It is just as hard to write the slang word "chakhchakh" in English as it is to translate it. Derived from the accents of Moroccan newcomers, it was first used to denigrate North African Israelis but has since evolved to denote riffraff of all shapes and sizes. Thirty-five years ago, when the epithet was in transition between its two meanings, Menachem Begin used it to win elections in much the same way that Donald Trump is now trying to leverage “basket of deplorables” to rally his troops to his side.
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In the Israeli case, the term "chakhchakhim" wasn't used by Begin’s rival, Shimon Peres – may he live to 120 and more – but by the late comedian Dudu Topaz. Employing the military vernacular popular then and now in Israel, Topaz told a large Labor Party election rally in June 1981 that while Labor supporters were brave combat soldiers, Likud supporters were “chakhchakhim” who were lowly pencil pushers avoiding front line service. Against the backdrop of a charged election campaign in which Peres had already been accused of inflaming ethnic tensions, Topaz’s collective insult gave Begin just the right ammunition he needed to inflame his followers, whip up their historic resentment of the Ashkenazi-Labor establishment and swing enough votes to eke out the victory that gave him his second term.
In terms of rhetoric, of course, Trump is light years away from Begin, who, like him or loathe him, was one of Israel’s greatest orators. Nonetheless, Trump’s speech before the National Guard on Sunday, and those he’s made since, eerily evoke Begin’s famous “chakhchakhim speech,” long considered one of Israel’s most masterful political addresses ever. Just as Begin painted Peres and Labor, Trump described Clinton as “a person who looks down on the proud citizens of our country.” Just as Begin excoriated Labor voters and leaders who cheered Topaz, Trump sneered at Clinton’s wealthy donors who laughed at her “basket of deplorables” remark. Just as Begin famously encouraged his voters to answer leftist elitists with a “downpour” of Likud votes, Trump is calling on supporters to retaliate against Clinton at the polls.
In Trump’s case, at least, his approach is the height of chutzpah. A candidate who has vilified most if not all minorities on his way to the GOP candidacy has the temerity to describe himself now as a uniter and to depict Clinton as a divisive leader who “shows contempt for the American voter.” And while Begin appealed to a large segment of Israeli society that had indeed been shunned by the Labor establishment, Trump has consistently distanced himself from the 30 percent of Americans who do not belong to the white majority, while depicting the latter as underprivileged victims.
But as Trump has repeatedly shown, the outrageousness of his statements does not undermine their potential effectiveness, especially in swing states in which white resentment is already threatening traditional Democratic majorities. Republican strategist Noam Neusner said in Israel this week that the common denominator of Trump voters is their disappointment and resentment and anger with everything - with the country, with the administration, with the establishment, with big corporations. If Trump can convince such voters that Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark was aimed at them personally, he might inflame undecided voters just enough to get them to give him their vote on November 8 and to push him to victory.
Trump’s harsh attacks on Clinton for this remark as well as his renewed focus on her email scandals has been offset by his relative restraint on her pneumonia and her stumbling evacuation from the September 11 memorial ceremony on Sunday. Trump is showing unusual restraint, wishing Clinton a speedy recovery and making sure not to create a diversion that would shift the media’s focus away from Clinton’s travails. Given that Clinton has hitherto benefitted immensely from Trump’s periodic gaffes and scandals, his newfound discipline should terrify her campaign.
Neusner, on a political roadshow with former Clinton Jewish liaison Jay Footlik organized by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, told Haaretz that the pictures of Clinton’s stumble were very damaging because they were “both visual and emotional” and played to concerns that undecided voters might have of the relatively advanced ages of both her and Trump. Against the backdrop of Trump’s newfound discipline, Neusner, who supported Jeb Bush in the GOP primaries, told a forum convened by Israel’s Open University that Trump’s main aim now is to appear sane and rational. “He doesn’t have to be crazy Donald Trump anymore. If he seems to be normal enough, that might be enough for him to win the elections,” Neusner says, though he himself, he repeatedly pointed out, is no supporter of his party’s nominee.
Footlik does not disagree with Neusner about the fact that Clinton’s illness gave her a serious setback, but he describes it as a mere “detour.” Her main target now is to show “strength and vitality” as she prepares for the September 26 debates, which will give her an opportunity to “get her message back on track.” Despite the fact that American voters have been unusually engaged in this election season already, “they only start to really pay attention after Labor Day” so Clinton has plenty of time to recover.
Both political strategists agree that the game is far from over. They estimate that about 15-20 percent of American voters remain undecided, including in this figure those who are now ostensibly supporting independent candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Clinton still seems like a favorite, but one sentence that Neusner said about Trump could come back to haunt her overly optimistic Democratic fans. “Trump has figured out something that hits people in their kishkes.” As Menachem Begin proved in the past, and Benjamin Netanyahu in the present, talking through peoples’ guts or hitting them in their kishkes can sometimes make all the difference.