Yonathan Bar-On

Nostra Culpa

On Wednesday morning, my wife forwarded me a ‘joke’ through Whatsapp: “What’s worse, 9/11 or 11/9?” No matter how cynical, or even sick, that sentence may be, you cannot deny that those two dates are linked to each other, in one way or another. November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump had become the president of the United States, cannot be understood without referring somehow to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. During the last 15 years, right-wing (often extreme right-wing) populism – of which President Trump has become the most visible and audible exponent worldwide – has become the most influential political trend in many Western countries, with lots of different faces but even more similarities. In countries such as the US, but also France, Germany, Israel, Great Britain, Denmark, and Holland, right-wing populist parties have become (alternatives for) the leading parties. This trend cannot be detached from that Tuesday in September 2001, or from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the so-called Arab Spring, Islamist terror attacks, and the refugee crisis and other global problems that are a direct or indirect consequence or side effect of what happened fifteen years ago in New York City, Washington DC, and Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

The 9/11-11/9 ‘joke’ just shows how shocked and upset the world appears to be after Trump’s election. Right now, I am at the Lucan Centre, a small Presbyterian meeting center in Dublin. Together with one of the rabbis and four former students of my school, I participate in Space to Breathe, a five-day international and interfaith seminar for Irish, Palestinian, and Jewish-Israeli students, organized by Julian Hamilton, the Methodist chaplain of Trinity College. I am under the impression that the bewilderment here is even more thorough than anywhere else. The consequences of Trump’s election for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be very serious. Not by coincidence did Jerusalem City Hall announce the construction of thousands of new housing units in neighborhoods over the Green Line on the day after the elections.

Although Mr. Trump has proven to be quite unpredictable, with his admiration for Vladimir Putin and his close ties with Binyamin Nethanyahu it seems unlikely that the new president will make a serious effort to change – for the better, that is – the status quo in the region, in which Russian military influence and Israel’s settlement policy play a central role. There are many more negative forces, and Barack Obama – because of his lack of decisiveness and of a purposeful policy in the region for the last eight years – also bears responsibility for the current situation in the Middle East, but under Trump’s America First approach the role of all those negative forces will be enhanced even more. I myself am not happy with the democratic choice of the American people, but I am also not shocked or desperate because of it. I think that that choice – like setbacks often can – eventually might even offer hope and possibilities.

As I wrote three months ago, I am convinced that if Hillary Clinton – together with her supporters and all liberal ánd conservative, rational and less rational opponents of Donald Trump – had conducted a less negative and more clearly proactive campaign, we now would be very content with ourselves, congratulating ourselves, enjoying the words “Mrs. President”, convinced that ‘good’ overcame ‘evil’ and that everything is all right.

Unfortunately, cocksure and priggish as she and her advisors are, and maybe also because they simply do not read the Times of Israel (or the Friesch Dagblad, where the Dutch original of my article was published), Hillary Clinton consciously chose to try and play the political game according to the rules of Donald John Trump. At least partly because of that, she did not stand any chance from the outset. And the same goes for other countries where right-wing populists set the political agenda. No left-wing or centrist opposition leader in Israel will ever be able to capitalize on the often very legitimate fears and frustrations and the less legitimate gut feelings of the voters the way Bibi can. Nicolas Sarcozy and Francois Hollande will never be able to match the oversimplification and fanaticism of Marie Le Pen. Left-wing populism, for that matter, is just as reprehensible and unreasonable as the right-wing version, so therefore it cannot be a credible or viable alternative.

On the other hand, what non-populist politicians – unlike populists – cán offer their voters is a positive message: don’t say how things cannot and should not be done, but think and propagate what kind of a better reality they have in mind, and how they think they can dispel the feelings of anger and helplessness that many people have. Until now, they have not managed to do so, which is why the election of Donald Trump can be blamed largely on our mainstream politicians’ arrogance, indifference, and incompetence. That is one of the reasons why current anti-Trump demonstrations and slogans like ‘Not my President’ are undemocratic and counterproductive.

Just like real wounds and injuries, metaphorical ones can heal, though, and maybe this election was necessary as a wake-up call for all non-populist politicians, activists and voters. If they manage to join forces – within their own countries and political systems, but also internationally – and to convince us that positive, proactive changes are necessary ánd possible, and if they are willing and able to attract and develop a new generation of charismatic, responsible and motivated political leaders, then the negative, destructive message of Trump and his ilk will eventually not have the ghost of a chance. Continuing to insist that the voters’ worries are merely irrational, that the electorate is too dumb to appreciate such positive tidings, and that therefore we should also be driven back to populism, is arrogant, and will relegate the opponents of populism into political impotence for many years to come.

This article is a slightly adapted version of the Dutch original, which was published on Friday, 11 November 2016, in the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad.

About the Author
Yonathan Bar-On (Bert de Bruin) is a historian and an EAL teacher. He teaches English at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and has written extensively for Dutch newspapers, and occasionally for American and Israeli newspapers and online media. Yonathan writes a weekly column for the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad. In 1995 he immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands.
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