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Donald Trump, America’s First Middle Eastern President

To avoid our own failed ‘American Spring,’ learn the region’s lessons about effective opposition

Liel Leibovitz
February 24, 2017
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A woman shows off her middle fingers as she and others look on at the media during a campaign rally by President Donald Trump at the AeroMod International hangar at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Florida. President Trump is holding his rally as he continues to try to push his agenda through in Washington, DC.Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A woman shows off her middle fingers as she and others look on at the media during a campaign rally by President Donald Trump at the AeroMod International hangar at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Florida. President Trump is holding his rally as he continues to try to push his agenda through in Washington, DC.Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Americans are stupid.

To us growing up in Israel in the 1980s, the sentiment above was presented not as a proposition inviting empirical inquiry—are Americans stupid?—but as a blunt statement of fact that required little further confirmation: Americans were stupid just as the desert was hot or hummus delicious.

But stupid how? In what ways? Our vernacular offered plenty of clues. Talking about our guileless cousins from across the sea, we often addressed them as Amerikaki, or American shitheads, labeled them as freiers, or suckers, and, if the spirit moved us, confirmed that they were bokim, or dullards. Unlike Israelis, who were resourceful and daring and direct, Americans, we were taught, were plagued by politeness. They liked following rules, which meant they were frequently distracted by pomp and procedure whereas we, daughters and sons of a small and sly nation, focused intensely on coming out ahead. The American movies we watched, the American jeans we craved, the American cars we considered the height of luxury—those, like all magical objects, were somehow simultaneously potent and ridiculous, attractive precisely because they seemed so free of real sophistication. Sophisticated people knew that life was a never-ending conflict; Americans saw it as something like The Goonies, a rollicking adventure that more-or-less guaranteed the good guys win if only they stuck together, played fair, and were nice. Can you believe these morons?

I could. The very first time I visited America, I fell madly in love with it. I was 6, maybe 7, and I liked the big stores and the tall buildings and the way everyone walked quickly and with a sense of purpose. But most of all I liked the things I was brought up to disdain, from the way people stood in line at the movie theater, none pushing or jockeying ahead, to the way people smiled at you when they caught your eye in the street, and peppered their everyday interactions with “please” and “thank you” and “sorry.” It didn’t feel hypocritical or fake or phony; it felt soothing.

Years later, exhausted by the interminable one-upmanship of life in Israel, I picked up and moved to New York. I love so many things about my homeland, from the mist of holiness that descends every Friday afternoon to the way friends and family will fiercely rush to help you when you need them. But I must be an Amerikaki at heart, because I find no greater pleasure than trusting that my interactions, great and small, will be governed by norms that were carefully crafted to assure none of us revert to the vulgar logic of the schoolyard and attempt to throw one another to the ground for a fleeting moment’s amusement and a lick of temporary gain.

I’ve been thinking more about this lately, for reasons you can now probably guess. And the conclusion I’ve come to is one I never thought I’d say about this country.

Just as Bill Clinton was sometimes referred to as America’s first black commander in chief, Trump is our first openly and proudly Middle Eastern president: More than a mere enthusiast of gilded thrones and trophy wives, our elected leader sees the world as they do in Dimona and Doha and Damascus but not, traditionally, in Des Moines or Denver. He believes every exchange between two human beings must necessarily end with one being the winner and the other the loser. He has no patience for empathy. Sure, he bragged at one of his campaign rallies, Americans were working harder and earning less, but he was working hard himself and so didn’t really feel sorry for those underpaid suckers who’d come to see him speak. He likes to remind you, no matter what the question, that he’s good, better, best: Quiz him about his plans for Middle East peace, and he’ll state (incorrectly) once again, in case you’ve forgotten, that he’d won 306 electoral college votes. He has no patience for the decorum and the norms that generations of Americans, including many mighty occupants of the office he now holds, have gone to great lengths to preserve.

If you want to see what this way of looking at the world can do to a society, just look anywhere in the Middle East. On the one hand of almost every struggle in the region, you’ll find those whose only passion is power and only panacea its abuse; on the other, you’ll see those who set out to oppose the powerful but get it wrong by trying to beat the powerful at their own game. Look at Egypt, where the many who filed into Tahrir Square failed to realize that in democratic societies, to borrow Lee Smith’s wise distinction, “Crowd politics are generally hostile to electoral politics and procedural government, and often presage their destruction.” The result, memorably, was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, and his eventual dethroning by a military strongman. Or look at Israel, where the same self-righteous hordes moseyed over to the same Tel Aviv square for decades to deliver the same invectives against their more conservative brothers and sisters and more or less guarantee victory after victory for Bibi Netanyahu. In both nations, the leaders may be risible, but so is much of the frenzied opposition: Both are simply two sides of the same dark rug, the kind that sucks out all the light in the room and that no normal person would ever consider buying.

These are not just random and remote lessons in history. The folks fashioning themselves the Resistance to Donald Trump may be inspiring in their earnest commitment to civic action and their willingness to put their bodies on the line, but they ought to remember that the resistance is usually what you become when you’ve lost all faith in the democratic system, and that, with a few glaring exceptions, such an attitude is much more likely to end in disaster than in redemption—just ask the Palestinians, who’ve fashioned the term into the banner of their extraordinarily futile and ruinous campaign for political relevance. Instead of speaking of resistance, consider the alternatives, which are both more difficult and less thrilling. Consider rational discourse, for example, the kind that finds it unacceptable for a serious newspaper to print an editorial decrying anti-Semitism one week and the next give a platform to the representative of an organization that is one of the world’s chief purveyors of anti-Semitic bile. Consider championing sound policy, the kind that considers facts, not fears, and that aims not to make statements but to solve problems. Consider avoiding the usual sort of empty political piety that so attracts the artistic classes and instead focusing on creating works of art that challenge the very conditions that got us into this mess in the first place, first among them our mass-mediated intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy and our willingness to migrate so much of human life, from the way we meet each other to the news we choose to read, to the sinister platforms of social media that translate us into data and sell us for a buck. Consider showing the unbound kindness, in our personal lives and in our communities, that shows the bullies as who they are—cruel, frightened children, flexing every muscle but their hearts. Consider replying to any attempt at subverting our dusty old polite norms not by shouting back but simply by replying, dustily and politely, that we don’t take kindly to that kind of behavior here. Consider, in other words, making Americans Amerikakis again. Anything else would be truly stupid.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.