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The Post-traumatic Year Since Donald Trump’s Inconceivable Election as U.S. President

The resentment and distrust of Trump among many American Jews is poisoning their attitude towards Israel as well

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.
Former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Donald Trump was at his best this week, which, in his case, is usually at his worst. At the start of the week he was throwing mountains of mud at Hillary Clinton to try and cover up the stench emanating from Bob Mueller’s indictment of his former campaign managers as well as a hitherto unknown snitch who may have gathered evidence undercover. By mid-week, following comments made by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the White House was being asked to clarify whether it was for or against slavery.

At week’s end, following the deadly terror attack in Manhattan that left eight people dead, Trump discarded the responsible leader costume he wore after the Las Vegas carnage that left 55 people dead and started shooting all over. America was still in shock but Trump was already pointing fingers at New York Senator Chuck Schumer and demanding that Uzbek terrorist Sayfullo Saipov be executed forthwith. Or was it vice versa?

Donald Trump speaks on stage with Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, during a Super Tuesday night event in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., on Monday, March 1, 2016.Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

A year has gone by since his election, but most of the world still can’t wrap its head around the fact that Donald Trump is President of the United States of America. Many Americans are suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, pinching themselves whenever Trump tweets, speaks or reacts, just to make sure they are awake. Trump-shocked Americans consume more news than ever before but nonetheless find it harder to distinguish between reality and nightmare. Many people have yet to overcome the shock of November 8, 2016 the day - as a famous saying goes - that the world died, the oceans burned, the fish climbed trees and Trump was elected to succeed Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy.

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The writings were the on the wall, and contrary to latter day conventional wisdom, were reported and appreciated in real time: The tightening polls, Trump’s vitality compared to Clinton’s lethargy, the growing enthusiasm for him among whites vs. the escalating disdain for her among leftists; the U.S. media’s hysterical coverage of Clinton’s emails, which have yet to show a single bullet of a smoking gun, which was topped off nine days before the elections by the devastating coup de grce delivered by former FBI Director James Comey, who, in a bite of historical irony, morphed into Trump’s public enemy number one. The reports about alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign were downplayed, on the other hand, because, like Trump’s election, they were deemed inconceivable and, given the assumption that he could never be elected, irrelevant as well. The prevailing preconception was that Trump wouldn’t be elected because it was inconceivable that someone like him could be elected president. Since then, Trump provides proof every day that indeed, it’s inconceivable.

A rubber mask in the likeness of Donald Trump and shirts are displayed for sale outside a campaign event in Janesville, Wisconsin, U.S., on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The need to deal with the cognitive dissonance that came from the fact that great and glorious America, champion of freedom and bastion of democracy, nonetheless chose a rude, arrogant and possibly racist real estate tycoon as its leader sparked a wave of idyllic Monday morning quarterbacking. Trump’s victory was portrayed as a an authentic popular uprising of true-blue Americans, forgotten by the wayside, against condescending liberal elites, an uncaring and often corrupt establishment and illegal immigrants who are swamping America in their millions. Racism, hate and bigotry are underplayed, in this version. Trump, in this benign view, will make some minor adjustments and possibly change course but only in moderation. American history will move stolidly forward, just as before.

The more pessimistic view is that a nationalist-fundamentalist and partially racist coalition took control of America a year ago, aided and abetted by the Kremlin and big business. On the back of a well-planned and well-orchestrated stealth campaign that didn’t shy away from naked race-baiting, Trump was cast as the savior of America’s white and Christian nation. Underneath that facade, while Trump preoccupies the world with an unending stream of outrage and scandal, his administration is carrying out a full-fledged religious-reactionary-capitalist revolution. It is erasing barriers between church and state, restricting access to abortions and contraceptives, returning LGBT rights back to the closet, repressing minority voting rights, demolishing federal supervision of business and finance, dismantling piece by piece the mechanisms built over a generation to protect the earth from global warming and now offering tax reform that will consign trillions of dollars to billionaires and modern robber-barons. Far from the madding crowd, American is racing backwards.

Attendees listen to the National Anthem during a campaign rally for Donald Trump on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Nevertheless, even though the United States is a separate planet, Trump’s win is also part and parcel of the right wing radicalization that is overwhelming other Western democracies, in which Moscow is also intervening, sometimes brazenly. The Kremlin’s calculation is simple: The more Western democracies become nationalist, the more they will discard their links to multilateral organizations such as the European Union and NATO, the Kremlin’s chief rivals and concerns. The more Washington bickers with its European allies and the more supra-national loyalty is eroded, the easier it is for Moscow to splinter, divide and rule. The more the Western world, led by the U.S., concentrates only on itself, the easier it is for Vladimir Putin to continue expanding his Russian empire and depositing many more billions of dollars into his bank accounts; the more Western countries grow intolerant of their own minorities, the less they will care about the rights of other people everywhere, much to the delight of racist and anti-democratic regimes everywhere. And then there is the fringe benefit for Moscow of the United States being led by a man that most of the world despises or mocks or both.

On the day that Trump chose to embellish the announcement of his candidacy in June, 2015 with the outlandishly racist assertion that Mexico is “sending” rapists and drug dealers over the border - murderers was added later - Trump released unto the world ghosts and demons that had long been concealed. It’s similar to what has been going in Europe, of course, which is seeing a renaissance of right wing parties with ideologies that were supposed to disappear off the face of the earth after The Third Reich. Nonetheless, America has a unique ingredient that makes the mix much more toxic. In addition to the fear of immigrants and the hostility towards Muslims, which took root in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the U.S. suffers from a malignancy that may be incurable in the relations between its blacks and its whites. Obama’s election was supposed to symbolize the culmination of the equality revolution that had taken place since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, but his Presidency and the identity of his successor made it crystal clear that after taking one step forward, America is taking at least two steps back.

It’s not only that African Americans realize they don’t have a friend in the White House and that senior African Americans of import are few and far between in the Trump administration. When Kelly described the Civil War this week as a conflict between two honorable sides, he was upturning American history as we’ve known it. He was taking African Americans to places they thought they’d never see again. When Kelly said the war had broken out because the sides didn’t know how to reach compromises, which would have necessarily entailed the survival of slavery in one form or another, he was promoting the “Lost Cause” that portrays the charms of the old Southern way, including its delighted slaves, as an exalted aspiration. To black ears, it is the equivalent of the bureau chief of the German chancellor, for example, pointing out the good side of Adolf Hitler, disparaging the world for not accommodating him and pining for the good old days when the trains left on time. He or she wouldn’t last the day in office.

דונלד טראמפ בכותל המערבי בירושלים, 2017Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/AFP

American Jews knew to keep their distance from Trump from the get-go, despite the best efforts of Jewish right-wingers to describe him as a savior and messiah. Not only are his policies and positions an anathema for most American Jews, but Trump’s words, looks, demeanor and general attitude reminds many of them of their local high-school or neighborhood bully who would intimidate and smack them every once in a while just because they were Jews. Tell me who you’re friends are and I’ll tell you who you are, Jews said, and instinctively retreated from the candidate who was being enthusiastically supported by evangelicals, populists, rabble-rousers, racists and anti-Semites. In the year that’s passed, Trump has made some gestures to try and placate the Jewish community but he is far from quieting their concerns. From omitting the Jews from his Holocaust day statement through his gruff clashes with ultra-Orthodox reporters in the White House to the moral equivalency he drew between neo-Nazis and liberal demonstrators in Charlottesville, Trump remains suspect in Jewish eyes, and even that only among those who are forgiving and lenient.

Trump’s election not only distanced American Jews from their own country, it also widened the already formidable gap between American Jews and Israel. The excellent relations between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu may be helping the president with audiences, such as Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews that hold Bibi in high regard. But it is having an opposite effect among those whose animosity towards Trump is now poisoning their attitude to Netanyahu and Israel as well. They realize now that when they need a calm word of protection or protest from Israel, its prime minister sticks to his right to remain silent. Netanyahu can feel the cold winds blowing from American Jewry, some of it due to Trump but most of it because of the Western Wall agreement that Israel reneged on, and he is reacting as he always does when confronted with criticism: he turns the protestors into enemies and then ignores their very existence.

President Donald Trump embraces Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.Credit: STEPHEN CROWLEY / NYT

Most Israelis recognize Trump’s deficiencies by now, but like his American admirers, they forgive him. As far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, Trump is delivering the goods. No, he didn’t move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but he is keeping mostly quiet about settlements and land confiscations; no, he didn’t tear up the Iran nuclear deal, but he did take serious steps to undermine it while giving UNESCO a good kick in the shins in the process. Netanyahu along with other leaders in the Middle East believe that unlike Barack Obama’s kowtowing and appeasement, the U.S. must talk loudly and brandish a massive stick, as Washington has done with North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and others.

Trump showed the world that one could be elected president with no experience, no talent, no empathy, no moral standards and no ability to formulate coherent sentences in English. More astonishingly, in the nine months that have passed since he took office, Trump showed that the White House has changed absolutely nothing in his behavior. He remains the same short-tempered loudmouth with the attention span of a gnat, just as he was during the election campaign. Trump’s election exposed the vulnerabilities of an American democracy that failed to defend itself, and he may prove in the future that checks and balances aren’t enough to stop him either. Nonetheless, more than terrifying, the thought that the future of Western civilization is in the hand of a misogynist groper and ersatz reality star was and remains, first and foremost, insulting.

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