What happened to Donald Trump? - opinion

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The former president's curse to Netanyahu is part of his personality flaws, but the frustration he voiced is now shared by all the era's populists, including Netanyahu.

 THEN-US PRESIDENT Donald Trump winks at then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last year.  (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
THEN-US PRESIDENT Donald Trump winks at then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last year.

Museums of journalism will probably magnify and frame it, alongside “Ford to City: Drop Dead” and “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Yediot Aharonot’s fully spelled-out “F*** him,” in Latin characters, just above the fold on its weekend edition’s front page, will be remembered journalistically for its trumpeting of an obscenity that parents still forbid their children to utter.

Historically, however, Donald Trump’s blessing to Benjamin Netanyahu will be remembered for more substantive reasons, like Trump’s cultural impact, even after his political departure. Until Trump, historians will note, mainstream media would never spell out such a quote, let alone in such graphic prominence.

And yes, the plot behind this headline is not only about Trump’s style but also about his character, the narcissism that made him sever his ties with Netanyahu, according to his interview with Walla’s Barak Ravid, for his Hebrew book on the Abraham Accords.

“Nobody did more for Bibi and Israel than I did,” claimed Trump, an assertion which, as he sees things, means that Netanyahu was to set aside Israel’s national interest and focus on serving his friend, even after the American people had voted him out of office.

 FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump attends his first post-presidency campaign rally, in Wellington, Ohio, in June.  (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON) FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump attends his first post-presidency campaign rally, in Wellington, Ohio, in June. (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

This absurdity is part of the personal side of the phenomenon called Trump, a megalomaniac whose self-worship no other Western leader ever displayed. Even so, the frustration he voiced is now common to all the era’s populists, including Netanyahu.

THE CRISIS of populism is both in its following, which is shrinking, and in its leaders’ failures, which have become manifest.

In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro’s pandemic denialism resulted in mass fatalities that are too glaring to refute, and too enraging to defend. Trailing in polls, Bolsonaro said he will only be removed by God, thus insinuating he is preparing, à la Trump, to defy the voter’s verdict. The populist bluff, he evidently realizes, has been exposed.

In Turkey, Tayyip Recep Erdogan has done to policy what Trump has done to civility. What began with an authoritarian refusal to allow the independence of any institution, even the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, proceeded to a titanic effort to defy the laws of economics.

Arguing that interest rates are not inflation’s cure, but its cause – which is like saying that slush is not snow’s result, but its cause – the Turkish president has fired a succession of central bankers and finance ministers who disagreed.

The result is a spectacular collapse of the Turkish lira, which this year alone lost half its value, and since 2003, when he launched a currency reform, lost 90% of its dollar value. This part of Erdogan’s record is particularly telling because it epitomizes the populist rationale: hoodwink the people – in this case, with cheap money – at the expense of the future and in disregard of truth.

Populism can work wonders for its prophets during their operations’ rhetorical stage, the one in which they grandstand. The problems begin when demagoguery meets reality. In Brazil and the US reality meant pandemic catastrophe. In Turkey reality now means millions losing much of their purchasing power, and an increasingly restless middle class beginning to take to the streets.

How, then, does any of this apply to Israel, if at all?

TRUMP’S cursing of Netanyahu, while esthetically appalling and ethically unjust, was nonetheless based on fact: Netanyahu indeed ignored his friend’s personal interest and preferred the Israeli national interest, which was to publicly congratulate the American president-elect. It’s incredible that this even needs to be said.

Netanyahu also did not share Trump and Bolsonaro’s pandemic denial. On the contrary, he quickly understood the medical situation, its public imperatives, and also its political risks and rewards. Netanyahu also never delivered homophobic broadsides, unlike Bolsonaro or Hungary’s populist leader, Viktor Orbán. In fact, he appointed Israel’s first gay minister.

Netanyahu also never fell into the kind of pitfall where Trump landed in North Korea. Netanyahu understood the world, avoided bombastic rhetoric about other leaders, and never arrived unprepared for a diplomatic event.

Even so, Netanyahu sure did flirt with the populist genie even if he did so not because of his character – which, unlike Trump, includes an erudite intellectual – but because of cynical calculations.

THE FIRST, and most fateful, of Netanyahu’s populist choices was his Election-Day lie into thousands of smartphones that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” The bigoted statement that arguably handed him victory over Labor’s Isaac Herzog ultimately blew in Netanyahu’s face.

Now the Arab politicians Netanyahu alienated are cohabitating with former settler leader Naftali Bennett in a rainbow coalition that defies Netanyahu’s populist exhortation.

The most brazen part of Netanyahu’s populism was his attack on the judiciary, the media and Israel Police. In alleging that judges, prosecutors, journalists and cops conspired to unseat him, he took a page from Trump’s book. Did Netanyahu unleash a mob on the Knesset, as Trump did on Capitol Hill? He didn’t, but he did incite the people against the courts.

Now, while languishing in the opposition, Netanyahu reportedly set out to detonate another populist bomb, by using the government’s plan to accommodate liberal prayers at the Western Wall in order to foment huge ultra-Orthodox protests against the pluralistic “ploy.”

Alas, the post-populist government detected and preempted the populist ploy, deciding to focus, for now, on the non-Orthodox plaza’s construction, and wait with its activation. The populist urge, plan and hope to pit citizens against citizens, has thus been dashed.

“What happened?” one can imagine Bibi muttering while staring through his Caesarean living room’s glass door into the Mediterranean sunset, “What happened to my power, what happened to my luck, what happened to my magic, what happened to friendship, what happened to my Donald Trump?”


The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.