The claim that opposition to Netanyahu and Trump are linked to a struggle against Putin isn’t just false. It’s an illiberal campaign to silence opposition to liberal ideologues.
Unifying theories of history and politics that seek to link very different ideas and conflicts together into one neat package are similar to conspiracy theories; they make a complicated and confusing world easier to understand. They also provide comfort to those troubled by fearful or incomprehensible trends and ideas. Sometimes, though, they are simply rooted in lies.
Such theories do, however, tell us a lot about the people who are peddling them. And that’s why rather than dismiss the attempt of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to lump Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin together as a liberal nightmare version of the “axis of evil” it’s worth some attention, no matter how malevolent and foolish his crackpot view of the world might be.
Friedman’s rant, which was published in Haaretz rather than in his usual perch at the Times, is hard to take seriously. Sadly, it reflects the thinking of many on the left who long ago stopped being able to think clearly about political foes like Netanyahu and Trump. Either or both leaders may be reasonably opposed and even disliked. But lumping them together with a genuine villain like Putin is more than just a particularly nasty partisan smear—it’s an attempt to justify efforts in Israel and the United States not so much to oppose them as it is to upend the democratic system in both countries so as to ensure their defeat.
That this is being done in the name of democracy demonstrates not just the hypocrisy of those who have embraced the argument as it does a view of politics that has come to see opposition to liberal orthodoxies and establishments as inherently illegitimate.
Friedman’s crusade against the Netanyahu government has brought him more attention than he’s had in years. He’s spent the past three decades spewing whatever tired conventional wisdom the foreign-policy establishment such as blind faith in the Oslo Accords formula of “land for peace” to solve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the virtues of economic globalization and the erasure of borders (“the world is flat”) even as both ideas have proved disastrous. But now that pushback from populists who represent people who have been victimized by these pet ideas has created a conservative surge in some countries, he has seized on the idea that those who reject liberalism are not just wrong but authoritarians, and as such, downright evil.
He’s not alone in promoting this idea. The notion that there is a war on democracy being waged by Republicans in the United States—and Netanyahu and his allies in Israel—has become conventional wisdom among liberals in both countries.
In America, the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, gave some measure of credibility to that critique of Trump. However, the willingness of Democrats to use that disgraceful event as a way to discredit anyone who raised questions about the 2020 presidential election results as an “insurrectionist” means that no one on the right is listening to those arguments anymore. They also know that the conspiracy by Democrats, the corporate media and elements of the federal government to pursue the Russia collusion hoax against Trump was much closer to a coup attempt than a disorganized, if criminal, riot.
In Israel, the Netanyahu government’s attempts to restrain an out-of-control Supreme Court that has seized unlimited power for itself is now similarly represented as a “coup” or evidence of authoritarianism. The result is a political conflict that has little to do with constitutional principles and everything to do with a culture war between secular liberal Ashkenazi Jews and those who are Mizrachi, religious and nationalist.
But the framing of these conflicts is inherently dishonest. In the United States, it is the left that seeks to silence dissent on the Internet and to jail the leading Republican presidential candidate all the while claiming to be defending democracy. In Israel, those who claim to be fighting for democracy want a juristocracy in which secular elites can effectively veto the will of the majority of the voters.
A sober analysis of the political turmoil in both nations would reveal that the two situations are very different and shouldn’t be framed as having much to do with each other. Israel’s constitutional and security dilemmas are nothing like the issues facing America. Yet it is true that the political left in both countries have a similar view of themselves as inherently righteous and their opponents as essentially “deplorable.”
Others have tried to tie political trends in Eastern Europe as conservatives have won elections in countries like Poland and Hungary—and Italy in Western Europe—and similarly brand those governments as “authoritarian” in the same way as they do Trump and Netanyahu. Superficial comparisons of populist movements exist in various nations, and it is true that wherever one goes in the democratic world, there is a general disillusionment with the cost of globalist economics, as well as the impact of unrestricted and illegal immigration. Liberals in these countries are dismayed at their loss of popularity and the willingness of some conservative leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to speak of their governments as “illiberal” since they are dedicated to traditional religious values and opposing immigration. Whether or not one likes or agrees with Orbán or other leaders, they are democratically elected leaders who have the support of the majority of their citizens.
Linking them, or Trump or Netanyahu, to a genuine authoritarian like Putin is an outrageous smear. But the sense of panic that people like Friedman, or journalist and author Anne Applebaum—who is married to a defeated liberal Polish politician and was in Israel this week drumming up comparisons between the protests in Israel and the defeat of her husband’s faction in Warsaw—is disingenuous. Applebaum lamented that in Poland, street protests by liberals weren’t able to topple a democratically elected government.
What’s happened in Poland has little to do with events in Israel except in the sense that there, too, the political left believes that nothing should be allowed to interfere with their right to rule.
What connects these conflicts is that in Israel as well as the United States, the left’s revulsion for the right is more a matter of culture and class than policy disagreements. This is made plain in Friedman’s Haaretz piece in which he speaks of trying to convince American Jews that the people who vote for Netanyahu are not the sort of Jews they would want to associate with. That is certainly reflected in the comments of the members of the anti-Bibi resistance who leave no doubt about the fact that their main concern is in thwarting the ability of people who aren’t like them from governing, regardless of elections.
That’s bad enough, but by connecting Netanyahu, Trump and the people who vote for them with an alleged worldwide anti-democratic movement, he’s not just conflating the variants of liberal politics with democracy. He’s saying that it’s OK to do things that are antithetical to democracy—like using street protests or judicial fiats to overturn democratic elections or silencing or jailing political opponents—in order to preserve the power of the people that he claims are the good guys.
Friedman’s call for an international “democracy defense movement” is pitched as an appeal for decent people to defend liberal values throughout the world. But stripped of the flawed comparisons and the demonization of opponents, it amounts to an attempt to justify suspending or scrapping democracy so as to ensure that the “right people” rule.
The consequences of advocacy that is nothing more than a form of gaslighting in which we are told that anti-democratic actions are a defense of democracy should not be underestimated. It has sapped faith in national unity in both countries, as well as undermined support for Israel since (as Friedman also isn’t shy about pointing out) the efforts to falsely portray the Jewish state as an “apartheid state” are essentially allied to the effort to topple the Netanyahu government.
You don’t have to support Trump or Netanyahu to understand that the “pro-democracy” crusade Friedman is promoting is based on a big lie about the politics of both countries, in addition to the geopolitical struggles in Eastern Europe. The claim that there is an authoritarian movement that brings together Putin’s war in Ukraine with Republicans and Likudniks is the kind of conspiratorial myth that will poison our political culture beyond repair.
Nothing imperils democracy more than such blatantly deceptive language and arguments that wind up acting as consent for actions that are incompatible with freedom. If they prevail, we should indeed tremble for the future of democracy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.