Trump’s siren song of populism

People like easy solutions to complicated problems.

Terrorism at home?

Ban all Muslims!

What about the terrorists overseas?

We’ll target their families. That ought to stop them

Illegal immigration from Mexico?

We’ll build a wall to stop the criminals and the scroungers getting in.

But won’t that be very expensive?

We’ll force the Mexicans to pay for it.

Donald Trump based his campaign to become the Republican Party’s Presidential nominee on pie-in-the-sky policy prescriptions that all manage to be one or more from a list of: illegal, impossible, immoral and unconstitutional. When he needed to back up his ideas with facts he couldn’t. So he simply made them up. There were, according to Trump, American Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attacks of 9/11. Except no one but Trump had witnessed them and there is no media coverage of such a thing happening. Most Mexican illegal immigrants are rapists and drug-pushers, alleged Trump. Again, there is zero evidence to back up this claim.

And yet, he is now the official presidential candidate of one of America’s two great parties. Yes, people like easy solutions to complicated problems.

Across Europe, demagogues with far more ideological baggage than Trump (genuine far-right nationalists, not just narcissists on the ultimate power-trip) have been singing a similar hymn for many years. With the European economy unsteady and insecurity in the face of Islamist terror at an all-time high, the mood has never been more ripe for the siren song of the populists, blaming unemployment and crime on those who look different, or speak with a different accent.

In countries where democracy has long been on the retreat, authoritarian rulers offer masterclasses in how to play this game. Vladimir Putin for example, for whom every act of Russian aggression is a legitimate response to western imperialism or the attempts by the United States and its allies to humiliate his great nation.  (And it is no surprise either that Trump is a fan.)

And what of Israel? There is fertile ground for populism here. We are a country in a state of perpetual conflict; the language of fear and the need for a “strong leader” are electoral ever-presents. And our national minority is the Arabs; Israeli citizens, but connected by kin, by creed and – in some cases – by inclination, to our antagonists.

It remains a disgrace however that many of our own politicians have chosen to exploit this situation to stir up fear and loathing of the Arab ‘other’ for political gain. Jews have not just basic morality, “the better angels of our nature”, to lean on in opposition to such low politics, but the lingering demons of our past. We know just where the language of prejudice and scapegoating can lead.

It is encouraging in fact that, not only will American Jews be voting Democrat in even larger numbers than normal (according to polls, perhaps 90 percent), but that conservative Jews – the likes of William Kristol, David Brooks and Bret Stephens – are prominent among high-profile Republicans who have said they cannot and will not vote for their party’s candidate this time.

As this sorry episode in the American epoch may prove, history will not look kindly on the capitulation of those who could have stopped the demagogue of the day. Senior Republican Party figures have accepted Trump as their candidate, whatever moral contortions this may have required. After describing Trump’s complaints about a judge’s alleged Mexican heritage as “the textbook definition of a racist comment”, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House immediately clarified that he would still be supporting Trump’s candidacy. It seems racism is not the red line it used to be.

Establishment politicians need to do more though than just condemn populism. Nothing is assisting the rise of populists in the US and Europe more than the new plague of Islamist terror, and the reaction to it of mainstream political leaders. Every time President Obama and France’s President Hollande tell us that the men slaughtering innocents in the name of Allah are “nothing to do with Islam”, Trump and Marine Le Pen look like the only people willing to face up to the threat of this new fascism.

Hillary Clinton must find a way to overcome this queasiness and say what needs to be said: That the major threat to peace and security today is Islamism, and yes, that ideology does stem from a particular understanding of Islam. That Trump’s policy of branding the US’s 3 million Muslims as potential terrorists is an affront to American values but that the danger of radicalization of young American Muslims can’t be countered unless it is talked about.

Without that shift — and as the number of jihadist mass-murders around the world escalates — Trump could actually win. And that would be a tragedy for the US and its allies; and a victory for all who deal in the currencies of bigotry and fear.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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