Hillary breaks a great taboo

Hillary Clinton speaking in New Hampshire in January.
Hillary Clinton speaking in Manchester, NH, January 22, 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Finally, somebody said it (“somebody” meaning somebody who depends on public opinon): Donald Trump’s supporters are bigots, or tens of millions of them are, anyway.

Not just that Trump himself is a bigot; there’s no risk in saying that. But to say that the masses of Americans who support this candidate who has been blaring his contempt for Mexicans, Muslims and women, and, to a lesser extent, the handicapped and black people, in the highest-profile way imaginable for the last year – to say that not all of them but that tons of them are bigots themselves: This is something no mainstream politician or media figure has said until Hillary Clinton, God bless her, said it at a New York fundraiser Friday night.

“You know, just to be grossly generalist, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

Then she talked about the other half.

“That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for a change. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

This is about as generous and compassionate a description of Trump’s electorate as any intelligent, honest person could make. To let fully half of them off the hook, to say that half of Trump’s voters are not bigots – I think Hillary was being charitable (or politic).

Trump rally in Reno
Trump campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, January 10, 2016. Photo: Darron Birgenheier

But can anyone honestly take issue with her claim, which she prefaced as being “grossly generalist,” that half of Trump’s voters are bigots? Or that bigots are “deplorables”?

I don’t think so. I think everybody outside Trump’s camp knows that what Hillary said was absolutely true and at least fair. The thing is, though, she broke a taboo, one of the most powerful ones in politics: You never criticize the public. The public is always good. The public is always wise.

Nobody believes this swill, either, but there are two kinds of people who will never admit it: Those in politics and those in the mainstream media. The reason is obvious: They both depend on public opinion. They cannot go ragging vast sections of their constituencies, or audiences, as bigots and deplorables because that will alienate them. The politicians will lose their votes, the media will lose their viewership or listenership or readership. So while politicians will rag those of the rival party, and MSM people will rag those of either party, none of them will rag the public or any part of it that keeps those ragged politicians afloat. For politicians, it’s bad politics; for the MSM, it’s bad business.

And since politicians and the MSM dominate the public discussion of politics, this ridiculous notion that the public is always wise and good, and that it’s always wrong to criticize them, is allowed to stand.

What this lie does is infantilize voters, who are, remember, adults. It absolves them of all responsibility for whom they elect. It’s a view of adults in a democracy not as citizens, but as customers – who are always right, which means there’s no good politics or bad politics, there’s only the kind that sells and the kind that doesn’t. Which eventually lands us with the likes of Trump.

On Saturday, the day after she spoke her mind about her opponent’s supporters, Hillary retracted. “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong. But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump …” bla, bla, bla.

Oh well. For one brief shining moment …

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Further reading: 

“Clinton says half of Trump supporters fall into ‘basket of deplorables,’ Thehill.com, September 9

“Clinton: It was wrong to call half of Trump supporters ‘deplorable,'” Thehill.com, September 10

“Hillary Clinton calls many Trump backers ‘deplorables,’ and GOP pounces,” New York Times, September 10

Neo-fascists threaten the West; in Israel they’ve already arrived

From America to Austria, belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism is rising. But its hold on power in Israel is far more secure — and uncontested.

Israeli neofascists
Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014. Photo: Ofer Vaknin

I hear a lot of Israeli liberals saying that yes, things are bad here, but they’re bad everywhere. On the one hand, Avigdor Lieberman is running the army, a majority of Israelis believe the soldier who executed a prone Palestinian in Hebron behaved “responsibly,” and it’s gotten so that even Roni Daniel, Channel 2 news’ superhawk, is wondering whether his children should leave the country.

But on the other hand, they point out, America has Donald Trump. In Austria, the party of Jorg Haider just came within an inch of taking over. In France, Marine Le Pen is the rising power. All over Western Europe, even in Scandinavia, the neo-fascists are gaining strength.

So Israel isn’t alone in its slide into the swamp of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism — it’s happening in the most “enlightened” countries of the West. We’re in no worse a political predicament than they’re in, according to this view.

But this view is mistaken; our political predicament is worse. In the 21st century, the forces of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism have a much stronger, more secure hold on power in Israel than they do in any Western country (not counting Eastern Europe).

Israeli right getting more radical, powerful

Netanyahu has been elected prime minister four times, and each of his governments is more right-wing than the last. Meanwhile, the so-called center and center-left parties grow increasingly antagonistic toward the Palestinians and the Israeli Arab parties, until it’s become a bad joke to refer to them (except Meretz, the lone party of the Zionist left) as a liberal opposition. And now their leader, Isaac Herzog, has left them more divided and weaker than ever.

In Israel today, the right-wing powers-that-be are only getting more right-wing and more powerful; except for the Supreme Court (to a limited degree), there’s nothing and nobody to hold them back.

In America today, the situation is quite different. The president, now in his eighth and last year, is Barack Obama, the sort of liberal politician who has become extinct in 21st-century Israel. And even if the grotesque Donald Trump does win the November election, the Democrats, with their larger share of the electorate, will have a good chance of beating him the next time. The Republicans have no hope of ruling American politics without challenge for nearly a generation like the Likud and its allies have done here. Over there it’s the Democrats, davka, who have such a hope.

In Austria, the Freedom Party, running on the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform common to all European far-right parties, came within 0.7% of the vote to winning the presidency. But not only did it lose, the winner was a member of the liberal Green Party. And even if that result gets turned around in the coming years, the liberals will almost certainly remain contenders for power in Austria, unlike what’s happened in contemporary Israel.

In other Western European countries, even France with its National Front, the demagogic, nativist parties and movements are growing — but they are all still at a far remove from having national power such as that enjoyed here by Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and current-day Likud.

European consensus still liberal 

Since World War II, Western Europe has developed a strong liberal, tolerant consensus; this is fraying due to the large influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees and the influence of radical Islam in their ranks, but it remains the norm. By contrast, liberalism and tolerance for Arabs, while always a stream in Israeli politics, only came to the fore during the Oslo years — and even they were interrupted by Netanyahu’s first term. Since Oslo imploded in 2000, this stream has been steadily drying up — except during the anomaly of Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza – while the racism and militarism of the right keeps running stronger.

Western Europeans have problems with immigration, refugees and jihadism, and often with economics; these problems may grow to the point where they derange the public and the neo-fascists start taking power. But this hasn’t happened yet, and there’s a very good chance it won’t.

Israel, on the other hand, is a tiny ethnic-religious minority in a hostile region on a permanent war footing with its neighbors. Israel believes (wrongly) that it has done everything it can to make peace and been turned down, and so it trusts its security to the subjugation of the Palestinians and the periodic bombing of Syria and Hezbollah, with no expectation or even reasonable hope that things will change.

This is a much more deeply entrenched and volatile problem than the Western Europeans, or, certainly, the Americans have been dealing with.  What ails Israel is the sort of condition that’s just made for a long-term takeover by belligerent, xenophobic ultranationalists, which is what’s happened here and hasn’t happened there. No, unfortunately, this is not a Western country we’re living in.

Originally published in Haaretz.com, May 31, 2016.