Donald Trump has had a terrible week. He convened a press conference to refute suspicions that he had failed to disburse donations received in his March fundraiser for veterans but then appeared to blow his top at the journalists present. In the case of Trump University, the order was reversed: first he lashed out at the judge presiding over the suit filed against the university that bears his name, then he had to withstand the damning testimonies contained in the court documents the same judge had unveiled.
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Benjamin Netanyahu has also seen better days. Last week the State Comptroller accused him of serial corruption and asked for a criminal investigation of his travels abroad. Then Naftali Bennett tried to blackmail him in exchange for the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, which didn’t reflect well on Netanyahu in and of itself. Then police recommended that his wife Sarah be indicted for pilfering state funds and then she was lambasted in a separate civilian suit as well. Then, to cap it all off, it emerged that the rape case on which Netanyahu had based a Facebook post that incited against the media and the left had been trumped up, excuse the expression, by the purported victim.
Judging by previous experience, however, both Trump and Netanyahu are probably none the worse for wear: What critics view as marks of shame is often seen by fans as badges of honor. Trump became the presumptive Republican candidate despite, and possibly because, of his checkered reputation, his never-ending mistakes, faux pas and exhibitions of pure ignorance, his coarse attitudes and his harsh insults to almost anyone under the sun. Netanyahu has been elected and reelected prime minister over and over again despite his long list of potentially career-ending brushes with the law, his lack of any momentous achievements, his political isolation, a dearth of political allies and the fact that after all these years, nobody seems to really like him or trust him.
Both cases are markedly different – Netanyahu is a veteran survivor while Trump is still a novice, Netanyahu is a deep thinker while Trump shoots from the hip - yet both share a not-so-secret formula that has brought them thus far: hatred. A powerful mix of hatred and resentment. Trump and Netanyahu are primo purveyors of the stuff. Both have been pushing it and peddling it and using it to maximum effect. At this stage, both could probably walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, as Trump has said of himself, and keep their jobs nonetheless. Just think of the alternative, their rationalizers will say.
Their lists of most favored enemies aren’t all that different either. Both share a love-hate relationship with the press, both owe their careers to its slavish devotion and both abuse it publicly and regularly. Both rail on a regular basis against judges, academics and intellectuals who fail to acknowledge their greatness. Both have magnified the threats of illegal immigration. Both routinely conflate Islamic terror and radical Islam with your next-door Muslim neighbors. Both incite against racial or ethnic groups that don’t belong to their core constituency. Both champion two sides of the same coin: the world is against us, and it’s me against the world.
Trump’s got the Mexicans? Netanyahu has Israeli Arabs. Trump has China? Netanyahu’s got Iran. Trump hates Europe? So does Netanyahu. Trump thinks the world is trying to take advantage of the U.S.? Netanyahu claims the world wants to destroy Israel. Trump says Barack Obama is pathetic? Netanyahu couldn’t agree more. And so on.
Both candidates foment hatred in order to unite their fans against a common enemy and to deflect attention away from their own shortcomings in the process. Trump may be bad, but Hillary Clinton is much worse, as a recent AP headline suggested. Netanyahu isn’t perfect, everyone but his most committed sycophants would agree, but he is the only one who can stop the dreaded leftie meanies from selling Israel down the river.
Both Trump and Netanyahu feed off popular resentment of elites. Netanyahu is the original creator of what has been termed “coalition of the downtrodden”: new Russian immigrants, veteran North Africans, Jewish settlers in the territories and the ultra-Orthodox. Even though his party has been in power for most of the past 40 years, Netanyahu and his predecessors have succeeded in preserving the bitterness and animosity toward Israel’s old guard that brought the Likud to power in the first place. Liberals, intellectuals, Arab lovers, academics, the media, all those snooty snobs who shunned others aside when they were riding high and continue to look down on them to this day. Those who have forgotten what it’s like to be Jews, as Netanyahu once said, those who are now selling their souls to alien and hostile Europeans, as the new anti-NGO law that passed preliminary approval in the Knesset on Wednesday implies.
Likewise, Trump began his ascent to the GOP throne by giving voice to overlooked whites with bellyfuls of bitterness and a similar sense of being shunted aside. Like Netanyahu, Trump stokes their suspicions of external enemies that are conspiring against America and inflames their fears of an internal cabal of white liberals and non-white minorities who have taken over their country and are now gunning for their values. Just as Netanyahu didn’t invent the exploitation of resentment against Israel’s Ashkenazi elites but only perfected the time-tested us vs. them mindset that helped bring the Likud to power, so Trump only improves on the unbridled and sometimes irrational animosity that the GOP has been building up, especially since Barack Obama came to power in 2008. Trump simply took this legacy to its logical extreme, hoisting the GOP establishment on its own petard.
Netanyahu is subtler than Trump: he still prefers to maintain an aura of statesman-like respectability. He has mastered the art of dispensing with political rivals by slow and clever subterfuge rather than the instantaneous verbal annihilation perfected by Trump over the past few months. But both are masters of playing external threats to the hilt, inventing new enemies in times of shortage and offering disgruntled voters handy scapegoats to blame for the bad cards that life may have dealt them.
Netanyahu, of course, can look back with satisfaction to two decades of successful hate mongering, marked as bookends by the two slogans that earned him his greatest electoral triumphs: “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” that pushed him to victory in 1996, and “the Arabs are coming to vote in hordes”, that got the job done in 2015. By now, Netanyahu is enjoying the fruits of his labor: the demoralization of Israeli elites, the decimation of the country’s media, the decline of its democratic institutions, the resignation of Israelis to his seemingly endless tenure.
Trump still has a long way to go. Unlike Netanyahu, his ability to portray America as a country beset by powerful enemies and teetering on the point of extinction is restrained by geography, history and U.S. military might. The resiliency of American liberals and moderates may turn out to be made of sterner stuff than that of Israel’s vanquished “elites”. Nonetheless, the potency of the powerful drug that Trump is pushing should not be underestimated. It ran through the veins of the most dangerous regimes of the past hundred years.
“Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true,” Martin Luther King said. If Trump succeeds in reaching that point, his spirit will dominate America, as Netanyahu’s rules Israel.