Many Democrats suspect that, given Trump’s performance thus far, his defeat in 2020 is inevitable, which is perhaps why the Democratic field is replete with challengers hoping to win the presidency. However, as Roger Cohen illustrates in his April 10 piece for the New York Times, victory over Trump is by no means a guarantee. Netanyahu’s success in Israel’s election for Prime Minister forewarns a 2020 Trump win, setting the dangerous precedent that the electorate will permit the erosion of democratic norms and the rise of populist demagoguery, symptoms of a collapsing civil society.
Netanyahu and Trump are incredibly similar: both have a base of nationalist and religious voters, strong economic prosperity on their record, and a strongman rhetoric that contains elements of racism and fear-mongering. This is what got Trump elected in 2016, and this is what got Netanyahu elected for a fifth time this year. It does not matter that there are investigations into Trump, just as it does not matter that indictment is looming over Netanyahu. If the Israeli Prime Minister could win once again, Cohen says, “It’s not that [a 2020 Trump victory] could happen. It will happen, absent some decisive factor to upend the logic of it.” Though Netanyahu is the savvier of the two by nature of his experience, Trump uses the same “politics of spectacle” (Cohen).
Trump challengers should be worried by the results of the Israeli election. Even a large scandal that rocked the Netanyahu administration did not affect his chances at reelection, and the split ballot drew more votes from Israel’s left-wing parties than from the right. Too many people running on the left could be a cause for concern, and a crowded primary ticket for Democrats may lead to Independents instead of a strong coalition from the left. The generational split in the Democratic Party, one that does not exist on the same scale for the Republican Party, is another cause for concern, with the old and new possibly splitting votes instead of sharing them.
The overall problem for democracy is difficult to define. In Schmitter and Karl’s article, “What Democracy is… and is Not,” they define modern political democracy as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.” Neither Israel nor the United States have broken this rule. Though some election rules in the United States have been threatened at the state level, elections as a whole are still intact, still free and fair.
Further, Dahl’s essential conditions favoring democracy, highlighted in On Democracy, still exist in both nations. Elected officials control the military and police, there is an overall democratic political culture, and there is no strong foreign power in control that is hostile to democracy. According to Dahl’s 1998 book then, democracy is still intact as a theoretical institution in both nations, and the practical application is functioning, for the most part, as necessary.
The reelection of Netanyahu reveals that the real threat to democracy is not in institutions, but in civil society. As Cohen states, “Israelis seem prepared to shrug.” There is a sense of apathy among the majority of the electorate, a willingness to let Netanyahu get away with more and more. His opponents are a polarized left that clash with his just-as-intensely polarized right electoral base.
The same is true of the United States. Trump shows the signs of populism that Howe describes in “Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation” as intemperate and unprincipled, a desire to disrupt the status quo – but not necessarily to establish a firm authoritarian rule. His short temper works among the portion of civil society that supports him because they, too, have short tempers. Civil society is crumbling because the polarization between left and right has led to hatred for one another. There is a disregard of facts; much like Barrera et al.’s understanding of voter mindsets regarding Marine Le Pen, having information does not necessarily change an opinion. The disgruntled voters of Hochschild’s Louisiana and Cramer’s Wisconsin find a voice in Trump, and their demographics are very similar to Netanyahu’s base. If he was successful, there is nothing to suggest that Trump will not be.
Frum was right in “America’s Slide Toward Autocracy” when he said, “we cannot blame democracy’s troubles in the United States or overseas on any one charismatic demagogue.” Though Trump and Netanyahu both rally populist support and foster undemocratic cultural shifts, they can be seen as symptoms of a sick civil society. If Democrat challengers to Trump do not learn this lesson, then a Trump victory is all but inevitable. Information short-cuts are formed, as seen in Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, through person-to-person contact. The words of one candidate for the White House are unlikely to have the same impact as a neighbor’s complaint. Whether or not this way of forming opinions of rational, it is how the American electorate works. Trump learned and used this, but he did not cause it. Netanyahu learned a similar lesson in Israel and also took advantage of it. Trump’s challengers must do the same and not underestimate the American voter.