On Monday night, Donald Trump showed how and why he might be elected president of the United States. Invited to participate in a candidate’s forum at AIPAC’s annual conference, he came, he spoke, he conquered. In future history, the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference might yet be viewed as a watershed event on way to the Trump Era.
Trump entered the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. as a prime suspect but emerged clean as a whistle. In less than half an hour, he took a skeptical and apprehensive audience and turned them into gushing cheerleaders. He went into the arena as a racist demagogue but soon came out as an ostensibly serious contender. He faced a tough test of his mettle but passed it with flying colors and hardly any effort. He came away with a kosher “K” certificate, issued by one of the most powerful and influential organizations in America.
If Trump is ultimately elected president, AIPAC leaders will be able to proudly point to their prescience: They will have scored valuable points with a man who could soon decide Israel’s future. If Trump doesn’t make it, however, his appearance on Monday could live in AIPAC infamy as the day well-meaning Jews sold their consciences in exchange for banal pledges of support for Israel. This, in any case, is the way many liberal Jews will see it. They’ve been claiming for years that AIPAC has turned into a branch of both the Likud party and the GOP, though few of them knew it had gone this far.
Trump proved that he knows exactly how to press the right Jewish buttons, much as he has shown his expertise in manipulating the fears and resentments of middle class, white Americans. He told the AIPAC delegates exactly what they wanted and what they’re used to hearing — and they loved it. He mocked other candidates for pandering and proceeded to pander as if there’s no tomorrow.
Trump delivered a speech that could easily have been written in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem or AIPAC headquarters in Washington, and for all we know, possibly was. He vowed to “dismantle” the nuclear deal with Iran as well as Tehran’s terrorist infrastructure, condemned Palestinian incitement and praised Israeli moderation. He said that Obama was the worst-ever President for Israel and the crowd burst out in loud applause, as if the assertion was some kind of “open sesame” that removes any roadblocks standing in Trump’s way.
Perhaps it was stronger than them. Everyone was well aware of the problematic invitation issued to Trump and if anyone had missed it, AIPAC officials repeatedly cautioned the crowd to act with respect and refrain from embarrassing spectacles or protests. But they could have saved themselves the effort. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Trump played a beguiling Israel-pleasing tune that captivated the audience, calmed their fears, dissolved their doubts and then enticed them to proceed from hesitant applause through louder acclimation all the way to standing ovations and a crescendo of cheers.
“I will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of Jerusalem,” Trump said, in a pledge that is sure to remain unfulfilled but nonetheless seemed to erase his words of hatred and bigotry against Mexicans, Muslims and even Jews, as if it was sorcery. Trump described his agreement to serve as Grand Marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade as a grave danger that only the bold and the brave could overcome, and his audience, now clearly warming to his act, refrained from bursting out in laughter.
Trump is usually an undisciplined speaker who lacks concentration and focus, allowing his stream of consciousness to narrate his thoughts and his powers of improvisation to phrase them. So it was that less than an hour before he came to AIPAC, which focuses on American aid to Israel, Trump raised the bizarre demand that Israel, like other rich American allies, repay the financial assistance it had received from America. Hey, it just popped into my head, Trump seemed to indicate, so it must be a good idea.
In honor of AIPAC, however, he undertook an extreme makeover, reading a tightly formulated speech from the kind of teleprompter that he usually mocks. He didn’t deviate from his prepared text, which wasn’t any different from the addresses made on Monday by Hillary Clinton, John Kasich and even House Speaker Paul Ryan, another AIPAC favorite. Ted Cruz, usually considered a far better speaker than Trump, suddenly sounded dazed and confused.
It’s true that Kasich garnered the loudest applause of the night, but the Ohio Governor’s nomination remains a pipe dream rather than a practical possibility. Cruz was also received warmly, despite his slightly off key evening in which he blasted Trump, for example, for talking about Palestine and Palestinians when everyone knows that these had ceased to exist in 1948. Even that sentence earned applause, because as far as AIPAC is concerned, even the sky is no limit for pro-Israel statements, no matter how bizarre.
Judging from a few conversations I had after the speech, it left many Jews in a state of shock. That’s because they weren’t there and couldn’t feel the magic, one AIPAC sympathizer told me, and maybe he had a point. Nonetheless, the enthusiastic reception given Trump could very well deepen the fault lines inside the Jewish community that were uncovered over the summer in the bitter clash over the Iran nuclear deal. With a Trump Presidency, it’s not the security of far away Israel that’s at stake but the well-being of America, closer to home. The potential for schism is there.
Some commentators, including this one, thought that the Trump Show at AIPAC would yield more protests and more turbulence, beyond the demonstrations outside. Instead, what we got was a standard AIPAC speech that promises the moon and garners applause even though everyone knows it’s just an empty slogan that isn’t really going to happen. Nonetheless it was good enough to transform Trump from a morally repugnant presidential candidate into a run of the mill contender who deserves as much respect as the others.
A friend who watched the proceedings on television said he felt the need to take a shower to get the stain off. But then I met a religious family walking back to their hotel, engaged in a deep debate over the evening’s speeches. I eavesdropped just as they reached a family decision to transfer their votes from Cruz to Trump. When I asked them why, they said because “he’ll be good for Israel.” And how did they know that, I persisted, and they looked at me as if I was an idiot. “Didn’t you hear his speech?” they asked, and rightly so. I saw and heard the whole thing, and still find it hard to believe.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now