I went for a bathroom break in between Republican candidates’ speeches at the AIPAC Policy Conference last week. Senator Ted Cruz was next up but talk in the men’s room of the Verizon Arena was all about the man who had just spoken to the 18,000 assembled (minus the small number who had boycotted his address).
I was curious to hear what the response to Donald Trump would be from my fellow conference-goers, the vast majority of whom (unlike me) Americans, with a vote in November’s election. The first remark I heard was actually from someone too young to vote, a high school kid, precociously pronouncing on Trump’s “lack of professionalism” in mocking President Obama in the manner that he did.
Not everyone appreciated this opinion. “You’re a fucking asshole!” a much older man yelled in response.
Here was a middle-aged man yelling an obscenity at a child for voicing a pretty tepid critique of a speaker at an event where, in theory, we were all supposed to be on the same side.
Back in my seat, I related what I’d just witnessed to a friendly couple sitting next to me. The man shrugged and said, “What do you expect from Trump supporters? This is what happens wherever he speaks. People get wound up, angry. They lash out either verbally or physically.”
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I have tried to express to friends what it was like listening to this man who has become the most talked-about, written-about, ratings-grabbing individual in the United States. It really was seeing a demagogue in action. Rabble-rousing, pressing the right buttons, full of bluster and hyperbole. (On the Iran deal: “I’ve studied this issue in great detail, I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.”) The fact that he received several loud bursts of applause from sections of the AIPAC crowd – including for mocking Obama — has made the headlines. This is a distraction (and not just because both Cruz and Hillary Clinton received far more frequent and widespread ovations). The main issue for me is just how much of a disaster he would be, both for the United States generally, and for US-Israel relations in particular.
Israel needs a US administration willing to exert its power in defense of western values and which appreciates and respects the foundations upon which the special relationship between our two countries rests. Barack Obama has fallen short on the first count, certainly in the Middle East, and this has been terrible for US allies in the region, but Trump would arguably be worse . For all his bellicose rhetoric about defeating ISIS, he’s been very clear that he would pursue a more isolationist policy than Obama, essentially leaving allies in Europe (Ukraine), Asia (Japan and South Korea) and the Middle East to deal with their problems alone. He has even advocated pulling the US out of NATO.
Just hours before his AIPAC appearance, he included Israel in a list of countries that need to “pay big league” for US defense assistance. He is just lucky that the story did not break before his speech. (Under Obama, by contrast, military aid to Israel has increased.)
Israel needs a US willing and able to work with their mutual allies in the Middle East. I think we can assume that King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Sisi would take some convincing following Trump’s “ban all Muslims” pronouncement; a policy idea that manages to be morally repugnant, unconstitutional and strategically stupid.
That leads us to an overarching problem with Trump: his extraordinary ignorance and lack of moral restraint. This is a presidential candidate who has proposed committing a war crime — the targeting of the family members of terrorists. His response when informed that US soldiers would be actually required to refuse such an illegal order was classic Trump: “If I tell them to do it they’ll do it. Believe me.” The one thing larger than his knowledge deficit is his ego.
Israel has broad support among Americans because they view us an ally, with shared democratic values, in a totalitarian neighborhood. But the language of values is alien to Trump, a man driven principally by his own narcissism. Right now he is “more pro-Israel than anyone”. But if support for Israel clashed with other plans, he would not hesitate to throw us under the bus.
Those AIPAC supporters who applauded Donald Trump may have liked what he had to say – he was reading from a prepared set of talking points after all – but the many other people sat around me with their heads in their hands tell the other story. The story of Americans shocked and bewildered that this reality TV star, with his incitement of violence and boorish misogyny, is within touching distance of the presidential nomination in the most powerful and important country on earth.
Most analyses have him losing to Hillary Clinton in the General Election itself, but it’s not inconceivable that the intense dislike many Americans have for Clinton could lead to victory for Trump who has, after all, so far confounded all predictions.
For me this is a France 2002 moment. In the French Presidential elections of that year, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shockingly came second in the first round of voting, knocking out the Socialist Party candidate and setting up a one-on-one showdown with incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Chirac was genuinely hated by much of the French electorate but they gritted their teeth and voted for him to convincingly defeat Le Pen and send the message that France could not be led by a populist bigot who stirred up hatred of minorities and immigrants (sound familiar?).
Donald Trump as the most powerful political figure on the planet sounds like a ridiculous notion — but perhaps only for another few months. Like every successful populist, he has tapped into the anger and frustrations of a great many ordinary people. He is also the candidate of choice for white supremacists, anti-Semites and authoritarian despots, and that’s not incidental. Those of us outside the United States, not least in Israel, may just have to hope that enough Americans put aside whatever misgivings they have about Clinton for the greater good of their country and, frankly, of the world.