not entirely predictable.
Thanks to the inspiration of Trump, the word of the year in 2016 was “post-truth.” Is it possible to manage a country from a position of post-truth, or is that posture effective only for reactionaries and opposition figures?
The revocation of the concept of “truth” is the expression of a very complex interplay between the radical right and the left. The idea of insisting that there is such as thing as the truth is an oppressive act of implementing hegemonic power has its source in postmodernism. When the “world of narratives” encounters the charismatic appeal of the lie, society as a whole pays a price for it. In the case of Trump, who lacks all basic values and whose only principle is to be a winner – never to lose – all that exists is will. And there’s truly something magical in that picture, of a will so pure that even the facts bend in its face. So, yes, the idea of post-truth carries considerable cultural weight, but truth, too, has a fine quality: namely, that sooner or later it comes to light.
Moshe Halbertal’s forecast for Trump’s administration:
Economy: Failure of a policy aimed at benefiting the white working class, and camouflage of that failure by the marking of enemies, domestic or external.
Society: Appointment of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court; no initiatives expected against the gay community in the realm of marriage.
Politics: Continued delegitimization of the democratic structures and reinforcement of affinities with the “movement.”
Administration: Relentless undercutting of the norms related to the institution of the presidency; frequent clashes between government officials.
Foreign policy: Priority to economic interests over issues of civil and human rights.
Israel: Allowing greater maneuverability for antidemocratic legislation and offering possible support for expansion of the settlement project.