THE election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the re-election of Binyamin Netanyahu in 2019 occurred under different circumstances, and yet they are very similar in their results. They both put an authoritarian figure in power through democratic electoral processes. As well, both of these figures, like so many modern reactionary leaders before them, denigrate the recent past. Why do they do so?
In the case of Trump, the past he despises is the 1960s, with its progressive civil rights legislation. The laws passed at this time pushed the white supremacy model out of the public realm. Trump, in practice, has proven to be a white supremacist and an extreme nationalist. Most of his “core” voting base adheres to these ideas as well. This worldview demands that he undo – through presidential orders and future decisions of the US Supreme Court – the progress towards egalitarianism and a multicultural society symbolised by the election of America’s first African-American president, Barack Obama. Trump also wants to “Make America Great Again” by acting on the basis of national power alone, thus destroying along the way any number of alliances and treaties enshrining human rights and progressive international law.
Of course, these ambitions alone are not exactly why he was elected. Trump’s racist “core” is too small to have elected him by themselves. He was elected because too many Americans did not want to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – whom they saw as a status quo candidate – and Trump was the Republican alternative. It may well be that a good number of the electorate who voted for Trump had no idea of what sort of person they were supporting. By now they should have no doubt.
In the case of Netanyahu, the story is an even odder one. The past that Netanyahu rejects is the one designed after World War II to criminalise behaviours such as the waging of aggressive war, genocide and apartheid. Some of these behaviours had for centuries threatened European Jews. Netanyahu, and those who voted for him, no longer identify with the suffering of their European ancestors. Israel is now a strong, aggressive, land-hungry power much like 19th century Russia and Germany. Many Israeli Jews are also, like Donald Trump’s core supporters, ethnic racists and supremacists.
Netanyahu’s problem is that the post-World War II international laws and treaties seeking to prevent aggressive nationalism, racism and the oppression of minorities now stand in the way of Israeli ambitions. So, oddly, the only way Israel can realise its Zionist ambitions while also being seen as a “normal” country – one that is in tune with the international community – is by changing international norms. That is, Israel now seeks to undermine the progressive international environment that was, in good part, designed to protect the remnants of European Jews. And, it would seem, many of those who voted for Netanyahu knew exactly what sort of society they were endorsing.
Trump and Netanyahu both stand against minority members of their societies, and through such postures rally a dangerous core base. They are not alone. The nations of the world are increasingly led by reactionary “thugs in suits,” many of them popularly elected. They are all Pied Pipers leading their populations backward – resurrecting the pre-progressive “past in present tense”. Their destination is an environment that, historically, we have enough negative experience to want to avoid. Yet we follow these leaders anyway. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, it is a case of “blind citizens governed by lethal idiots”.
Evidence of this rush to the rear can be found in a partial list of the rights being undermined and the individuals being attacked:
Attack on free press
– The editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is in prison in the UK after losing his seven-year-long asylum status at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He will now have to fight extradition to the US where he is wanted for posting on the web shocking evidence of shocking American barbarism in Iraq, as well as other embarrassing revelations.
Assange “has been charged for alleged conspiracy with whistleblower Chelsea Manning under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act”. The indictment also “describes routine journalistic interactions with sources as evidence of conspiracy”. Thus, “the ability to use an encrypted chat messenger or try to keep a source’s identity anonymous are… portrayed as criminal in nature by the Trump Justice Department”. By the way, that same Justice Department will argue that the nature of the leaked information, revealing the brutal and sometimes criminal behaviour of the US military, is irrelevant to the charge against Assange and therefore is inadmissible in court.
The larger problem with this attack on Assange is that his alleged “conspiring” to publish information gathered in this fashion is something reporters and newspaper editors do all the time. It is the essence of investigative journalism, and as such the case against Assange is a threat to freedom of the press.
In the meantime, the Israelis have stepped into the act by falsely asserting that Assange is a longtime “anti-Semite”.
– Chelsea Manning, Assange’s alleged co-conspirator, is also back in jail. She is being held in contempt of a grand jury subpoena seeking to force her to testify about Assange and WikiLeaks.
Attack on free speech
The US Congress, as well as some 27 state legislatures, are attacking freedom of speech by attempting to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. House Resolution 246 and Senate Resolution 120, both of which identify criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism (which is the equivalent of mistaking apples for oranges), have now been introduced and, though patently unconstitutional because they undermine the First Amendment of the US Constitution, may be passed into law anyway. This subversive action is being carried out at the urging of American Zionists. The Zionists, in turn, are doing this to defend Israel, an apartheid state and violator of international law. So much for the devotion of legislators to the US Bill of Rights in the face of strong lobbies.
The Trump administration has simultaneously decided to refuse a visa for Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement. Barghouti has been accused by Zionists such as US Congressman Lee Zelden of being “filled w/ anti-Israel & anti-Semitic hatred”. As someone who is personally acquainted with Barghouti, I can testify that this is absolutely untrue. I can also attest that he, as a victim of Israeli apartheid, has no patience with racists.
It should be pointed out that the tactics used by American and Israeli Zionists not only have a corrupting effect on the US Congress, state legislatures and the constitution itself, but also sully Jews in the aggregate and the Jewish religion. They do so by insisting that support for the self-aggrandising, racist political ideology of Zionism is part of the definition of being Jewish.
Attack on international law
The Trump administration has now expressed its disdain for international law by threatening the judges and investigators of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and refusing visas to those associated with the court even when they simply seek to carry out their duties at the United Nations in New York. The UN maintains another headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and ICC business with the UN may now take place there.
Why recent progress is threatened
How is it that after making such progressive strides, we now see them threatened?
In the US case, part of the answer is that, in the age of the patriarchal nation-state, progressive issues such as multicultural equalitarianism, feminism, gay rights, immigrant rights, and the like are not cultural positions easily sustained. The Civil Rights Movement was successful not just because its leaders formed a strong political coalition, but because their cause proved an important one within the Cold War struggle of the time. In turn, its success did encourage other progressive movements to push their agendas, and the resulting collective social pressure within the US created a smouldering undercurrent of white ethnic resentment. That resentment has now broken out in what is known as a culture war.
This culture war has serious political consequences and reflects a polarised nation. Correspondingly, the number of moderates or centrists who are politically active has shrunk. On the conservative side, this polarisation has destroyed the traditional Republican Party and replaced it with a right wing extremist rump party led by Donald Trump. It is this essentially purged Republican Party that now leads the fight to destroy the progressive domestic achievements of the recent past.
The Democratic Party has so far remained intact. However, that does not necessarily give it political advantage. The party’s leaders have alienated large sections of their once loyal liberal supporters. They continue to direct their political messages to a centrist audience whose numbers are declining. In other words, the party is poorly led and awash in internal dissension. This is a poor position from which to defend, much less further promote, America’s progressive domestic legacy.
The one thing the United States does have going for it is a fairly large number of well-educated citizens who are aware that their country has a constitution and a bill of rights that are integral to the character of the nation. Appeals to these documents provide, at least in theory, the basis for progressive legislation and policies.
When we turn to Israel, we find little or no regard for the country’s “Basic Laws” that stand in for a constitution. Also, despite all the play given to the holocaust, many Israelis have a real disdain for Jewish behaviour relative to that event. Indeed, Jews who lost their lives in the holocaust are often a source of shame for today’s Israelis. This is because, allegedly, they did not put up a sufficient fight against their genocidal persecutors. The fact that the fate of modern European Jewry helped underwrite much of the universal human rights treaties and related international law is not something the majority of Israelis celebrate.
As suggested above, modern Israel’s response to European Jewish history was to become a warrior state. That is what it is at present, and as such it celebrates the sense of superiority that is so often harboured by warriors, and drives their ambitions of conquest and domination.
It would seem that we are in a decisive struggle that will determine the shape of our future. Will it be reactionary or progressive in nature? Organised conservatism has evolved into a reactionary force throughout much of the West, and the hard-fought-for, progressive aspects of our world are in serious danger. The fate of Donald Trump, the US’s ersatz Mussolini, in the 2020 election might be a pivotal moment in this struggle. In the meantime, the struggle seems over in Israel – the reactionaries have won.