If Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hadn’t been photographed together in one room, you’d be seeing a rash of articles, posts and tweets arguing that they are actually the very same person. As it is, a current fashion in political commentary asserts that “Netanyahu is Israel’s Donald Trump”—as a recent headline in The Washington Post put it.
One elegant formula for making this claim is to open with a string of sentences that your readers instantly know are about Trump, along the lines of: “He’s under investigation. He has no respect for democracy. He stokes hatred. He has brought his underwhelming family into matters of state. He is driven entirely by his own ego.” Then say—surprise!—that you’re talking Netanyahu.
In another approach, pundits assert that Netanyahu is learning tricks from Trump, such as blaming duplicitous media for his troubles in general and for the criminal investigations against him in particular. The problem with this is that Netanyahu has been attacking the purportedly leftist media for a couple of decades. He could only have learned the tactic from Trump if he’d used time travel to leap from the ‘90s into the Trump era, then jumped back to apply what he learned.
But the temptation to equate the two men is obvious: The human mind likes categories. Put two objects into one category, and it seems that you understand both better.
In this case, though, merging Trump and Netanyahu leads to less understanding. It obscures the very different kinds of danger that they pose.
Yes, they are both egotistical men. But exaggerated self-regard is a necessary qualification for becoming leader of a nation. In our world, God does not appear to humble shepherds at a burning bush and force them to become leaders. In medieval monarchies, a self-effacing person might have inherited the throne. In a democracy, you have to want the job badly, which usually also means you are confident you can do it better than anyone else. Anyone with a realistic self-evaluation would doubt his or her ability to run a modern country. You have to be a little bit nuts to think you are up to it.
You also have to want power. You have to believe you’ll be able to sleep after making decisions that could cost people their money, jobs, or lives. You have to get a kick out of being the most talked about person in your country. I’ve met principled, admirable politicians who have decided not to seek the top spot because they were not this crazy.
That’s half the story. The other half is that politicians, including ones who wants to be national leaders, normally have ideas about what must be done with power. Franklin Roosevelt believed he had to lift America out of the Depression with whatever means government could provide. Ronald Reagan believed government had to be shrunk. Brutal as Reagan’s economics were, he regarded them as altruism.
Normally, too, a national leader knows that it’s necessary to work with other people to turn a philosophy into a policy.
Even a corrupt politician often has some political principles. He may believe, like Richard Nixon, that he’s entitled to enrich himself and keep power by foul means. But he still wants to do something with that power. Netanyahu’s predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, went to jail for corruption. But in the last years of his career, he passionately believed Israel needed to stop ruling the West Bank. As best as I can figure him out, a billion-dollar bribe wouldn’t have changed his mind.
Donald Trump is an extremely unusual politician. He has all the egotism but neither the principles nor the intelligence to constrain it. He leapt into politics after a lifetime seeking to increase his inherited wealth. He has no experience—and very obviously no talent—at working with other politicians.
Rather than a political philosophy, Trump has resentments. The man born three-quarters of the way from third base to home thinks he hasn’t gotten his due. He apparently ran for president to get the adulation and additional wealth he regards as coming to him. He focused his resentment on Muslims, Mexicans, people of color, and women like Hillary Clinton who don’t know their place, and swept up enough resentful voters for an Electoral College victory.
As much as I can figure the man out, though, if he were offered, say, a trillion dollars and a congressional declaration that he is God, he’d be willing in exchange to let half a million refugees into America by midnight.
Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, fits the standard model. He has spent most of his adult life in politics. He has wheeled, dealed, and maneuvered his way to the head of his party, the Likud.
He is also an ideologue. Rather than a real-estate fortune, he inherited a thought-out nationalist philosophy from his father, a historian. What’s remarkable about Netanyahu is how little his ideology and program have changed, how rigidly consistent he has been.
He is as committed now as he was 25 years ago to what’s known as the Whole Land of Israel, meaning permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank. The most that Palestinians can expect, as he sees it, is limited autonomy—the current situation with minor economic concessions if they are very nice. He does not believe that Israeli security can achieved through political or territorial concessions.
Others may see the lack of a two-state agreement with the Palestinians as a failure. Netanyahu regards it as an achievement.
He also enjoys power and wants to keep it. He is willing to use demagogy and stir hate. He treats opposition to his policies or to himself as perfidy. If there’s truth behind the allegations against him, he and his wife have exploited his position for personal pleasure. If rumors have any basis, he may be grooming his witless son to succeed him.
But as best I can figure him out, an offer to crown him king and guarantee his son the succession would not convince Netanyahu to give up the West Bank.
The danger that Netanyahu represents is inherent in his principles: They are antithetical to democracy, oppress Palestinians who live under Israeli rule in the occupied territories, and promise endless conflict.
The danger posed by Trump is quite different: He is a man devoid of principles except self-aggrandizement, a man lacking intelligence, driven by whim, yet capable of manipulating masses, and he is leader of the most powerful country on earth.
They are both awful. But they are very far from the same. And we cannot hope to resist what each is doing unless we keep a cold, clear understanding of the difference between them.