NEWARK, New Jersey — I’m used to visiting stable, dependable America from an ostensible basket-case nation with a perpetually threatened democracy, endless irresponsible populists challenging our legal and political system, and a shrill, superficial and untrustworthy media.
Boy, is the role reversal in full swing.
Our prime minister got castigated by your president after our last elections less than two years ago for ostensible racism, because on election day he warned that Israeli Arabs were streaming to the polling booths. This remark (for which Benjamin Netanyahu duly apologized once the election was won) was deemed conduct most unbecoming by the leadership of the United States of America. Small potatoes by contrast with today’s US, which now boasts a presidential candidate who relentlessly complains about, and sometimes incites against, minority groups, foreigners, and the practitioners of an entire religion.
There has been much (unproven) talk in Israel in recent decades of the cosseting of certain political candidates by the state’s prosecuting authorities — purported liberals deemed by right-wing critics to have gone particularly easy on (“etrog-ed,” in the modern Hebrew vernacular) prime minister Ariel Sharon. In the critics’ view, Sharon should have been prosecuted for a variety of crimes large and small but escaped because the left-wing establishment wanted him, in his late-life dovish incarnation, safely in power. Minor league by contrast with the current US presidential campaign, in which the (lifelong Republican) director of the FBI, James Comey, would seem to be hellbent on smearing Hillary Clinton in the crucial final days before the election.
We’ve had a prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, resign from his newspaper and other journalistic and media work after two allegations of sexual assault and harassment. America has a presidential candidate sailing unapologetically forward despite a dozen such allegations.
More than a quarter of the current 120 Knesset members are women. We have had a series of female party leaders. We had a woman prime minister, name of Golda Meir, from 1969 to ’74. Didn’t work out all that well, but that’s not the point. What is with this immense animus to the would-be first woman president, Hillary Clinton? No, she’s not a compelling candidate — secretive, the figurehead of a loathed establishment, bedeviled by allegations of dishonesty. But the hostility she attracts for the sin of being female is quite staggering.
Netanyahu is currently in full-scale media war mode, trying to prevent the establishment of a new public broadcaster that he fears might not love him as much as the Sheldon Adelson-funded Israel Hayom daily does. We have newspapers ranging all the way across the political spectrum, as is their democratic right. But if you turn on the nightly news on Channels, 1, 10 or 22 in Israel, you will get a reasonable sense of what is going on. You don’t need to conduct a review of half of a dozen news sources to try to find your way through distorted coverage to a credible narrative. Not so US TV, which features an array of partisan channels which seem to have long since forgotten the necessity and obligation to first inform viewers about what’s actually happening before letting loose the would-be opinion-shapers.
A democracy battered
I’m worried for America, and since Israel depends centrally on America, I’m also a little worried for Israel, which needs a credible, stable, reliable America at its back.
I’m worried that we are watching a great democracy being battered before our eyes — watching a contest for the presidency being waged without mercy and without respect, with norms and limits flouted, propriety and decency trampled.
And, again returning to the Israeli experience, there is cause for deep concern in the vitriol and the demonization that have increasingly characterized the run-up to election day. Battling Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1990s, the Netanyahu-led opposition sought to discredit the prime minister, and a right-wing extremist fringe saw a cue and went further, all the way to assassination.
If Donald Trump wins next week’s elections, which he might, America will have chosen as its leader a self-centered, misogynistic rabble-rouser, whose nasty bluster should have doomed his candidacy in its infancy. It will have confused the skills required to succeed in reality television with the skills required to succeed in reality.
And if he loses, having griped that the whole system is rigged, having declared that his rival ought to be locked up, having alleged a nefarious global financial conspiracy is plotting the downfall of America, the bitterness and frustration he has unleashed will not easily dissipate. Most of his supporters will recognize that this was all electioneering — despicable electioneering, but electioneering nonetheless. It’s the minority who take him at his word that America will have to worry about.
Under many months of immense scrutiny, Donald Trump has not demonstrated the knowledge, the temperament or the wisdom to lead the world’s only superpower. President Trump will do disastrous harm to America’s fragile mosaic of internal relations, and cannot be relied upon as a leader on the global stage. Defeated candidate Trump might be no less damaging.