Editorial Opinion

Stress-Testing Democracies: Trump & Netanyahu

By the Ledger Editorial Advisory Board

Politically-minded American Jews pay attention to two democracies, in keeping with their hyphenated identity. With a keen sense of participation, American Jews are transfixed by the drama playing out between the branches of government as the most singularly bizarre president in American history attempts to turn the Executive into a family-run kleptocracy, as congressional Republicans struggle to erase the legislative legacy of the Obama years, and the judicial branch staunches executive overreach.

American Jews are even less supportive of President Donald J. Trump than the overall American populace, by a margin of 11 points. When Gallup ran its most recent poll of American Jews on March 15, two months into the Trump presidency, the President received a paltry 42 percent approval rating amongst the general population; but amongst American Jews the number was even lower – only 31 percent.

This 11-point differential is historically consistent, and reflects the strong 2-to-1 tilt towards the Democratic Party amongst American Jews – fully two-thirds of American Jews identify or lean towards the Democrats, while less than a third of American Jews identify or lean towards the Republican Party. This 11-point gap works the other way too – throughout President Barack Obama’s presidency, the American Jewish approval rating was 10-13 points higher for Obama than in the general population.

Six months into Trump’s presidency, his national approval rating continues to tick downwards, with only 36 percent of Americans approving of his performance, an historic all-time low six months into any presidency since modern polling was invented. While Gallup looks at American Jews only occasionally, it is safe to presume that Trump’s approval rating amongst American Jews has therefore sunk below 30 percent. It might be the case that Trump’s friendly visit to Israel in May has caused the 11-point deficit to shrink a bit – but we will not know until Gallup polls American Jews later this year.

To sum up, American Jews have watched the first six months of the Trump presidency, and by an overwhelming and predictably partisan majority, they do not approve of what they have witnessed.

American Jews also watch a second democracy with heightened interest – the Jewish-privileged democracy of Israel. There, in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister of Israel has adopted some of the same Trumpian tactics that trouble American Jews in their own country. Let’s take a look at the list:

First, there is the destabilizing dynamic of kleptocracy, corruption, and truth-mangling. President Trump’s White House is enveloped in damaging leaks and a palpable sense of sleaze; six months into his presidency there is open talk of impeachment and the twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Unable to move forward on his campaign promises of a “beautiful wall” or tax reform or healthcare legislation that will provide better coverage and cheaper premiums, he has limited himself to fawning Fox News interviews and conspiratorial tweets about the “failing New York Times” and “fake news.”

Netanyahu and his closest associates are similarly embroiled in a series of deadly serious corruption probes, from German submarines to media collusion to personal financial irregularities. For a defense, Netanyahu has learned from the master. Last week Netanyahu gave an extraordinary on-screen interview to Israel’s fawning Channel 20 – less an Israeli version of Fox News and more an Israeli version of the Christian Broadcasting Network – in which he repeatedly pushed a narrative he’s maintained for the past half-year that the mainstream media in Israel is out to destroy him with “fake news.”

Second, there is the destabilizing dynamic of spurning allies and endorsing extreme policies to mollify the base. For Trump it was embracing Brexit, abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement, and his self-isolating conduct at the recent G7 and G20 meetings. The post-WWII alliances which secured America’s dominance and boxed in Russia for 70 years have been abandoned. But Trump’s base is pleased, and moderate Republicans in Congress hold their tongues.

Netanyahu has been in politics for nearly four decades, and has a track record of playing to his base above all – whether it is his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners or the settlement movement on the political right. In the past few weeks, Netanyahu cancelled a compromise agreement he had initially supported which would have allowed for an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, thereby enraging diaspora liberal Jews. Faced with a coalition crisis that threatened his continued rule, Netanyahu willfully chose to kowtow to his religious allies at the expense of diaspora Jewry’s unalloyed support.

Third, there is a weak opposition which allows an embroiled leader to maintain a hold on power. In America, the Democratic Party is reeling from its popular vote victory/electoral college defeat. Democrats are simultaneously out of power and torn between old-school centrists and populist, socialist-leaning activists, with no clear national figure to rally around. It’s one thing to say no to Trump’s unpopular embrace of the Republican deconstruction; it’s another thing to positively enunciate a political platform that can turn into a winning program for the 2018 midterms, let alone the 2020 general. So far, the Democrats have failed.

Netanyahu also enjoys a similarly weak opposition. Once upon a time the Israeli Labor party founded and ran the country – but today it is a faint reflection of its former self, careening back and forth between old-style centrists, ex-generals, and most recently, a populist businessman turned amateur politician (Avi Gabbai). With each change in style and substance, Labor sheds votes and credibility. No one can say what Labor stands for, other than for removing Netanyahu.

Make no mistake – there are substantial differences in the personal style of Trump and Netanyahu. Trump is a petulant man-child, with little command of details. Netanyahu is far more in control of his bearing, and much more in command of the minutiae of the job. Netanyahu reads books; Trump does not.

Still, if one wanted to imagine how Donald Trump’s malarkey might sound in Hebrew, look no further than Benjamin Netanyahu.

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