AIPAC, Trump, and the Land of Shadows
Washington, as the age of Obama ebbs, is a place filled with cold and shadow. The smooth stone surfaces of Federal buildings look cold on even the hottest days, while the newer steel and glass facades project aloofness. The shadows are everywhere and duel with one another for control of the ‘narrative’ and for retweets. AIPAC could have its annual meeting somewhere else. No, no it couldn’t.
Israel hate brings together Palestinians and far left Jews, communists and neo-Black Panthers, standing at the intersection of K and 10th streets. Inside the Washington Convention Center-and the Marriott Marquis-and now the Verizon Center — almost 19,000 AIPAC supporters express their love for Israel, surrounded by phalanxes of police and private security. The homeless shuffle around the surrounding streets, oblivious to the narratives, the protests, the fleeting drama.
It always rains or snows during AIPAC, which automatically puts the lovers and the haters in an adversarial environment. Everyone brings energy. AIPAC is a ceremony of reaffirmation, with rituals and tropes. The hate outside is more free form, the jagged rhymes, ever-present keffiyas, the general air of barely contained anarchy. Still, they look cold; at least the Neturei Karta types are bundled up, albeit in the manner of 18th century Polish nobility.
The age of Obama has, if nothing else, heightened the contradictions. This year’s AIPAC conference is the biggest ever, even as the organization suffered one of its most grievous policy failures ever over Iran. The protestors, in contrast, have had a great year; Ferguson to Palestine continues to trend and more college campuses have invited antisemitic speakers accusing Israel of harvesting organs. But then again, 21 states have adopted anti-BDS legislation, and every candidate expressed contempt for the cause. Who is winning and who is losing? Shadows overlap and blur, like narratives.
Of course, polls continue to show solid American support for Israel; stab crazy Palestinians don’t really help. And college trustees are growing alarmed that Jews, the most enthusiastic and reliable university boosters since 18th century Protestants, are expressing concern about antisemitism of campus. Having your kids accused of stealing organs will do that.
But inside the conference calm prevailed, the narrative of Israel the strong, Israel the innovative, Israel the charitable, prevailed. These are not hard to sell, referring as they do to a Middle East saturated in blood shed by ISIS and the Assad regime, by Iran, and by American allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Outside the narrative was simpler, monocausal, Israel as original sin, perdition, damnation. But the rain picked up and that narrative vanished, at least the crowd did, leaving the tracks of their tears on Twitter.
What is power anyway? Where does it come from? Is it being able to pull off a titanic show involving tens of thousands and costing millions, or is it that actually the Titanic, bound through the fog against an iceberg? Or is power the ability to motivate 10 or 50 or 200 people to stand in a cold rain and scream hate? Shadows duel, but for what? How do shadows become inscribed, and where? Narratives again, turned into memories.
Over it all was the shadow of Trump, like a comet, never foretold but suddenly scheduled to strike the earth. No love for him was to be found inside AIPAC, only dread and bemusement and contempt, as opposed to the sheer hatred outside. Trump the ironic unifier and the deliberate divider. The comet that crashed into all existing narratives.
But the day of Trump and the other candidates dawned sunny, as most false dawns do. Biden’s appearance the night before was well received, Joe the happy warrior, enormous shining teeth, carved, it seemed, out of a single walrus tusk, with the odds of him telling his Golda Meir story running at 100% plus. His condemnation of Abbas was as welcome as his admonition of settlement building was not.
No one mentioned Hillary in the lead up to her talk. Fatigue does that, really, why are we talking about this? Almost no one tweeted during the run up to her talk, the fatigue extending finally to the thumbs of otherwise compulsive tweeters.
But the standing ovations were genuine as, perhaps, were her digs at the Obama administration, the BDS movement, and on Palestinian incitement. How genuine her reversals, her wholehearted embrace? Only the haters were up in arms. Inside the embrace was genuine but it was an embrace of the past, of a shadow that is fading as the Democratic Party walks into the dark embrace of Occupy, BLM, and other ‘progressives’ including the rebranded Muslim Brotherhood. Funny, the idea of Bernie Sanders as the future of the party, but when he’s gone, replaced by a younger socialist, the conversion of the Democratic Party in the British Labor Party will be complete.
The cheering was loud for Hillary and her talk was animated, to the extent her animatronics allowed. But the 5 PM show was where the action was. The lines for Trump began before 3, stretching down the closed off stretch of F street by the Verizon Center and around the corner up 7th Street. The 20 or so protestors yelling “Palestine will be free” were penned up behind a barricade at the corner in front of the Metro entrance, surrounded by the police, and smothered by the line that snaked back and forth for 45 minutes. The protestors’ rhymes were broken up and carried off by the cold wind and the angles of the buildings, was it ‘apartheid state’ and ‘stop the hate’ that went together? Anyway, irony is not their strong suit.
The police were on foot, on mountain bikes, on scooters, motorcycles with sidecars, everything except horses and Segways. The Secret Service patrolled inside, chatty, for some reason, joking with the crowd as they passed casually through the metal detectors.
Inside it was a Washington Capitals championship game, the smell of popcorn floating upward as the crowd was pushed higher and higher into the bleachers. Attendees carried bags of popcorn, trays of nachos, and tall blue cans of Bud Light, perched on the same stupid cardboard trays that always threatened to collapse, as they gingerly climbed the steep steps towards the unassigned seats.
Only the stage and Jumbotron on which pictures of Ben Gurion and Truman and JFK and others shined over the odd circular revolving stage, shadows of epochs gone by, only to be suddenly replaced by kiss cams of the crowd itself, selfies for a self reflexive age, shadows of the future, destined to be the past in only a moment. Most of those on the screen had colorful lanyards-they weren’t in the cheap seats.
Prefacing Trump with presentations by Arab high tech entrepreneurs and Israeli doctors giving aid to refugees arriving in Greece was transparent trolling but not out of character for AIPAC. Good news always leads. So, too, with the stories directly from Israel. The good news for the mother whose stepson was blown up on a bus in Israel was that he lived. Now she’s an AIPAC lobbyist. He was there too, and the crowd rose to its feet when he was introduced. Everyone in front and behind him on the bus was dead. They couldn’t be at AIPAC.
John Kasich’s applause may have been the biggest of his career, Great White Hopes have that effect on people. His Natan Sharansky story was moving even with his mispronunciation of Sharansky’s first name — Nay-tan, who the hell is Nay-tan? Oh, I get it now. Close personal friends, no doubt. But his speech raised the crowd to its feet many times, preaching bipartisanship above all. Maybe that was what the crowd was cheering as much as Kasich himself, but he may be the last person in Washington who believes it. Good luck to him.
Paul Ryan’s speech was also bipartisan boilerplate, unremarkable but sincere in his groomed upper Midwestern way, tinged of course with the smarminess necessary to be speaker of the house and, well, Paul Ryan. He’ll be back another day with the same speech.
The Trump trolling was ratcheted up even further with a video about integrating autistic soldiers into the Israeli army. That family was there too. The kid waved both hands excitedly when they were introduced. It will be a high point of his life, a big autistic kid who, 20 years ago, would have spent his life weaving baskets and sitting out his life in his parent’s apartment as they looked on in perpetual sadness. Now he spends his days scouring satellite pictures for missile emplacements, or something likes that. He has self-esteem. Long may he live.
And then Trump took the stage, no, not as the final speaker, but unexpectedly, the penultimate one. Everyone looked around; where were the Reform rabbis who were going to get up and leave? How many were they supposed to be, a thousand? Two thousand? Nothing. There were awkward cheers and applause, the blobby shape of politeness, and suddenly it was clear that Trump was reading a prepared speech. He wasn’t winging it, free associating, but carefully reading pre-packaged points to a specific audience. No one knew how to react; Tweets snarked on the awkward and halting delivery. Ha, he’s not such a good reader, is he? But then he began to zero in, he relaxed, he paused, and mugged, and waved his finger, reading the room, ad libbing more and more.
High quality demagoguery is hard to find these days. Fascist and racist are thrown around too freely as epithets and have lost their meaning as definitions or categories. But seeing an experienced demagogue at work is a special experience; you don’t really know what you’re experiencing. You, the average well-educated, well-intentioned listener, sit there with your stubborn preconceptions, smug in your ability to filter fact from fancy, hyperbole from reality. But with a rising and falling cadence, the repetition of ‘believe me,’ the mugging, the finger waving, and -it must said- the recitation of actual facts about Iran, Palestinian incitement and terrorism, the crowd — you, even you- are sucked in.
Believe me, he said, over and over. Of course we don’t believe you, you don’t even believe you, do you? Or maybe, just maybe, he does believe himself. By sheer repetition, by understanding that crowds really do want to believe in something today, to hang on to something that is not a shadow, that has substance, resistance is worn down.
It didn’t really matter what he said, but the way he said it. He stayed close to his script and avoided disaster and sounded sort of sensible, on the Iran deal (it’s a bad deal), Palestinians terrorism and incitement, and more. Trump’s particular gift is to take a sensible observation and make it sound outrageous (illegal immigration, terrorism, whatever) and to fix it in your mind through excess. He’s right, but he’s wrong, but he’s right, also confuses matters by its nonlinear structure, as of course do his more whacky statements. So what if he walks everything back? But are we supposed to be outraged by that, or the original statement?
Does he really believe that NATO is useless, like the UN? Who knows? So what if he said the other day that he could be neutral between Israeli and Palestinians. Maybe this way he confuses friend and foe alike. Few took heed of his use of ‘Palestine,’ not Palestinian Authority. This is instantiation, the giving of substance to something, not perhaps to create a Palestinian state but to bury it. And there was nothing about closing the borders, or hating all Muslims, or building a wall, which Mexico would pay for. But there was Palestinian incitement, and the murdered American, Taylor Force, and the Iran deal. It’s a bad deal.
It was simultaneously masterful and preposterous. But the willful suspension of disbelief is intrinsic to the show. Why should American Jews be any different than the hundreds of audiences who have been willingly taken in? Why should they be so much smarter? Another stupid conceit that, when applied from the outside, is more than a little antisemitic. The essence of the con is knowing you’re being conned, subconsciously appreciating being conned, because it flatters you. Jews are no different. The essence of AIPAC is first being flattered by politicians, then attempting to hold them to their promises with lobbying and political pressure.
But Trump confounds this; he is only of the moment. How do you put pressure on a shadow whose shape changes from hour to hour? But is he so different than Hillary, who said more or less the same things as he did, minus the embassy moving and the rhetorical flourishes and the orange face? The most frightening thing to pundits was that Trump could be under control, that he could calibrate, that he sounded almost sane and plausible, that he could connect even with this audience. They’ve seen the Keyzer Soze trick a million times — “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist” — but it still scares them, because the keep getting fooled. But that says more about them than Trump. Maybe they’re scared because he’s not different in category than Hillary, only in degree.
Only two lines — “[Obama] may be the worst thing that ever happened to Israel, and you know it” and “Yay! Obama is leaving” — showed a real spark of subversion, and, of course, Trump’s secret access to the collective id. Of course it was applauded. Because he was right. Of course, the next day, AIPAC issued a condemnation, saying that it really, really respected our president, and that some people’s feelings were really, really hurt. Because they do, they were.
The specter of a Trump blowup hung over the entire affair; damage control is a well-rehearsed dance routine, hardly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, more of an improvised throwdown. Everyone expected worse. Of course, The Affair of Trump at AIPAC will be turned into the Worst Insult Ever By a Racist Who Shouldn’t Have Been Invited That Tarnishes AIPAC and the Entire Jewish Community. But the damage done? Only in the eyes of those who obsess over every word uttered by, for, in front of, in the context of, in the general vicinity or penumbra, of Jews. That is to say, first and foremost by official Jews, and antisemites, followed by Jews who Fret, then by those Who Care, and finally everyone else. Trump, the uniter.
As for the protests, the promised walkouts, these were shadows, camera phones theatrics invisible to spectators, much less official feeds. So much for strident statements from movements and magazines alike, puffed up talk from righteous moralizers taking a Bold Stand against Racism. Of course, the focus will not be on them but on AIPAC -oh my God, did you hear the applause? AIPAC fell for Trump, AIPAC supports Trump, American Jews are racists and fascists because they laughed at his jokes. Of course, it’s never about the moralizers, it’s just about the Jews. All of them. Which is to say, it’s really about the feelings of moralizers, the League of Indignant Jews and their self-image as The Kind and Caring Jews ™.
People cheered, loudly and repeatedly, when they were told things they wanted to hear. The shame of responding to a con man is hardly greater than the thunderous applause that had earlier greeted a felon, guilty of numerous violations of the Espionage Act and lying before of Congress (remember, her bathroom server -is- the smoking gun). No shame there? Go read 18 U.S. Code § 793 — Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.
Are those in attendance likely to remember the protests, or what Trump actually said, or what he unsaid, or the AIPAC president’s scolding, but what was very nearly a genuine emotion from Trump, about his daughter’s forthcoming “beautiful Jewish baby?” Mother and forthcoming child should only be healthy.
Cruz had the toughest slot. Poor Cruz. How can you follow up a guy like Trump, mugging for the camera like a bright orange Oompa Loompa, fully self aware but lacking any self awareness, who intones ‘believe me’ again and again, who confuses reality and imagination but who still makes you smile, if only with incredulity, despite yourself.
Cruz was following Shecky Greene with a head full of coke, trying to talk about policies, not emotional responses. The crowd applauded but it was even and controlled, somehow unspontaneous and deadening in a way that only Cruz has mastered. Even his thoughtful sermon on the meaning of Purim was flat by comparison with Trump’s Purim spiel.
Politics is a contest between reason and emotion. But reason is a matter of context as well as style. Promising to shoot down Iranian missile tests pushes the limits of reason. Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem on the first day, tearing up the Iran treaty on the first day, all of this makes for a long first day. Fortunately January 20th, 2017 has nine hours and 53 minutes of daylight. But Cruz finishing up with the shout of Am Yisrael Chai was sudden and masterful. There was a burst of applause, like the Capitals had scored a goal in sudden death overtime. And then, amidst the empty popcorn bags, it was over. Washington was getting dark and the bars of Chinatown beckoned.
We are an age of shadows; 25 years of Clinton, Bush and Obama have reduced our politics to shadows, epithets and insults, a world with the depth and speed of a Tweet. Bibi Skyped into AIPAC the next morning, an electric shadow. He’s ready for negotiations, terrorism is bad anywhere, Israel is strong. Why should he take chances?
The Amtraks of the Northeast Corridor were full that day as the assembled returned to their normal lives. Two dozen — no, now three dozen — people were destroyed by Muslim terrorists in Brussels that morning, a fact that touched most of us only via Tweets. New York City teemed with security while Washington continued with few signs of concern. The media turned to Trump for his views, as AIPAC receded into the rear view mirror, celebrating their trillionth hours of Trump coverage.
They are the sorcerer’s apprentices who created Trump. Now they must obey, feeding the addiction, theirs and ours. Let them hate themselves. But is the media’s message in covering Trump really something deeply hidden in plain sight, that he might be right, about borders and immigrants and Muslims? No matter, everything he says is reversible, ephemeral, contextual, a shadow. The media is part of the con. Maybe they realize it. Or not.
Anyway, Obama was in Cuba, toasting Raul or playing golf — no, watching baseball, sorry — something deeply serious, untroubled as always, well, maybe a little disappointed in us. At least it was going to be sunny, but at 6:30 AM the homeless were still asleep under their tarps on the broad windowsills of the Federal government.
The homeless are the real Washington, along with the Federal employees in sneakers and brogues and pumps, shuffling through the cold, and the cops, and the caterers, who will disperse like echoes in the grand halls of the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, where hours before candidates and clerisy appeared, and in the plaza across the street where protestors threatened to string up AIPAC members from the lampposts. The sooner this age is over, the better, but what comes after shadows except darkness?
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.