In August 1983, a year after the Lebanon War ended not-as-planned, Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, retired from politics and, in effect, was not heard from again; many accounts described him as having sunk into a deep depression, which hardly abated until his death. The reasons for a collapse of this kind are never just political: Begin’s beloved wife Aliza had died; he was then put on a regimen of steroids to cope with a heart condition, which exacerbated his shattering grief. He had always been tortured by having left his family behind in Warsaw at the start of the war, by memories of the Gulag, by the bloody work of the Irgun underground in Palestine. He earned great sadness honestly.
But Begin also knew that he had created, or at least unleashed, a kind of monster, whose name was Ariel Sharon. The smug, bluff, bullying defense minister—who had started in the rival Labor movement, and moved right when Labor ministers refused to make him Chief-of-Staff—had grown to overshadow other, ambivalently liberal leaders in Begin’s Likud party: Ezer Weizman, Simcha Erlich, Dan Meridor. As Minister of Agriculture, after Begin came to power in 1977, Sharon had broken laws and raided budgets to build settlements, sniffing and squinting at liberal reporters and critics with monosyllabic attacks—they were delusional to trust Arabs, they were insufficiently tough, or Zionist, or both—while Begin and veteran Likud leaders looked the other way.
Sharon reveled in his nickname, ha’dakhpor, or “bulldozer,” who cared little for the bureaucratic legalisms to be plowed aside. As a commander, he often disobeyed orders, not always with triumphal consequences, but almost always with bloodier than expected ones. Once Defense Minister, after 1981, he set out to conquer Southern Lebanon in a lightening war, secretly cutting a deal against insurgent Palestinian camps with Lebanon’s Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel—who would notionally take power in a coup. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers (and thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians) paid with their lives; the Palestinian problem remained. After the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, Begin justifiably feared he himself go down in history, not as a peacemaker, but a war criminal. He told intimates grimly that he, of all people, had been conned by Sharon’s martial confidence.
I thought of Begin’s fatal depression reading the cascade of stories about the “Republican establishment” in a panic over the emergence of Donald Trump. Readers of the New York Times are waking up with the sinking feeling readers of Haaretz have been living with for more than a generation. The political contexts are different, and Sharon postured as a different kind of culture hero: the outsized general in a country of soldiers, in contrast with the outsized mogul in a country of strivers. But what’s so parallel is the willingness of Republican party leaders to risk exacerbating a mounting crisis for ideological or merely electoral gain, as if the worst crisis of all isn’t the debasement of democratic norms themselves; to block progress toward solutions with reckless indifference to the commonwealth (say, the debt ceiling obstruction), attack President Obama with hyperbole, deceit, and shameless manners (“You lie!”), foment tribalist fear (the Benghazi circus), promote candidates with nothing but dogmatic stupidity and teleprompter ad hominems (take your pick)—do all these things—and then be distressed by their embodiment.
The Israeli crisis was occupation: Palestinian grievances and enmity, which the emerging rightist and national-orthodox camp under Begin, exacerbated with a settlement project meant to realize permanent control over “Judea and Samaria.” Begin could not have welcomed the ensuing violence, beginning with the 1973 war. It is inarguable, though, that blocking all initiatives, beginning with overtures from King Hussein in 1968, worked to the advantage of his camp. There was no majority for outright annexation on ideological grounds; but the occupation could be presented as an almost metaphysical test of strength against relentlessly hostile enemies, which resonated with the pathos with which Begin abridged Jewish history. Begin’s Likud became both the “party of security” and an instigator of growing threat. For politics, the perfect crime.
America also faces a security crisis, but it is economic, not military. I mean (as I wrote here last time) the radical reduction of unskilled labor in Western manufacturing, owing to technological changes that would have seemed magical in the eighties. This was predictable; many of us close to developments in the business world warned that inequality between haves and have-nots would soon map pretty directly to inequality between knows and know-nots. What once seemed a crisis of cyclical unemployment has become a crisis of chronic unemployability. Since the eighties, salaried American have been reeling, from low wages, the runaway costs of education for their children, and financial bubbles from which financial manipulators profit.
Much like Begin’s Likud, however, Republican leaders have been finessing their country’s crisis, preempting any challenge to their free-market promised land, blocking obvious ways to mitigate the pain of a necessary generational transition. The private sector alone could never solve this problem. The government has to target public investment in infrastructure and higher education—to soak up unskilled labor, and lay the ground for a more advanced economy down the line. If Begin had frozen settlements, as he slyly seemed to promise he would at Camp David in 1978, would Palestinian terrorism from Lebanon have continued as it did? Imagine, correspondingly, that the Republican leadership had responded positively to administration pleas in 2011 to draw millions of people into the national equivalent of Boston’s Big Dig—a project once famous for its cost overruns, but which opened the Boston harbor and financial district, and stimulated tens of billions of new value. Would we have so much tolerance for anger at Hispanic immigrants, say, if the party of “Washington is broken” had not broken Washington?
The point is, demagogues become famous for their reckless authenticity, but they touch people where justified anxieties have taken hold. Sharon spoke “dugri,” “straight,” mocking yefai nefesh, the “pretty souls,” who cared about seeing both sides. By the mid-eighties, even after being forced out of the defense portfolio by a judicial commission, he had become a political fixture: tens of thousands danced horas singing, “Arik, King of Israel.” They didn’t care what he might do; they wanted to know he was on their side. Trump, of course, is also counting on the under-educated déclassés. They want to see him around, and the ruder the better; he’s got the fuck-you money they can only dream about. And they want someone on their side who doesn’t seem patronizing. By making sure nothing got done, and doing nothing insultingly, and with unlimited negative advertising, House Republicans built a constituency of new Republican voters cynical about everything from MIT to the IRS.
Ironically, strutters like Sharon and Trump are not themselves captives of the ideological cults that enable them. No men this fascinated with muscle can fail to see the state as a proxy for themselves—or see intimidation as strategy itself. Sharon said he’d use the state apparatus to force peace. He took down the Gaza settlements, unilaterally, with the intention of just taking what he wanted in Jerusalem and the West Bank. (Again, things did not work out as planned.) Trump says he’ll bring growth and deals, using the military and trade wars to bend foreign governments to his will. At the same time, he will now try to look, as his wife urges, more “presidential.” He has yet to make the sale, but, finally, he is not being underestimated.
More important, Sharonism did not disappear when pragmatism turned Sharon’s reputation less danceable. There are now a dozen little Sharons in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, talking tough against terror, channeling funds to settlements, repressing domestic opponents, and calling it Zionism. Republican leaders—Mitt Romney now springs to mind—may be appalled by Trump’s swagger and foulness, but they do still underestimate the crisis that’s brought him to the fore. Most, that is, still can’t imagine the government investing in job creation. Trump may fail. But so long as Republicans obstruct the urgent new work of government, there will be others.