From the Left



Netanyahu was Trump before Trump

Richard Cohen on

If you are a Democrat -- or anyone -- opposed to Donald Trump, you can look back at the 2018 midterms for optimism. Democrats flipped 43 congressional seats, some in districts that had voted for Trump, and exit polls suggested that suburban women and those with more than a high school education had had quite enough of the bumptious bigot in the White House. On the other hand, if you are pro-Trump, you could look at an entirely different race for hope: the reelection last month of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. He was Trump before Trump.

The similarities are striking. Both men cater to the religious right -- and do so with a hypocrisy that would fell lesser men. Trump, once vigorously pro-choice, is now vigorously anti-choice. The position is so new to him that, during the 2016 campaign, he said that women who undergo abortions should be punished. Trump, who occasionally lacks nuance, quickly backtracked.

Netanyahu, too, traffics with the extreme religious right in a Trumpian manner. He is a confessed adulterer, twice divorced and thrice married, who has made a deal with the ultra-orthodox: Support me and I'll support you. This is Politics 101, except that, in Netanyahu's case, it means alienating not only Israeli liberals, but the bulk of American Jewry as well. Still, American Jews don't vote in Israel.

But for anti-Trump Americans, the most ominous similarities are the circumstances that gave Netanyahu his fifth term: security and a flourishing economy. Israel's unemployment rate is low, around 4%, a bit worse than America's (3.6%), but nothing compared with, say, France's (8.8%). Israel's economy is booming, and its high-tech sector is Silicon Valleyish in dynamism.

As for security, the blunt fact is that, under Netanyahu, Israel has been relatively safe. Of course, he is not solely responsible, but as American presidents do when the economy booms, he takes the credit. The occasional terrorist incident is swiftly dealt with -- often with entirely appropriate disproportionate retaliation -- and no one suggests that Netanyahu will not always be as tough as necessary. He has been wounded in combat, and his bravery is without question. Here the similarity with Trump ends.

But Trump, too, has a booming economy. Unemployment is low, inflation is low (maybe too low) and things are going swimmingly in some of the very areas he marginally carried in 2016 -- no erosion there, it appears. James Carville's admonition -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- is no less relevant today than it was in 1992.

Of course, security is not the concern for Americans that it is for Israelis. No rockets rain down on Los Angeles, as they recently did in Israel from Gaza. But Trump has done his level best to compensate. He has raised the immigration issue into one of national security. In Trump's mentality, the country is under siege. Criminals and maniacs of all sorts are breaching the borders, taking jobs from Americans, women from their men and, on Fox News, the very brains of on-air performers. He stands, like the Colossus of Rhodes or a scowling crossing guard, turning back the hordes of the undeserving.


Trump has struck a similar -- and much more rational -- pose when it comes to China. The details of the tariff fight are certainly important and might eventually produce economic woe, but in the meantime, Trump comes across as strong -- the first American president in a long time to stand up to the Chinese. If there is another country that seems more villainous than China to the American imagination, it could only be places like Syria or Venezuela. To Americans, China is a dystopic place of eerie and omnipresent surveillance. It steals our intellectual property and cheats on trade agreements. There could be no better adversary.

With their growing economy and a determination to take their rightful place in the world, they have the look of winners and seem determined to replace America as the globe's preeminent power. (How do you say "We're No. 1" in Mandarin?) Maybe recklessly, Trump is standing up to them. It may not be sound trade policy, but it's sound presidential politics.

There's bad news for Trump, though. The GOP's extreme position on abortion is not likely to woo back those well-educated suburban women who went missing in the last election. And Trump's increasingly bizarre behavior is robbing many Americans of a good night's sleep. But for the moment, the two fundamentals of presidential politics -- the economy and national security -- remain promising for him. They worked for Netanyahu, and they just might for Trump.


Richard Cohen's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group



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