“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” Donald Trump told the AIPAC conference Monday evening, before proceeding to do exactly that.
In his unique rhetorical way, Trump ticked off every box on the AIPAC agenda, and then some. He also ticked off a number of rabbis and other delegates who condemned and protested his presence at the event. Trump’s history of making statements that are sexist and racist, his sluggishness at disavowing the support of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners, his making fun of a disabled reporter and a litany of other offences convinced some AIPAC attendees that Trump should be either disinvited or boycotted.
They were wrong, because this was an opportunity for Trump to clarify or otherwise explain his behaviors. Of course, he didn’t, which was an opportunity missed. Trump came on – uncharacteristically – with a prepared text distributed in advance to media. What he read was a fulsome reversal of his statement just days earlier that he would be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump’s repeated invocation of the term “believe me” is almost a verbal tic and it belies a tendency to express the unbelievable.
“Nobody respects women more than I do,” Trump told CNN Monday night. If we were to believe him, women would be among the only people Trump seems to respect. When any individual criticizes him, Trump lashes out with the most juvenile, personal and insulting terms, not least repeatedly referring to his fellow Republicans Cruz and Rubio as “Lying Ted” and “Little Marco.”
Within days, Trump pivoted from “neutrality” to a no-holds-barred defence of Israel that would make Binyamin Netanyahu (whom Trump calls “Bibby”) blush. The response he received from the AIPAC crowd verged on enthusiastic. Yet his conversion to Zionism may reflect little more than some good advice, a comparatively competent speechwriter and the ability to unabashedly pander.
Trump promised to dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran and he trashed the United Nations. “When I’m president, believe me, I will veto any attempt by the UN to impose its will on the Jewish state,” he said.
He condemned the Palestinian incitement of children to hate Israel and Jews. “In Palestinian textbooks and mosques, you’ve got a culture of hatred that has been fomenting there for years,” he said.
He promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
In what amounted to his first significant expression of foreign policy, Trump waded in deep. He wants to reduce American commitments to NATO, specifically citing NATO’s obligation to defend Ukraine. What he doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about is that the United States and Britain made a deal with Ukraine – then the world’s third-largest nuclear power – to eliminate its arsenal in exchange for a promise of protection. Global reaction to Russian aggression betrayed that promise and Trump wants to rub salt in the wound.
This is an example of Trump’s lack of awareness on international affairs. Yet it is unlikely to hurt him with supporters, who forgive his every error and offence and who sometimes seem to idealize a world free of non-Americans.
On CNN after the speech, Trump was asked about the expressions of support he has received from neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners and antisemites. “I don’t want their support,” he said, adding: “I don’t need their support.”
Trump is indeed creaming his opponents in the primaries, and it may be a minor rhetorical thing, but would he take their support if he did need it?
Asked by Wolf Blitzer whether he would condemn violence by his supporters, Trump replied, “Of course I would, 100%, but … I have no control over the people.” Then he went on to note that “these people” have been disenfranchised – they lost their jobs and earn less money now than they did 12 years ago, as though this justified violence.
Had Trump’s AIPAC speech occurred in a vacuum – if he had just landed from the proverbial Mars and not for months been spouting hatred toward Muslims, Mexicans, women and anyone who opposes him – the speech might have deserved the applause it received.
Instead, his words were diametrically opposed to what he has said in the past and, even if they weren’t, they are coming from an individual who has done egregious harm to social relations and human decency in public discourse. Even if Trump said everything Jewish people and other friends of Israel wanted to hear, this would not detract from the other things he has said and the other people – including every Muslim in the world – he has deliberately and maliciously affronted.
“I’m going to be great for Israel,” Trump declared, and maybe he would be. But at what cost to the social fabric of his country and the place of the United States in the world?
“When I say something, I mean it, I mean it,” he crowed, despite his blatant reversals. “Believe me, believe me.”