It’s Israel’s Turn to Confront Trumpism

Donald Trump flirted with dictators throughout his presidency, claimed fraud deprived him of re-election, and incited the Jan. 6 insurrection that offered hard-liners everywhere a tutorial on useful demonstrations of force. Now the strongmen are flirting back.

“We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week, echoing Trump as he smeared an unusual political coalition formed to unseat him. Though he is also mired in a corruption trial, Netanyahu said he won’t recognize a new government. Vitriol among his supporters has prompted Israel’s domestic security service to warn of escalating, possibly lethal, violence.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces re-election next year and has already lashed out at his country’s courts and made baseless claims of voter fraud. He has refused to condemn the Jan. 6 siege in the U.S. because, he said, there were “a lot of reports of fraud.” Should he “have problems” in Brazil, he said he would deploy the military to solve them.

Netanyahu and Bolsonaro have absorbed a valuable lesson from Trump: If you co-opt the imagination and intentions of enough members of your own party and your voters, you can persuade them to buy into your lies and rise up on your behalf when power slips from your grasp. Israel’s variant of Trumpism, however, might show something about how to push back against a movement that is fundamentally antidemocratic and may endure as a global political force longer than Trump himself.

Trump was an outcome of long-simmering economic, social and racial divisions that primed supporters to embrace his message. Trump’s authoritarian response to those problems — “I alone can fix it” — was the glue that held together a seemingly diverse coalition of supporters in 2016, and still does today. Trump’s playbook relied on blunt tactics: undermining the rule of law, sensationalizing threats from perceived outsiders, fostering a cult of personality, sowing paranoia about institutions, stoking fears about electoral opponents, disparaging the media, weaponizing racism, disseminating misinformation and encouraging violence.

While Israeli politics has its own unique dynamics and Netanyahu is not Trump’s mirror image, Netanyahu faces challenges and criticisms much like Trump’s and has responded in similar ways. He uses rallies and social media to disseminate falsehoods and drum up popular support. He regularly assails the media as “fake news” and accuses it of engaging in “witch hunts.” He invites bloodshed in his own streets, such as his recent push to allow Israeli nationalists to parade through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. And, of course, he has raised doubts about the legitimacy of voting, revealing why Trumpism so easily endangers democratic political systems. One member of Netanyahu’s Likud party has likened his opponents to “suicide bombers.”

It was growing fear of Netanyahu’s unwillingness to relinquish office that helped prompt a centrist and an ultranationalist to agree to a power-sharing arrangement, invite an ideologically diverse group of political stakeholders into their coalition, and call for a special ballot to end Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure. Israel’s parliament will vote Sunday on whether to recognize a new government.

While this coalition may not hold, it nevertheless offers an example of how to fight authoritarians run amok. The question is whether it can succeed where the U.S. has failed.

It’s difficult to see a similar approach taking root in the U.S. right now. Despite Joe Biden’s election, the U.S. system has remained mired in Trump’s mess. Republicans have shown little interest in embracing bipartisanship. They continue to block meaningful probes of the Jan. 6 insurrection, they regularly cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, and they have directed sham examinations of the vote. Most Republican voters believe the election was stolen from Trump.

The near impossibility of swaying Republican voters who aligned with Trump because he offered seemingly simple, hard-line solutions to complex problems, and of converting politicians who are awed by Trump’s electoral traction, may mean that the American political system cannot quarantine Trumpism. Swagger and fisticuffs come first for today’s GOP. Policy and alliances take a back seat.

If Israel gets a new governing coalition on Sunday, it will have an opportunity to shed authoritarian bravado in favor of constructive policymaking — and better address myriad problems facing the country, including the simmering conflict with the Palestinians, ethnic and religious tensions, social justice movements, and high unemployment.

Ultimately, fighting authoritarianism takes a society-wide effort. Experts who have studied the phenomenon say that, historically, popular pushback has been an effective, and perhaps the most reliable, check against tyranny. Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian and a leading expert on authoritarianism, and Maria Stephan, an author who has examined the history of nonviolent resistance, have argued that, if the tide is to be turned against authoritarian waves, diverse local and national groups — backed by traditional institutions — need to mount aggressive, peaceful protests.

The one thing that won’t put a stop to it — in Israel, Brazil, the U.S. and elsewhere — is complacency. We’re living in dangerous times.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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