Watch Trump and Netanyahu – New York Daily News

Democracies pride themselves on equality before the law, which distinguishes them from autocratic regimes where rulers reign supreme. The US judiciary seems to be moving towards prosecuting Donald Trump, which many would welcome as a necessary reaffirmation of this core value. But prosecuting populists can backfire and expose just how weak support for liberal democracy really is.

Americans wondering whether to pitch the book to Trump need look no further than the preview now available in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

There, as in the United States, the attorney general was forced to weigh equality before the law against the practical consequences of prosecuting a populist willing to agitate against the system. If Netanyahu were returned to power after elections scheduled for November, he would clearly be dragging Israel toward the authoritarian democracy on display in Turkey and Hungary, something Republicans also seem to aspire to in the United States.

Despite their different circumstances and scale, the United States and Israel share many characteristics.

For starters, both have legal systems that do not explicitly bar defendants from running for the highest office. And the two share a toxic political atmosphere in which equal parts of the electorate increasingly hate each other and racial issues add poison to the discourse.

In Israel as in America, the more educated classes are disproportionately behind what was once the “left,” but can now be more accurately described as conservative forces struggling to preserve the post-war order. These are the “elites” and their unelected “deep state”.

In both, as in democracies around the world, there is a deepening rage on the right: anger at progressive excesses, frustration with immigration and racial diversity, fear of terrorism, jobs being displaced to cheaper or technologically eliminated countries, income disparities, feeling that religion is not respected by overeducated snobs.

Disruptive leaders like Trump and Netanyahu can exploit such bitterness to build personality cults based on hatred of educated “elites”. Both have taken cynicism to such a level that it challenges the very idea that truth matters.

In both countries, many normally calm and somewhat exaggerated people worry that the return of either of the former leaders would be tantamount to the death of democracy.

Of course, everyone claims to fight for democracy. But the democracy that opponents of Trump and Netanyahu fear is liberal democracy, which controls the powers of the majority, guarantees principles such as freedom of expression and protects the minority (and minority groups). In liberal democracy, the majority is subject to enshrined liberal principles in a way that was not necessarily democratic – often via “constitutions” designed by the educated elites (“doers”) who thought they knew better than the masses.

Democracy on the populist right these days – from Trump and Netanyahu – has little patience for constraints on whoever wins elections. That’s why they all aim to win the election by any means (and tricks) imaginable.

And one of the reasons the populist right is so strong is that liberal democracy doesn’t actually have much support among the masses it aims to coerce. Ask people anywhere what democracy means and you’ll mostly hear “majority rule” and “free elections” — not lofty principles.

This is why Trump and Netanyahu care so little about “standards” (imposed by elites) and agitate against “unelected bureaucrats” (appointed to constrain them by elites). This includes the legal systems that tried the former Israeli leader and are currently investigating the ex-president.

Netanyahu is on trial on charges ranging from allegedly trading regulatory favors for positive coverage to receiving (and allegedly demanding) jewelry, clothes, champagne and cigars from favor-seeking billionaires – accusations that followed years of other scandals.

When the charges were announced in 2019, many believed that despite a loophole allowing him to continue as prime minister, Netanhau would lose support and walk out with a whimper. They ignored the weak support for liberal democracy.

Netanyahu responded with a furious campaign accusing the system of hating the right. He ran in a series of five inconclusive elections, which the Israeli electoral system essentially allows. The fourth finally ousted him a year ago, and how he is running again at the head of the opposition.

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Netanyahu’s shenanigans have harmed the right as a whole by prompting the departure of Israel’s version of Never Trumpers – right-wing politicians who can’t stand corruption. These “Never Netanyahus” managed to move a few percentage points of the electorate with them, but not much more. On the right, Netanyahu remains in control: his Likud allows his narrative of fact-challenged grievance because, as with Trump in America, the right-wing electorate wants it that way.

Were Netanyahu to return to power, there is every reason to believe he would weaken the judiciary with legislation allowing parliament to easily override the Supreme Court, limits on the powers of the prosecution, politicized appointments of judges and senior officials, the immunity of the Prime Minister, measures to muzzle the media and more. Netanyahu’s supporters would rejoice, because they don’t care about the principles of liberal democracy.

And the same is true in the United States, where Trump’s outrage — including the murderous invasion of the Capitol on January 6 — has not diminished his support among Republican voters. The recent FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago seems, on the contrary, to have achieved the opposite; the old law and order party is now at war with the FBI.

If Trump returned to power, he would be more constrained than Netanyahu by the US Constitution. But with a justice system as politicized as America’s, it also risks reinforcing autocracy, and the damage could be extensive. As in Israel, its supporters would welcome the weakening of liberal democracy.

Just as with Netanyahu, a plea bargain or pardon in exchange for retirement may be a reasonable workaround. Perhaps the anger on the right will begin to slowly dissipate.

But for now, we are plagued by an inconvenient truth: true democracy is not that popular. Dealing with this is the first job, the aftermath of Netanyahu and Trump.

Pear is managing partner of New York-based communications company Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East Editor and London-based Europe/Africa Editor of The Associated Press.