President Donald Trump has suffered no consequences for instigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. On the contrary, February’s Conservative Political Action Conference confirmed that he remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party — a party fully embracing his authoritarianism and belligerent racism, both in its rhetoric and in renewed efforts to legally obstruct Black people from casting votes. Trumpism is a war on the multiracial, inclusive democracy that the United States is struggling to become.
And it doesn’t seem like an aberration; Trumpism will define the American body politic for the foreseeable future. As to how the GOP will impact the American polity from this point, Israel’s Likud party offers a cautionary tale. What relevance might this have for understanding the current American predicament?
The Likud party and its various spinoffs have led Israel for most of the past half-century. Moreover, its tenure has formed the Israel of today, a political culture that has more parallels with the far-right parties and movements of Europe and the United States than with the liberal, Jewish American mainstream. Starting in the 1990s — and in parallel with the scorched-earth politics that Newt Gingrich brought to the U.S. Republican Party — some Likud leaders broke with a decades-old national security consensus born of a unity forged in war and instead began to brand political opponents as nothing less than traitors to the nation of Israel.
The then-upstart politician Benjamin Netanyahu, who had honed his style and sensibility during lengthy spells in the United States, developed the politics that eventually made him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister by launching a vicious campaign of incitement against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accusing him of treason for having signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
As opposition leader in the 1990s, Netanyahu implied that Rabin was an illegitimate leader of Israel because his coalition government relied on support from Palestinian Israeli parties and thus, he claimed, lacked a genuine mandate to negotiate with the Palestinians. For seeking a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, Rabin was branded a traitor to Jews and to Israel. Similarly, Trump led the “birther movement” to delegitimize President Barack Obama, falsely portraying him as foreign born and thus legally ineligible to run for the presidency.
Footage from Oct. 5, 1995, shows Netanyahu speaking at a big rally, as the crowd chanted: “Rabin is a traitor … in blood and fire we will get rid of Rabin.” This alternative narrative resonated with religious Israeli fanatics, who staged rallies across the country. Netanyahu joined these rallies alongside far-right extremists and fanatical rabbis who brought placards depicting Rabin in a Nazi uniform; some even brought a coffin. Netanyahu blustered: The Oslo Accords and a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders would “take Israel back to Auschwitz.”
This rhetoric was absurd and dangerous. In the Oslo Accords, Palestinian leadership not only recognized Israel but also accepted that a demilitarized Palestinian statehood could be built on just 22% of the land in which they’d been the majority population prior to Israel’s creation. But Netanyahu’s messaging was designed to connect with and provoke a generation of Israelis raised to fear they were always on the cusp of a new Holocaust and that the Palestinians who’d been displaced from their own homes and land in 1948 — and had lived under occupation since 1967 — were somehow the reincarnation of Nazi Germany. More importantly, Netanyahu was legitimizing their willingness to use violence, telling Israelis that a land-for-peace compromise with those displaced by Israel’s creation would somehow doom Israeli Jews to relive the trauma of the Second World War.
The bullet that killed Rabin also killed the peace process.
Soon thereafter, on Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist who had embraced Netanyahu’s narrative that Rabin was a traitor. The slain prime minister’s widow, Leah Rabin, publicly blamed Netanyahu for the incitement that led to her husband’s assassination. The bullet that killed Rabin also killed the peace process.
Within a year, Netanyahu was elected prime minister. Today, Amir is considered a hero by a new generation of far-right Jewish nationalists. The rabbis who radicalized him are currently sitting in parliament and are the spiritual leaders of the illegal settler movement in Palestine’s occupied territories.
Those who incited the death of Rabin and his peace process have achieved a pyrrhic victory in the quest to redefine Israel’s soul. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Regrettably, his political strategy of propagating violent racism and weaponizing ethno-national supremacism has become the dominant sentiment in Israeli politics and society.
This week, Netanyahu ran for reelection in partnership with his far-right allies the Kahanists, who even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, refer to as “racist and reprehensible.”
Mirroring Netanyahu’s strategy, Trump tapped into fears of demographic change, borne of immigration and the rise of minority populations in America, often in tones redolent of far-right groups. Whether out of conviction or political cynicism (the far right enthused about Trump’s candidacy and election, and Trump noticed) the demonization of one’s opponents as fifth columnists is a time-tested strategy of populist authoritarians. In 2015, Likud successfully rallied loyalists by warning supporters that Israel’s Arab citizens, such as me, were “voting in droves.”
Trump, too, made dark insinuations about the elements of the electorate who were likely to cast votes against him, warning, for instance, of “unsolicited votes” in North Carolina, a state with a sizable Black population. Since he lost, Trump has turned those insinuations into a full-blown conspiracy theory about an election “stolen” by Democrats with the connivance of hostile foreign powers (namely, the Cuban and Venezuelan governments), culminating in the violent insurrection attempt on Jan. 6.
Nor has this ideological brainwashing dissipated since. High-ranking Republican officials and conservative media networks now censure, purge, or shun party members who don’t subscribe to this Big Lie and whose own families now describe the latter as traitors to God and country. Meanwhile, state-level Republicans pass legislation aimed at suppressing Black and Latino voters.
Netanyahu’s style of politics may have been the forerunner to Trumpism, but Netanyahu has still learned a thing or two from his American counterpart. As Israelis prepared to vote this week, Netanyahu’s own biographer warned that a defeat for the incumbent could trigger violence. Ben Caspit, author of “The Netanyahu Years,” claimed that Netanyahu was plotting an insurrection in the event he loses.
America is not Israel, but in both places a long, steady degradation of the style and substance of politics has led to acts of lethal violence. Although personified by Netanyahu and Trump respectively (both of whom may well have long political careers ahead), the decay has spread far beyond them.
Israel seems trapped, but America can spare itself through an honest reckoning with the Trumpian war on its principles. That means holding Trump and his party accountable for instigating the assault on the Capitol; repudiating the Big Lie about a stolen election; exposing the dangerous fallacy that racial justice threatens the well-being of white Americans; and fighting to protect the voting rights of all Americans. Saving the republic requires reaffirming the principles of democratic equality at the heart of the American experiment.