American politics keeps reminding of my Israeli homeland these days.
Noxious extremists? Check.
Xenophobia wrapped up in fear of terrorism? Yes.
Bigoted, ignorant statements met with popularity among voters? Yep.
Politicians invoking conspiracies when confronted with questions about their record? Oh yes.
And how about politicians who incite against entire ethnic groups, and then talk about how they want to “unify the country”? Americans may find it bewildering to see a prolific purveyor of racism such as Donald Trump boast of being “very much a unifier,” but to Israelis this kind of rhetorical inconsistency is all too familiar. Israeli politicians have been doing that since long before Trump even thought of banning all Muslims from the United States by building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border.
Of course, Israel is not America, and Israeli politicians don’t possess a monopoly over unsound policy making. And yet, as an Israeli who is currently living in America, watching this election play out increasingly reminds me of botched election campaigns lost by the ever-shrinking Israeli left.
And for anyone who doesn’t want to see Donald Trump in the White House, that’s a worrying sign.
The U.S. presidential election pits two candidates who are vastly disliked against each other, effectively forcing plenty of voters to choose the candidate they hate less. Add to that the menacing background of terrorist attacks, and this is the type of electoral choice jaded Israeli voters know well.
This election is a showdown between a charismatic far-right media whiz who makes bigoted statements with seemingly no repercussions and an unpopular, uncharismatic centrist. It’s a type of race is all-too-familiar to Israelis: Benjamin Netanyahu vs. Shimon Peres in 1996; Ariel Sharon vs. Amram Mitzna in 2003; Netanyahu vs. Tzipi Livni in 2009; Netanyahu vs. Shelly Yacimovich in 2013; and of course, Netanyahu vs. Isaac Herzog in 2015.
In all of these elections, the uncharismatic centrist lost. The side that offered a mix of racism, proto-fascism and billionaire-friendly economic agenda similar to the one Donald Trump is currently selling won. Handily.
Israel is not the U.S., of course, and the rise of Israeli extremism had a lot to do with its own unique political context and perilous security situation. Nevertheless, the countries' political systems do share some similarities, especially in their dysfunction (and their shared donor pool).
In many ways, Israel has already faced the choice U.S. voters are now faced with, between moderation and extremism. It chose extremism. And that choice, make no mistake, was not inevitable. Poor choices made by the Israeli left contributed to it, or at the very least, failed to hinder its progress.
What should concern liberals and moderates in the U.S. is that Democrats, faced with a similar threat of rising extremism, seem set to repeat at least some of those mistakes.
So, Americans who fear a potential Trump presidency, here are three lessons from Israel that you should seriously take to heart:
1. The Israeli left chose flawed leaders who lacked a firm ideology
First, there’s the choice of a flawed party favorite, who often errs on the side of ideological flexibility, as a candidate. Hillary Clinton is an enormously accomplished politician, but she is also a bad campaigner (by her own admission), clumsily wonkish, carries a vast trove of political scandals, and inspires very little enthusiasm among most of her potential constituency. Her shifting opinion on important issues (from NAFTA to TPP to gay marriage to regulating Wall Street) create the impression of a politicians who’s a flip-flopper, at best.
Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find many Israelis who felt enthusiastic about any of the lackluster candidates brought forth by the Israeli Labor Party in recent elections: a string of centrists who lacked a firm ideological stance and were therefore perceived as lacking integrity, especially compared to the right wing’s strongmen. These candidates were often chosen thanks to inner party machinations and failed attempts to capture voters from the right, but were generally too disliked by their own supporters to really have any cross-over appeal.
2. The Israeli left tried to hide its own ideology – until there was none left
Second, there’s the issue of ideological opacity. As an Israeli listening to the statements and arguments of various Clinton surrogates and supporters, it’s just hard to shake the uneasy feeling that we Israelis have been there before, trying to combat the rise of populist media-savvy extremists with bland, uninspired amalgams of traditional liberal values and whatever political functionaries thought moderate conservatives would like to hear. This is the exact same way that Israeli center-left politicians have been trying (and failing) to win elections since 1999.
This strategy may very well prove to be a winner in Clinton’s case, as it was for Bill Clinton and for Barack Obama. Then again, Clinton and Obama did not run against an unconventional, volatile candidate like Trump.
In Israel, this strategy eventually caused the center-left to cease as a viable ruling alternative, partly because in the name of “political realism,” its leaders gradually watered down their ideological stance until all that was left was a diluted version of the right-wing ideology they swore to replace.
3. The Israeli left played by the rules – while the right was breaking them and making new ones instead
But the biggest lesson Americans can learn from the failure of the Israeli left to combat the rise of extremism was simply that it wasn’t prepared to handle the avalanche of racism. The left was too conservative, too hesitant, too fixed in its ways. While right-wing blowhards were breaking the old rules and making their own, their liberal counterparts were playing as if the old rules were still in effect. The result: They were swept away.
In the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times recently reported that despite running against the most unconventional candidate in modern history, Hillary Clinton intends to “press ahead with a conventional campaign.” Clinton’s latest TV ad , for instance, contrasts two visions of America: “Dangerously divided” (Trump) and “strong and united” (Clinton). It ends with the slogan “stronger together.” It is terrifyingly dull, and what’s worse: This kind of weak messaging virtually stands no chance of beating Trump’s guaranteed must-see-TV.
It could be that aftermath of the attack in Orlando offers a rare chance for course correction. Guns (and LGBT issues) are among the rare issues where Clinton truly differs from (moderate) Republicans. Her response to the attack, while far more reserved than Trump’s (naturally), is a chance to turn these elections into more than a personality contest in which no one’s victory is guaranteed.
Trump, of course, is dropping in the polls right now. Some believe that this is the end of his campaign. It might be, but then again, we've been here before. A good lesson from Israel is that polls showed - what most of the world believed - that Herzog was going to beat Netanyahu and become Israel's prime minister. But then, on Election Day, Netanyahu released a bigoted video warning that "Arabs are bussed to the polls in droves." He was reelected with a resounding majority.
As an Israeli who sees more and more of his country’s mad dash toward extremism in the U.S. today, I worry. I worry, because I know how easy it is for a country to be fooled by charismatic blowhards.
I worry, because Israel 2016, in many respects, is what a Trump presidency would look like. And one of the factors that contributed to the rise of Israeli extremism is that not enough people stood in its way.
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