Nothing Bridges The Divide On Trump
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Nothing Bridges The Divide On Trump

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate — and a columnist for National Review and the New York Post.

President Donald Trump gestures during a meeting in March with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Getty Images
President Donald Trump gestures during a meeting in March with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Getty Images

In the days before President Donald Trump astonished the world by playing the toady to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin to get him to agree to start nudging Iranian forces away from the Israeli border with Syria.

After their successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of dictator Bashar Assad, the Iranians and their Hezbollah auxiliaries are digging in, presenting Israel with the prospect of war on its northern front. Reportedly, Israel is prepared to acknowledge the victory of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies in exchange for Putin’s help in putting a lid on the Iranian threat.

If, as Trump seemed to indicate during his press conference with Putin, he weighed in on behalf of Netanyahu’s request, it’s likely most Israelis will regard the summit as a helpful postscript to a deal with Russia their prime minister had already brokered.

But that view carries little weight with most Americans, who regarded Trump’s willingness to treat Putin’s disavowal of meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections as having equal weight with the opinion of his own intelligence agencies as outrageous.

The political firestorm created by the Helsinki meeting reinvigorated the “resistance” to Trump, which is fueled by a belief in his lack of legitimacy as well as anger about his often-offensive style.

But anyone who thinks this is the turning point when Trump’s supporters — including his Jewish backers — will turn on him will be disappointed. Bridging the partisan divide in contemporary politics is impossible. And that’s doubly true for those who regard themselves as single-issue pro-Israel voters.

You don’t have to embrace conspiracy theories or throw around words like “treason” in order to think Trump’s embrace of Putin was appalling. Excuses involving comparisons to President Obama’s sometimes equally foolish stance toward Russia or the fact that the U.S. has meddled in other countries’ elections (including repeatedly in Israel) won’t wash.

But, as opinion polls soon revealed, the partisan divide on Helsinki is just as stark as it is on every other issue. Large majorities of Republicans approved of Trump’s behavior, while Democrats and independents disapproved by even larger margins. While GOP backing for Trump’s Helsinki debacle is lower than his near record favorability ratings from his party’s supporters, it is still a testament to the dominance of ideology and partisan affiliation in determining how Americans think.

Most people view everything through a partisan lens. They watch, listen and read different outlets and, thanks to social media, have isolated themselves from opposing views. Just as it isn’t likely that most liberals would be willing to have their assumptions challenged by a voice from the other side of the aisle, Trump’s supporters stopped listening to what their opponents said about the president a long time ago. I think that would be true even if the left hadn’t overplayed its hand by embracing extreme rhetoric, including grossly inappropriate Holocaust analogies and wild talk about fascism.

The left smells blood after Helsinki, with many thinking that somehow this will mean the bad Trump dream will go, even if that wish is almost certain to be disappointed.

But Trump has governed for the most part as a mainstream conservative. Republicans are grateful for his judicial nominations and economic policies. Jewish supporters are just as happy about his pro-Israel tilt, the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the pullout from the Iran nuclear deal. Few would give up these accomplishments even if it meant a president that didn’t kowtow to Putin. If Israel gets its way on Syria, that will be one more reason for Trump’s supporters to claim victory at Helsinki, no matter how the rest of the country feels about it.

In a saner political environment, this might be the moment for cooler heads to prevail and for both sides to begin reaching out to each other to find common ground. But instead just the opposite is happening, with our views about Israel being as much a source of division as anything else. If we are to fix this, it won’t happen by pounding each other into submission while repeating our contrasting views about Trump. It must start with re-learning the ability to listen to our opponents and heed their concerns. But anyone who expects that to happen anytime soon hasn’t been paying attention.

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