The Trumpified American Right and the Israeli Right
[On the March 31, 2023 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, the panelists discussed why Israelis have been taking to the streets. Here are remarks, lightly edited for clarity, from regular panelist Damon Linker and host Mona Charen.]
Mona Charen: Damon, there’s also the fact that Netanyahu himself is facing indictment and has a reason to kind of want to manipulate the judiciary for his own personal benefit—that has the effect of making people think that he has corrupt motives possibly and isn’t just concerned about the overweening power of the Supreme Court. . . .
Damon Linker: . . . There is a lot of room for reasonable reform of the Supreme Court in Israel. The problem is that the right-wing government of Netanyahu has proposed a rather extreme version of reform that would effectively give the majority in the Knesset the power to overrule verdicts of the court, which would enable Netanyahu’s own coalition to basically vacate his own trials, which sounds pretty corrupt . . . and that I think probably made this a failed effort from the get-go. I mean, these protests started immediately, and they only got worse as time went on. And now Netanyahu says that they’re just pausing. . .
It is remarkable how similar the arguments that the right makes about the Israeli Supreme Court are to the arguments that the kind of Trumpified Republican party makes about the administrative state. In both cases, you have a harder right coalition of forces in the society that wants to make more substantial changes to the country, at the level of both politics and culture. And it’s barely a majority, if not even quite a majority. And the current Israeli government has over 50 percent of the Knesset, but it actually won slightly less than 50 percent of the votes. And, of course, in our country, we had the Trump presidency, where he had all the powers of the presidency and yet lost the popular vote by 3 million. . . . So, you have a harder right in both countries that wants to undertake fairly big, sweeping reforms, and yet does not have the popular mandate to back that up—which then, of course, provokes all of those on the other side, all the more. . . .
In Israel, you have basically a fight between the establishment of Israel, that even though it’s often been—especially in the last couple of decades—a right-wing government in charge, it has tended to be still largely institutionally coherent with and consistent with the generally liberal democratic or labor/socialist tradition going back to the founding of the state. And now you have much harder right-wing forces rooted in the large Haredi population of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country, a faction of which come from Russia, which makes them also kind of ethnically distinct from much of the rest of the country. . . . And what you have is basically a tectonic shift, where the right-wing faction wants to actually change . . . the shape of the country’s political and cultural institutions to reflect themselves, which is understandable enough. However, they can’t accomplish this realistically if they still can’t even win a solid majority of the votes, because the other part of the country that has historically had much more of a say—and the Supreme Court reflects this—they can say, ‘Look, we’re half the country at least. And so, we don’t want to let you do that.’
You’re seeing versions of this kind of a fight in many of the countries that are dealing with a new, resurgent populist right—not only in Israel and the United States, but Brazil; Hungary, of course, with Orbán; Poland; the Czech Republic for a while; and India, of course. . . . In all of these places, you’re having the same thing, where a kind of generally liberal democratic establishment is being challenged by an insurgent right that wants to say, ‘We want to have more fundamental, kind of architectonic control over the shape of this society and political system than we’ve been given before.’ And yet, they tend not to have quite enough popular support to get it done. What happens when that happens?
Charen: Well, Damon, actually I do think that some of these countries that you mentioned already have experienced what happens when the extremists, in the name of the majority, sort of roll over the rights of minorities. We’ve seen that in Poland and in Hungary. They are both much less free countries than they were a decade ago.
Linker: And it often involves the courts. You had this same kind of pattern: A big thing about two or three years ago in Poland, where the ruling government reformed the country’s highest court in order to make it easier for the majority government currently in power to appoint justices—there wouldn’t be this kind of liberal check on their own power. And you see it here, but because the right already controls the courts as much as it does, thanks in part to Mitch McConnell, the anger is being directed more toward the administrative state . . . these career civil servants who we have to have the power to fire as soon as we come in and replace them with loyalists. . . . But I would say that the deeper problem is that they don’t have enough popular support to enact what they want. If they would win a huge landslide, they could get a lot more done. The problem is there’s a big opposition that doesn’t want to see the countries changed that way.