The crook vs. the demagogue

Notes on the American election

I’m an American as well as an Israeli (just ask the IRS) and although I live in Israel and don’t plan to return to the USA, I still care about the country where I was born, grew up, was educated and lived much of my life. In November I will cast my absentee ballot for one of two very problematic choices.

There are multiple issues with both of the major candidates, but I want to focus on two of the main ones: Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty and the nature of Donald Trump’s movement.

Let’s start with Mrs. Clinton. She and her husband have institutionalized the sale of favors to foreign powers and domestic special interests through the Clinton Foundation and by way of exorbitant payments for Clinton speaking engagements.

The famous private email server can have had only one purpose, which was to enable her to hide her correspondence from possible subpoenas and Freedom of Information Act requests.

I know Clinton fans have talking points to explain all this away. Please don’t insult my intelligence with them. Some things are uncomplicated, and this is one of them. She is a crook, in a way and to a degree that no American president since 1900 has been. Not Warren Harding, certainly not Richard Nixon, not any of them.

There is also the matter of her being an inveterate liar (here are just a few of her recent false statements). Can someone serve as president while being corrupt and a liar? Certainly – she might even implement some good policies. But explain this to the middle class or working class person who has seen his or her livelihood evaporate as the elites with which Clinton is associated thrive like never before. Or explain it to someone who thinks the concept of national honor is meaningful.

That working class or middle class person (if they are not Mexican or Muslim) is probably voting for Donald Trump. Is he a breath of fresh air as his supporters say, or the Devil incarnate?

Mr. Trump has numerous moral issues as well, like the disgraceful Trump University scam, and his penchant for not paying people who do work for him. Unlike Hillary, who steals indirectly from the little guy by allowing big banks (for example) to rig the system, Donald sticks his hand right into the pockets of carpenters, cooks, and carpet companies. Of course he too is a liar.

Trump is getting very bad treatment from the media lately (although they gave him free coverage at the start of his campaign, before they believed that he had a chance). But the real problem is not so much Trump’s policies as the kind of movement he has built.

Hillary’s supporters are a little embarrassed by her dishonesty and try to cover for her, but Donald’s don’t care, because “at least he tells it like it is.” And it is true that Trump despises the political correctness that characterizes the Obama Administration. But there is a lot more behind the way Trump’s followers respond to him. They don’t seem to care what he says as much as how he says it, especially if he strikes a blow against the complex of politicians, corporations and minorities that they believe are responsible for screwing them. The more aggressively he attacks his targets, the more his people like him. Inconsistencies, falsehoods and obvious errors in his statements are entirely irrelevant. It’s only important that he hits the enemy, the harder the better.

Trumpism is two things, both of them dangerous: it is a cult of personality and it is a revolutionary movement.

It is a cult of personality because it is all about The Leader. If Trump were to disappear, so would the movement, unless it found another similarly charismatic leader. The movement has only the flimsiest ideology associated with it. Policy isn’t the point: Trump supporters simply want to place themselves in the arms of a strong leader who promises to shatter the structures that they don’t entirely understand, but that they know are responsible for their own problems and for the decline of the US as a world power. That’s why the inconsistency and instability of his positions don’t bother his followers.

Trump is a good speaker despite his sometimes fractured syntax because he projects the image he needs to project: a strong, aggressive, authoritarian leader who doesn’t take shit from anyone. His speeches are 95% emotional content with 5% factual filler. Nobody even listens to the factual part except the journalists writing fact-check stories.

As Jonathan Haidt explains so well, emotion is in the driver’s seat. Reason just comes along for the ride.

Everything Trump does radiates alpha maleness. He has the most wealth, the  best women, the biggest buildings. What do you do with an alpha male? You follow him.

It is a revolutionary movement because Trumpism doesn’t respect the courts, the Congress or the Constitution. Perhaps Obama subverts or sidelines these institutions, but Trump doesn’t even pretend to accept their authority. When a court threatened to rule against Trump, he attacked the judge’s ethnicity. He and his supporters believe that the existing system does not deserve respect, and they won’t hesitate to attack any part of it that they see as opposing him.

The combination of a charismatic cult-of-personality leader and an energized, revolutionary movement has historically proven dangerous to the maintenance of a democratic republic.

Trump got his chance from a combination of circumstances. The economic slaughter of the American working class, the presidency of Barack Obama whose contempt for this very group (“they cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”) is so evident, the enforcement of political correctness, and a sharply leftward-moving Democratic Party whose candidate is not only grossly dishonest but a widely disliked poor campaigner who is only good at backroom maneuvering with corporations and the elite – all these have opened the door for him.

Trump has succeeded to do what the Left has been failing at for decades: he has built a revolutionary mass movement that actually has a chance of gaining power. The Left could never connect with the working class but billionaire Trump seems to have no trouble doing so.

To me, a particularly worrisome aspect of the Trumpist movement is the support it gets from the most vicious Jew-haters in the political ecosystem, a group that has been marginalized in the Republican party since W. F. Buckley called out Pat Buchanan in 1991. They’re back.

Ironically, the movement is much like Black Lives Matter, which also takes advantage of the carefully nurtured anger of a segment of the population in order to try to overthrow the existing order (and another irony is the anti-Jewish turn of BLM). One main difference is that BLM doesn’t seem to have a charismatic leader yet.

A Trump victory in the election seems unlikely at this point, but if he loses Trumpism will not go away. A narrative in which Trump loses because he is stabbed in the back by election fraud and by never-Trump Republicans – who, incidentally, include a large percentage of high-profile Jews – is already developing.

I know historical parallels are always misleading, but the similarity to the Germany of the late 1920s is hard to miss.

Of course Trump is not a Hitler. I don’t see him as especially racist and certainly not capable of genocide. But his movement is anti-democratic. It is quite ready to put aside the niceties of checks and balances in order to free its champion to fight for its idea of Truth, Justice and the American Way.

On the other hand, many people think that government in America is already completely dysfunctional, too far gone for politics as usual to save it. They believe that democracy, fairness and individual liberty have been seriously compromised, and that a revolutionary movement like Trumpism is the only hope of restoring them.

So whom do I intend to vote for?  Both prospects are so awful that I haven’t decided. I’ll tell you in a few weeks.

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9 Responses to The crook vs. the demagogue

  1. shalom-hillel says:

    On the most important issue facing the United States and Israel, Trump is the clear winner. He knows how absolutely important it is to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He has repeatedly said this is his most important priority. I also believe him when he says openly and often that he will rely on Israel as the most important strategic ally for the US in the Middle East.
    Unfortunately, I believe with Hillary in charge Iran will go nuclear. That would be a catastrophe.

  2. shalom-hillel says:

    One more thing of great importance to the Jewish community; Hillary wants to bring in many Muslims to the US. We know what happened in France with their large Muslim community. It’s already begun here on college campuses with Muslim students bringing with them all their hostilities against anyone who supports Israel and sometimes it goes beyond that to simply harassing Jews. If we have a mass influx of Muslims into the US the same thing will happen here as happened in Europe. Trump is the one who has spoken out against mass migration of people whose cultural values are destructive of our country. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Jewish community will be the first to suffer with unbridled Muslim immigration.
    Trump is on the right side of that issue, as well.

  3. vdorta says:

    This post has hurt me a lot. I am a fan who reads and enjoy your posts. We have interacted on the internet. My daughter just married a Jew and will soon convert to Judaism with my blessings (similar to Trump and Ivanka). I pray for a free, religious, prosperous Israel and the same for the USA. I am the perfect convert, a legal immigrant who became a naturalized US citizen and a conservative. But most of all I hate your “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the other-hand” type of analysis because there is no way to compare Donald Trump with Hillary Clinton. One is a successful businessman who has been successful in the real world of American capitalism and the other is a criminal, a mafiosi who –as all real mafia bosses– even owns several dead guys. You talk about all the bad things a hypothetical President Trump could do but say nothing about the many bad things a current Obama president does every day with “his pen and his phone.” A President who has thrown the Constitution under the bus many times by going over the separation of powers. Trump may hypothetically do certain fascist or quasi-fascist things but Obama has done and is doing Marxist things every day? Please go to Trump’s website and read his foreign policy and terrorism positions. Trump works by instinct and common sense, he’s no ideologue, he doesn’t read Obama’s favorite book, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The USA and the world are at a crossroads. Yes, Trump is a revolutionary, but our status quo is worse than the Ancien Régime and soon will be just like Europe. Please.

  4. I invite further comments. I will reply later, and also quote some of the emails I’ve received (without names, of course). Mail is presently running about 3:1 in favor of Trump.

  5. Shalom Freedman says:

    Unfortunately everything you say about the both of them is correct.
    One great regret is that had the Republican nominee been anyone else but Trump the expectation in Israel of having for certain someone better than Obama would have been realized.
    Now it seems the choice is as you indicate between two wholly unacceptable people.
    Trump is unqualified and unreliable. His inability to listen to anyone, to even try to be informed on various issues suggest he will certainly bring some kind of disaster to the U.S. and the world.
    Clinton is an experienced and savvy crook with a very mediocre record. She has with her a major element of the Democratic Party which has become anti- Israel.
    I do not vote in the United States and haven’t since I came to Israel many years ago.
    If I had to choose now, I probably would do what you say you are doing- i.e. wait for further developments down to the finish line. I lean now a bit more to Clinton but the secret hope is that somehow one of them will be replaced and a better alternative will appear. But that is wishful thinking and what seems far more likely is one of the two terrible alternatives will become President.

  6. Etan Ben-Ami says:

    Vic, I want to encourage you to learn more about Gary Johnson and William Weld, the Libertarian candidates this year. Both are sane, honest, competent former Republican ex-Governors who had very good approval ratings in traditional ‘Blue’ states. No doubt you will be told that you are throwing away your vote if you support Johnson/Weld. That isn’t true. A vote for them tells the GOP and the Democratic Party that they must do better at addressing the needs of middle-class Americans, and that future candidates must meet the standard set by these men. Perhaps that’s the best we can do in this election.
    — Etan Ben-Ami

  7. Well, that was exciting. In addition to the comments here I got numerous emails. The ones that supported either candidate were about 3:1 in favor of Trump.

    So here are a few thoughts that I had on reading comments and emails:
    Trumpists, didn’t you notice that I blasted Hillary? I more or less rated her Unacceptable before I began to talk about Trump. My criticism of Trump is not so much a matter of his policies but was based on my apprehension about the cult of personality around him and the revolutionary aspect of his movement.

    Perhaps I should have mentioned the paradigm case of a president with a revolutionary ideology who is surrounded by a cult of personality: Barack Obama. Of course he is ‘revolutionary’ in a different way: he wants to destroy American exceptionalism and replace it with guilt, and replace the “racist white power structure” with a racist non-white power structure.

    I left a lot of things out of the discussion, like immigration, where I really think Trump’s instincts are correct, and Israel, where what we know about Hillary’s associations and advisors is frightening. I know she says all the right things, but so did Obama in 2008. I didn’t mention her telling the bereaved parents of one of the Benghazi victims that the attack on the consulate was provoked by a video.

    On the other hand, should the President of the United States insult women by referring to their menstruation? On television? I stopped thinking this was funny at about age 11. I didn’t discuss Trump’s personality, either.

  8. vdorta says:

    I just read your most recent post about Bibi and the left, a great one as always.

    But I want to go back to this:

    “… insult women by referring to their menstruation?”

    This wasn’t ever true, it was a typical media-invented scandal. If you listen to the complete audio of the Fox-moderated debate, just before the interaction with Megyn Kelly Trump had just said a similar “out of his whatever” about the *male* moderator, Chris Wallace.

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