With each primary victory, the debate about Donald Trump’s fitness for the presidency grows more heated. After beguiling or outraging the nation (depending on your point of view) for months, the discussion about the unexpected and often perplexing Trump phenomenon has not entirely abated, but his supporters and detractors are now finally getting down to the business of arguing about the specifics of his stands on the issues. One such argument concerns whether not only whether Trump can be considered a friend of Israel but also whether he can be judged as stronger on the issue than Hillary Clinton.
Let’s start any such discussion by recognizing that the quadrennial attempt to handicap how any presidential candidate will work with and treat Israel is a purely speculative enterprise. What people say when campaigning — especially when trying to seduce Jewish and other pro-Israel voters — often has little to do with what they’ll do once in office. We can go back decades to analyze presidential candidates and discover more than a few who ran as ardent friends of Israel and then turned out to be a horse of a very different color.
His Jewish supporters assumed Jimmy Carter would be a garden variety pro-Israel Democrat and discovered he was nothing of the kind once in the White House. Jewish Republicans had the same experience with the first President Bush. Jewish Democrats vouched for President Obama on Israel but have spent the last seven years spinning elaborate excuses for his Middle East policy. On the other hand, there are always pleasant surprises too. George W. Bush was assumed by many in the pro-Israel community to be a carbon copy of his father but turned to be such a strong friend of the Jewish state that his successor made the effort to reverse that stance and create more daylight between the U.S. and Israel a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
But given the stakes involved for Israel in preserving the alliance with the Jewish state, its friends have no choice but to think hard about a candidate’s bona fides on the issue.
Yet what is truly interesting about Trump is that his supporters are doing the opposite of what most of those whose candidates’ stand on Israel has been called into question. When it came to a candidate like Barack Obama, his backers told us to ignore his background and associations and to focus only the policy statements that his team was churning out on the Middle East. In that way, Obama’s clear animus for Israeli leaders and their policy choices as well as his desire to make friends with the Arab and Muslim world and to initiate a new détente with Iran were buried underneath boilerplate pro-Israel campaign rhetoric churned out by staffers.
But in Trump’s case, it’s just the opposite. When it comes to Israel, his supporters are at pains to tell us to ignore the things he’s said on the campaign trail. Though Trump’s foreign policy statements are generally all over the map as he improvises positions that are, at one and the same time, extremely aggressive (his threats to kick ISIS’s ass) and neo-isolationist (pull back from war on Islamist terror while conducting trade wars), he has been consistent about his stance on the peace process. There he has repeatedly vowed that he would be “neutral” with regards to Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed doubts about whether Israel was ready to take risks for peace.
Such a position makes Trump an outlier among Republicans. Virtually every other GOP presidential candidate and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate have affirmed their support for Israel in a way that makes clear that they believe the U.S. strongly backs Israel against the repeated Palestinian refusal to make peace. If anything, Trump’s stance strongly resembles the policy position taken by the Obama administration over the last 7+years.
That Trump would take such a stand and that he clearly harbors ambitions to make a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is not just a matter of hubris, though we know he has no shortage of that fatal trait. It shows his abysmal ignorance of even the recent history of the Middle East. Moreover, it also demonstrates that he would be at the mercy of the “really smart people” that he claims he will recruit to serve in his administration that would be advising him. That most serious Republican foreign policy experts have vowed to oppose and to never serve in a Trump administration makes it likely that his administration will be staffed either by outlier figures whose stance on Israel can’t be relied upon or, just as likely with veterans of Democratic administrations.
Against this serious deviation from the pro-Israel stance of most Republicans, we are asked to rely on Trump’s background. The fact that his daughter converted to Judaism and married into a family headed by a prominent Jewish philanthropist is supposed to outweigh his policy statements. But, like Hugh Hewitt’s belief that Ivanka Kushner will serve as her father’s “Svengali,” it’s hard to take seriously the influence of someone with no public record.
Trump’s past donations to Jewish causes during his time as a developer that earned him a spot in New York’s annual Israel Day parade one year have also allowed him to claim that he’s done more for Israel than those involved in policy work. But how much he has actually given is something we’ll never know until he releases his tax returns (which will likely never happen). And even if we did know the figures, it’s not clear what, if anything, it would mean, for future dealings with Israel. Such talk is also much like the assurances we got about Obama’s close ties with Jewish Democrats in Chicago.
Trump does assure us he would be “very pro-Israel” and would tear up the Iran nuclear deal. The latter point is encouraging but what some on the right do like about Trump is his open hostility to Muslims. That’s especially attractive to some since that seems to be the opposite of President Obama’s eagerness to make nice with the Muslim world throughout his time in office and his willingness to distance the U.S. from Israel in a vain effort to achieve that goal.
But that kind of mindless, untargeted hostility does little good for either Israel or the United States. After all, the most significant development in Israeli foreign policy in recent years has been its ability to have good relations with some Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan and even to some extent Saudi Arabia. Trump won’t help there. Nor does an indiscriminate animus for Muslims help the U.S. build a coalition of moderates to fight the Islamists.
Others also approve of his reluctance to engage in regime change in the Muslim world that they liken to Israel’s reluctance to embrace efforts to overthrow stable Arab dictators like Bashar Assad in Syria. But Trump’s instinct to retreat from the world stage and to leave the Middle East to Russia and/or to ISIS (which he nevertheless promises to attack in a contradictory stance that makes no sense) is hardly in Israel’s interest. In essence, to the extent that he can be said to have a foreign policy, it seems to be an amalgam of the positions of the two least pro-Israel American political figures on the scene: Rand Paul and Barack Obama.
But what has to scare pro-Israel observers about Trump is his utter malleability. All of Trump’s current political convictions on just about every issue are newly minted. He has also told us that he is someone who can and will change. And given his ability to shift positions and ignore past statements, it’s beyond me as to how anyone could rely on anything he has said, good or bad, as a firm indicator of future policy choices.
And that brings in another comparison to Obama. Like Trump, we knew very little about what Obama would do. Moreover, the key characteristic about their candidacies is their belief in the magic of their personalities and talents. The two men couldn’t be more different in just about every respect. But when it comes to hubris, they are birds of a feather. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can know for sure how Trump will govern.
Of course, the argument will be made that Trump is better than Clinton, who has a problematic history on Israel which is balanced by the things she said while serving as a senator from New York and on the campaign trail now. A Clinton administration might be pro-Israel in the way of her husband’s, or it might resemble her former boss Obama. But as dismaying as the latter prospect might be, it is less of an unknown than Trump.
Like Obama’s backers who promised us that their candidate would be better than we thought, Trump supporters say the same thing with as little basis in fact. They are guessing. They might be right about his good qualities. But Jews who find it hard to believe that a man who says he would be “neutral” on the Middle East and that engages in dog whistles to bigots may be forgiven for being as skeptical about Trump as some on the right were about Obama.
Is Trump Really Pro-Israel?
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Controversies come and go so fast in the Trump administration that it’s all too easy to lose sight of individual issues. It is, therefore, worth remembering that before the events in Charlottesville grabbed public attention on Saturday, the president had been making news with his bellicose statements against North Korea and Venezuela.
Unlike many of the other victims of Trump’s invective, Kim Jong-un and Nicolas Maduro both deserve to be vilified. They are vicious dictators who show no regard for human life or the basic norms of civilized society. Kim’s villainy is of a higher order than Maduro’s—North Korea is the most repressive place on Earth—and he poses a much greater threat to the United States. Maduro isn’t developing nuclear weapons or threatening to attack U.S. territory. He does, however, deserve considerable calumny for destroying the last remnants of Venezuela’s democracy, whereas Kim Jong-un has simply continued the totalitarianism that he inherited from his father and grandfather.
It is entirely fit and proper for a president of the United States to denounce both Kim and Maduro. But that doesn’t mean that the way Trump went about is smart. He is, in fact, playing right into the dictators’ hands with his over-the-top threats.
He warned Kim Jong-un: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Far from backing down after these comments were criticized, he doubled down, saying that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” for war. If taken seriously, Trump’s comments suggest that he is prepared to wage war not in response to North Korean actions but simply North Korean words.
There is, in fact, no sign that the U.S. is getting ready for conflict. If that were the case, the U.S. armed forces would be evacuating 200,000 American civilians from South Korea and rushing in the additional forces called for under the Pentagon’s war plan—Oplan 5027. That’s not happening, and senior officials—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford—all say that conflict is not “imminent.”
Trump’s saber-rattling is unlikely to cause North Korea to stop its nuclear program. If anything, Kim will only redouble his efforts in the face of this American threat, while basking in further confirmation that the U.S. really is, as his propaganda claims, a warmonger intent on destroying North Korea. With Kim already on the verge of acquiring the capability to hit the U.S. with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, either the North Korean despot will call Trump’s bluff, leading to a loss of American credibility, or he will invite a catastrophic conflict. Neither option, needless to say, is a good one.
Trump’s threat of a “military option” against Venezuela is even more misguided. The U.S. is not going to invade Venezuela no matter how many human-rights abuses Maduro commits because we don’t have any national-security interest in doing so. Normally Trump himself is the first one to argue against humanitarian interventions, but, in this case, he allowed his rhetoric to run away with him.
Whatever his motivation, the Defense Department is even less prepared and willing to attack Venezuela than it is North Korea. The only concrete consequences of Trump’s wild threat is to force America’s Latin American allies to distance themselves from Washington and to hand Maduro a propaganda victory. Like Kim Jong-un, he, too, justifies his dictatorship as a defense against Yanqui colonialism and militarism, and Trump’s words seem to provide support for his propaganda. Moreover, assuming that Trump’s words don’t lead Maduro to change his repressive policies, the failure to back up this threat will further dent American credibility.
Trump found hyperbole to be a useful tool in the real estate business and his pursuit of the White House. But a president in control of the world’s mightiest military cannot afford so much loose talk without doing grave damage to American security and running the risk of needless conflict. Many hoped that the arrival of Gen. John Kelly as White House chief of staff would lead to a more moderate tone from the president. So far it hasn’t happened, but it’s never too late for Trump to adopt Theodore Roosevelt’s motto: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
We ignored the warning signs.
The only morally acceptable response to the events in Charlottesville is full-throated condemnation. Full stop. This is not the time for moral equivalencies. The barbarism committed by a white supremacist in the name of white supremacy should not elicit sympathy or a deeper exploration of root causes. The root cause of this weekend’s murderous violence is racism. The end.
When addressing the events in Virginia on Saturday, the president declined to condemn and isolate the fringe racist extremists within his supporters’ ranks. Those elements heard his silence loud and clear, as did his more responsible partners—including Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck who resigned from Trump’s advisory council on American manufacturing in protest. The president tried to correct for the oversight on Monday, but the damage was done. Presidents don’t get mulligans.
Yet it is because Trump passed on such an easy opportunity to make examples of subjects so obviously worthy of condemnation that all Americans should engage in some introspection. We posture self-righteously at our moral peril.
The condemnations of Trump and the alt-right proliferate on Facebook and Twitter, in part, because it’s easy. Charlottesville is not complicated. There is nothing morally ambiguous about the actors on that stage. Anachronistic fascists bearing the symbols of racial hatred and genocide are a familiar adversary. It is a dangerous adversary, to be sure, but also one that lost the struggle for hearts and minds generations ago. Charlottesville may provide observers with a rare moral binary, but it may also be the culmination of our refusal to tackle more abstruse conflicts over the last 18 months.
The vehicular attack on peaceful demonstrators this weekend was preceded hours earlier by a violent melee in the streets between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators. This wasn’t the first time in recent history that two demonstrators flying, respectively, the symbols of Nazism and Bolshevism have clashed in American streets. It’s just the first time we as a country stood up and took notice.
In June of last year, a group of neo-Nazis emboldened by Donald Trump’s casual winking in the direction of their movement took to Sacramento’s streets armed with permits allowing them to demonstrate. They were met by a group of counter-protesters and a street battle ensued. “By Any Means Necessary,” a counter-protest group organized by individuals who formed the nucleus of what would become “Antifa,” engaged in a blood-curdling combat with white supremacists. Ten people were injured, some critically, as both groups attacked one another with bats, knives, and other improvised implements. It was not, however, the neo-Nazis who inaugurated violence outside the California state capitol.
“If I had to say who started it and who didn’t, I’d say the permitted group didn’t start it,” said protective services division head and California Highway Patrol officer George Granada. “They came onto the grounds and were met almost instantly with a group of protesters there not to talk.” Authorities alleged that the “Antifa” organizers had prepared for weeks to meet the white supremacist rally with the express intention of shutting it down. One year later, former middle school teacher and “Antifa” organizer Yvette Felarca was arrested and charged with assault and inciting a riot in connection with her role in that event.
Considering the heat of a presidential election year and the relevance of this attack, coverage of this event was muted. Even at the time, this nightmare obviously portended more violence, but few Americans seemed to want to explore its relevance. Perhaps the spectacle was representative of a breakdown of the American social compact too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps it was too evocative of Weimar to contemplate. Maybe the moral complexities of the situation and the ambiguity of the heroes and villains involved rendered the story impossible to relate in a simple soundbite. Whatever the case, we didn’t reckon with what it meant.
There have been other, briefer and less violent confrontations between alt-right agitators and “Antifa,” to say nothing of the confrontations between both organizations and law enforcement, but none of them seared themselves into the national consciousness like the events in Virginia. All the while, a culture of romanticized political violence was taking root in the psyches of America’s political activists.
For a year, the left has muddled through an intramural debate over whether it was noble to physically assault white supremacists (like the kind that was meted out against Richard Spencer earlier this year). For its part, the alt-right has evinced violence. “A man wielding a sword hunted and killed a black man in New York City,” National Review’s David French noted. “A member of an ‘alt-Reich Nation’ Facebook group killed another black man in Maryland. A man opened fire on two immigrants at a bar in Kansas, killing one. A white supremacist in Portland murdered two men on a train who intervened when he harassed a Muslim and her black friend.” In 2016, the violence committed by Trump supporters at his explicit behest was well covered, but the organized campaign of counter-violence—a campaign that long outlasted the president’s incitement—was not.
Donald Trump is a coward. He has repeatedly refused to cast out the most undeserving elements of his coalition, but his cowardice is not unique. America has slouched silently toward this moment of crisis, ignoring all the glaring warning signs along the way. Amid our cowardice, we are sleepwalking back into a terrible past. Absent steely conviction on all our parts, the worst is yet to come.
The nucleolus of Trump.
You can choose to have whatever opinion you have on the president’s statement today condemning white supremacists, but it’s hard to believe he would have read it out if he’d had his druthers. No, the real Donald Trump was the one we saw on Saturday when he decided to condemn violence “on many sides” in response to the deliberately provocative and intentionally violent neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia; when he decided to refer to the events as “sad” in tweets; when he wished “best regards” to those injured by the car that was deliberately smashed into them, killing 1 and injuring 20. When he acted in that way, he was operating according to his instinct. And his instinct said: Do not attack the white supremacists.
Why? The answer, I think, has everything to do with how he became president. Let me lay it out for you.
One of the mysteries of Trump’s rise in 2015 was just how meteoric it was. A week after he declared for president he came in second place in a Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire with 11 percent; 29 days after he came down the escalator, he was in the lead in the Suffolk poll nationally. He never surrendered that lead. How did Trump happen so fast?
The usual explanation is that he was just so famous and people didn’t realize how famous he was, how potent his brand would be. Sure. But that explanation is insufficient because Kim Kardashian is famous in a similar way and I doubt she would have led in a Democratic Party poll in 2015. The question is, whose early support for Trump itself played a key role in leading others to take him seriously and help propel him into the nomination?
The answer to this question is one Trump himself knows, I think. If there’s one thing politicians can feel in their marrow, even a non-pol pol like Trump, it’s who is in their base and what it is that binds the base to them. Only in this case, I’m not talking about a base as it’s commonly understood—the wellspring of a politician’s mass support. I’m talking about a nucleus—the very heart of a base, the root of the root of support. Trump found himself with 14 percent support in a month. Those early supporters had been primed to rally to him for a long time.
For years, under the radar and likely with the guidance of his political guru Roger Stone, Trump built a powerful and loyal following through what could be called—yes, I know this is going to sound condescending and elitist, but what can I say, I’m condescending and elitist—the proletarian media.
I’m talking about Alex Jones and Infowars, the conspiracy-theory radio-show/website on which Trump has appeared for years; the radio show has 2 million listeners a week, and Jones was said in 2011 to have a larger online presence than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. I’m talking about the WWE, which televises wrestling and which, in 2014, could claim a weekly audience of 15 million and on whose programs Trump intermittently served as a kind of Special Guest Villain in the manner of a villain on the 1960s Batman show. I’m talking about American Media, the company that owns the National Enquirer, the Star, the Sun, and the Weekly World News run by Trump’s close friend David Pecker; the combined weekly circulation of its publications is well in excess of 2 million. Trump helped make the birther issue a major one for a month in 2011 by talking about it on “Meet the Press” and “Good Morning America,” on network television. But he was surfacing an issue that had been roiling in the proletarian media, stirred and shaken constantly by his political guru, Roger Stone.
We’ve heard ad nauseam about Trump’s symbiotic relation to the New York City tabloids in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but in point of fact, that relationship declined sharply as his personal life began to calm down, as his proven ability to work the system began to shrink in importance, as Rudy Giuliani’s New York boomed, and new tabloid stars emerged (including Rudy himself).
So his relationship with the Post and the Daily News was replaced in time by a different relationship with a different kind of tabloid media—which is actually far rougher, far harder edged, considerably poorer, and overwhelmingly male. (It’s a mistake to think that the New York Post‘s audience is lumpen. There was a time when the Post outsold the New York Times in Manhattan. ) Trump’s goal was no longer to be the most talked-about person in New York City. It was something else, something larger.
Talk about flying under the radar. These media institutions have no cultural purchase whatsoever except for the contempt they breed. Nobody in the elites ever paid attention to them except to goggle at their ludicrousness as a passing Porsche on the way to the beach might goggle at a townie home with cars up on blocks in the front yard; or to express horror at the potential libelousness of the charges hurled in them. Such coverage would, in essence, wonder at the crudity of some Americans, and then move on.
By paying them heed, Trump was not only feeding his inexhaustible maw for attention. He was reaching a group of disaffected Americans entirely on the margins of American life, politically and culturally and organizationally. The dedicated prole-media audience, which might make up 5 or 6 percent of the electorate, is not enough to make a base. But it’s enough to make a nucleus. And what they knew is that he didn’t dismiss them. They knew he was listening to them. They knew he wanted to talk to them, wanted to hear from them.
They saw how he was jazzed by their conspiracy theories. He loathed Barack Obama as much as they did. He too thought Obama had been born in another country, that something untoward had happened to bury the fact, and that there had been a master plan to get this kid in Hawaii to the White House put in the works decades earlier. He liked them. So they liked him. A lot. And when he began his run for office by saying America was a dump and had left its best people behind by making bad deals with foreigners, they knew he was talking about what had been done to them, and they came to love him.
It was not this nucleus that showed up in Charlottesville. These were, instead, subatomic elements inside what we might call the nucleolus of Trump’s support, the tiny machine inside the atomic machine that forms the core of the Trump base. And that nucleolus is governed by rage, hatred, a sense of being wronged, and the loathing of others due to race and national origin. They are numerically insignificant to a man who secured 63 million votes in November 2016. But he—he, not I—seems to feel they are necessary to the constitution of his core. And he basically let them off with a mild warning.
Podcast: A ugly old adversary reemerges.
In the first COMMENTARY podcast of the week, I ask Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald whether we are seeing a rise in extremist political violence in the United States and what it portends. And then we talk about what it means for the president to have chosen not to take the layup of denouncing Nazis when he had the chance. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Heroes in obscurity.
Perhaps the best book I ever read was Natan Sharansky’s Fear No Evil, a memoir of his time in Soviet custody and an explanation of how he outwitted his KGB interrogators as they sought to break him. Almost every activist imagines that he is speaking truth to power, but to do so when power is overwhelming takes both courage and skill. But while the KGB sought totalitarian control, they could be subtle. That is one adjective that cannot be applied to the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
ISIS brought a reign of terror down upon the territory it controlled. And while many more residents welcomed and, indeed, collaborated with the group, others resisted. Some have written about the tremendous risks that local and often anonymous journalists took to transmit the reality of life under ISIS to the outside world.
Until now, little has been known about how those arrested and tortured by the Islamic State resisted their captors. A new International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism report, “The ISIS Prison System: Its Structure, Departmental Affiliations, Processes, Conditions, and Practices of Psychological and Physical Torture,” changes that.
Utilizing interviews with dozens of ISIS defectors, returnees, and former prisoners, it traces the process and mechanism by which various organizations within the Islamic State would arrest prisoners, process them, interrogate them, and seek to indoctrinate them. After all, while ISIS would execute many prisoners and use their murders to produce grizzly recruitment videos, many other detainees would serve sentences and be subject to re-education. Many sought to deceive their captors. In one instance, cited by the report:
One of the former detainees, a 28-year-old man, explained the way some detainees manipulated ISIS jailors:
We would pretend to be reading their books. We would act as though we are asking each other questions from the books. In the classes we would engage with the Shari [the sharia’s lecturer]. If they come [ISIS guards] and see that we are reading their book, they would spare us from their wrath.
The first course was reported to last for forty days.
Others coached fellow detainees on how to fool interrogators:
Upon the decision of interrogators, detainees would be presented in front of an ISIS sharia judge. This phase often preceded the conclusion of elaborate torture and marked the end of interrogation. Former detainees did not report being told about the end of their interrogation. Moreover, the guards only took them to the same interrogation room without telling them that they would now appear in front of an ISIS sharia judge. However, the accounts of one of the interviewees, 54-year-old man, indicate that detainees became aware of signs of this change and how to respond appropriately to avoid further negative repercussions:
The brothers [fellow detainees] taught us how to deal with them [ISIS captors]. First rule: never confess to the interrogator. If you are seated on the floor, that means you are still being interrogated. Second rule: never incriminate yourself in front of the judge. If you know you did something, you should avoid mentioning anybody with any knowledge about it. You ought to bring the names of those without any knowledge of any breach of sharia law for example; those from ISIS or those who sympathize with them. Those names should be part of your story, the thing they arrested you for, but not aware of anything you did against ISIS. And you would know when you appear in front of the sharia judge. The treatment improves. He would ask whether you talked to your family. You would be seated on a chair. If you do well, you will still have to be detained for more, be you innocent or guilty. You would know if there is a punishment or not.
Once ISIS’ sharia judges make their decision, the detainees are taken back to the communal cell, except for those sentenced to execution.
And, in another, one poor father sought to outwit ISIS foreign fighters to protect his daughters:
Men were also targeted for arrest when an ISIS cadre was unsuccessful talking a father into giving his daughter for marriage or the ISIS cadre coveted the man’s wife. These instances usually ended in executions although there were exceptions as this defector told us:
So there was an old man he had two girls. One of the foreign fighters came and eventually offered him two million Syrian pounds and the old man was trying to stall him. Finally they arrested the old man and accused him of being a spy for the regime. So when they detained him as a spy it means he will be killed. So the old man gave in and said you can marry my daughter but we cannot have a wedding when I am detained. So they released him the next day. When he got out he pretended he was preparing for the wedding but he took his daughters and escaped to Turkey.
There is much, much more. The ICSVE report goes further than any published unclassified source (and likely many classified ones) to detail just how the ISIS punishment system worked. But, as Iraqis and Syrians emerge from the tyranny of the Islamic State, understanding how some resisted is crucial, if only to undermine globally other would-be totalitarian regimes.
Natan Sharansky is and was a hero for its resistance to Soviet tyranny. The tyranny of the Islamic State has produced other heroes not so well-known, but they are there. Autocrats and tyrants may believe they can stamp out dissent, but the tremendous courage and the individual desire for life and liberty will always triumph to erode such regimes from within, even as many other succumb to pressure or silence.