Wednesday’s testimony and the crisis of American conscience.
I often wonder who didn’t love Donald Trump. I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention, which is not the same thing. He’s turned his life into a marketing strategy. As Michael Cohen said in his testimony on Wednesday, even the presidential campaign was a marketing campaign to build the Trump brand.
In turning himself into a brand he’s turned himself into a human shell, so brittle and gilded that there is no place for people close to him to attach. His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.
Imagine what your own life would be like if you had no love in it, if you were just using people and being used. Trump, personifying the worst elements in our culture, is like a providentially sent gong meant to wake us up and direct us toward a better path.
Nonetheless, his kind of life has an allure for other lonely people who also live under the illusion that you can win love and respect with bling and buzz. Michael Cohen was one of these people. He testified that in serving Donald Trump he felt he was serving a cause larger than self. Those causes were celebrity and wealth.
.. Getting arrested seems to have been a good education for Cohen. He now realizes that Trump will not provide him with the sustenance he needs. I believe that Cohen basically told the truth in his testimony on Wednesday, but I don’t believe that he is a changed man.
There is none of the purgation of self and transformation of spirit that happens among people who have truly been altered. He’s just switched teams and concluded that the Democrats can now give him what he wants, so he says what appeals to them. That may be progress, but it is not moral renewal.
Cohen has left the Thugs for Trump club and passed that baton to certain House Republicans. I would have loved to have been in the strategy session when the House Republicans decided to be incurious about Trump’s sins and crimes but to rip the skin off Cohen.
Normal people have moral sentiments. Normal people are repulsed when the president of their own nation lies, cheats, practices bigotry, allegedly pays off porn star mistresses.
Were Republican House members enthusiastic or morose as they decided to turn off their own moral circuits, when they decided to be monumentally unconcerned by the fact that their leader may be a moral cretin?
Do they think that having anesthetized their moral sense in this case they will simply turn it on again down the road? Having turned off their soul at work, do they think they will be able to turn it on again when they go home to the spouse and kids?
Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.
When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his
- demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his
- closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his
- public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges.
Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.
Is the world ready for the Great Schism?
The events of the past year brought American and Israeli Jews ever closer to a breaking point. President Trump, beloved in Israel and decidedly unloved by a majority of American Jews, moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, with the fiery evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress consecrating the ceremony.
In October, after the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, President Trump went to that city to pay his respects. Members of the Jewish community there, in near silent mourning, came out to protest Mr. Trump’s arrival, declaring that he was not welcome until he gave a national address to renounce the rise of white nationalism and its attendant bigotry.
The only public official to greet the president at the Tree of Life was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.
At a Hanukkah celebration at the White House last month, the president raised eyebrows and age-old insinuations of dual loyalties when he told American Jews at the gathering that his vice president had great affection for “your country,” Israel.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, has framed this moment starkly: Israeli Jews believe deeply that President Trump recognizes their existential threats. In scuttling the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which many Israelis saw as imperiling their security, in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in basically doing whatever the government of Benjamin Netanyahu asks, they see a president of the United States acting to save their lives.
American Jews, in contrast, see President Trump as their existential threat, a leader who they believe has stoked nationalist bigotry, stirred anti-Semitism and, time and time again, failed to renounce the violent hatred swirling around his political movement. The F.B.I. reports that hate crimes in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017, with a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions.
When neither side sees the other as caring for its basic well-being, “that is a gulf that cannot be bridged,” Michael Siegel, the head rabbi at Chicago’s conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, told me recently. He is an ardent Zionist.
To be sure, a vocal minority of Jews in Israel remain queasy about the American president, just as a vocal minority of Jews in the United States strongly support him. But more than 75 percent of American Jews voted for the Democrats in the midterm elections; 69 percent of Israelis have a positive view of the United States under Mr. Trump, up from 49 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Israel is one of the few developed countries where opinion about the United States has improved since Mr. Trump took office.
Part of the distance between Jews in the United States and Israeli Jews may come from the stance that Israel’s leader is taking on the world stage. Mr. Netanyahu has
- embraced the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Victor Orban, who ran a blatantly anti-Semitic re-election campaign. He has
- aligned himself with ultranationalists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,
- Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and a
- Polish government that passed a law making it a crime to suggest the Poles had any responsibility for the Holocaust. The Israeli prime minister was one of the very few world leaders who reportedly
- ran interference for the Trump administration after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and urged President Trump to maintain his alliance with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Netanyahu’s
- son Yair was temporarily kicked off Facebook for writing that he would “prefer” that “all the Muslims leave the land of Israel.” Last month,
- with multiple corruption investigations closing in on him and his conservative coalition fracturing, Mr. Netanyahu called for a snap election in April, hoping to fortify his political standing. If past is prologue, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values. As his 2015 campaign came to a close, Mr. Netanyahu
- darkly warned his supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger — Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” adding with a Trumpian flourish that left-wing organizations “are bringing them in buses.”
But an important group of NeverTrumpers identified with the right on a very specific set of issues — support for the 1990s-era free trade consensus, Wilsonian hawkishness, democracy promotion — that are unlikely to animate conservatism again any time soon no matter how the Trump presidency ends. These intellectuals and strategists aren’t particularly culturally conservative, they’re allergic to populism, they don’t have any reason to identify with a conservatism that’s wary of nation-building and globalization — and soon enough, they won’t.
.. Along with Rubin I’m thinking here of Max Boot, her fellow Post columnist and the author of a new book denouncing the Trump-era right, who self-defined as a conservative mostly because he favored a democratic imperialism of the kind that George W. Bush unsuccessfully promoted. I’m thinking of Evan McMullin, the third-party presidential candidate turned full-time anti-Trump activist, and certain Republican strategists from the Bush-McCain-Romney party, whose Twitter feeds suggest that they never much cared for the voters who supported their candidates anyway.
.. But observers trying to imagine what a decent right might look like after Trump should look elsewhere — to thinkers and writers who basically accept the populist turn, and whose goal is to supply coherence and intellectual ballast, to purge populism of its bigotries and inject good policy instead.
For an account of policy people working toward this goal, read Sam Tanenhaus in the latest Time Magazine, talking to conservatives on Capitol Hill who are trying to forge a Trumpism-after-Trump that genuinely serves working-class families instead of just starting racially charged feuds.
.. I don’t know if any of these efforts can pull the post-Trump right away from anti-intellectualism and chauvinism. But their project is the one that matters to what conservatism is right now, not what it might have been had John McCain been elected president, or had the Iraq War been something other than a misbegotten mess, or had the 2000-era opening to China gone the way free traders hoped.