AIPAC’s Ovation for Trump is Not at All Surprising

A reactionary base undermines a group’s attempt to rejoin the mainstream. Sound familiar? When it comes to Trump, AIPAC works straight from the GOP playbook.

03.22.16 5:39 PM ET

My friends at the AIPAC conference are shocked, shocked that so many fellow attendees gave Donald Trump an ovation last night.

Just like my Republican friends are shocked that so many fellow Republicans have voted for him.

Why the surprise, though? Is it at all surprising that a rightward-tilting, nationalistic, often-anti-Muslim pep rally of 18,000 people (many paid to be there by a handful of billionaires) would applaud a rightward-tilting, nationalistic, often-anti-Muslim leader of pep rallies?

The weirdest shock of all, though, came from AIPAC itself, whose leader apologized this morning for Trump’s having insulted President Obama. Choking back tears, AIPAC’s new president, Lillian Pinkus, said that “we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and President Obama … We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”

What was that sentiment? Weak sauce, compared with Trump’s other statements about Obama. All Trump said was, “With President Obama in his final year—yay! He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me. And you know it and you know it better than anybody.”

That’s hardly the worst thing Trump has said about the president. Remember that whole thing about him not being an American citizen, for example? Was it even an “ad hominem attack,” as the AIPAC apology charged? Hardly. 

Nor was it an unusual charge; one reason so many people applauded it was that it’s heard all the time in pro-Israel circles. Except usually, the president’s called “Barack Hussein Obama.” 

Notably, AIPAC did not apologize for, or comment on, the characteristic raft of untruths in Trump’s speech, including claims that Iran has violated the Iran Deal, and that Israel “has been trying to sit down at the negotiating table without preconditions for years” (actually, it has often set preconditions).

They didn’t apologize for Trump’s characteristic demagoguery, such as the boast that he had studied the Iran Deal “in great detail, I would say actually greater by far than anybody else;” or the outrageous claim that it took courage to be the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade—“it was a very dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel. Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk and I’m glad I did.”

Nor, of course, did they apologize for Trump’s past statements about Muslims, Mexicans, and others. 

So why the apology for some relatively anodyne statements about President Obama?

Because of AIPAC’s own attempt at rebranding. 

Remember, it’s only six months since the devastating loss AIPAC suffered in opposing the Iran Deal—an agreement enthusiastically supported by leading Israeli generals and spymasters, foreign policy analysts, and a majority of American Jews.  That foolish errand was surely the nadir of AIPAC’s influence in Washington, and its most baldly partisan effort ever. It may have pleased the billionaire-sponsored hacks at the Jewish Republican Coalition, but it alienated the broad base of supporters AIPAC once enjoyed.

Add that to Israeli Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented snub of President Obama and his speech to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, at their diplomacy-shattering invitation.

The show in Washington was meant to mend those fences. There were many Democrats in attendance, including many members of Congress who’d backed the Iran deal. Joe Biden gave a keynote address. Onward and upward—and back to how things were before the Iran fiasco.

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Then came Trump. Even the invitation had been controversial: a handful of progressive rabbis and Jewish leaders walked out for the speech, while others stayed and listened in silence. Some conservatives, who have found Trump insufficiently pro-Israel, have also objected. As have many ordinary American Jews, noting Trump’s popularity among racists and anti-Semites. 

But it’s not like AIPAC just invited Trump—they hosted all the remaining presidential candidates save Bernie Sanders, whose offer to speak via satellite was rejected. What were they supposed to do—ignore the Republican frontrunner?

So Trump gave his speech, and said exactly what everyone knew he would say. Out with the uninformed rhetoric of “neutrality” between Israel and Palestine, and out with the request that Israel repay some of its military aid. Up with bombast like “I speak to you today as a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel,” and the usual empty promises (move the embassy to Jerusalem … right). There was absolutely nothing unexpected in Trump’s remarks.

But then came all that applause. The absent/silent protesters were overwhelmed by raucous, ovation-giving crowds which cheered, laughed, and clapped at every money line.

That was not supposed to be the message. This was supposed to be the new AIPAC, with its wide range of progressive supporters (look, a female rabbi!) and newly rediscovered non-partisanship. Just like 2016’s Republican Party was supposed to be a new Republican Party, with less racism and xenophobia, and broader appeal to Latinos and blacks.

Oops. In fact, like the GOP, the new AIPAC is the same AIPAC, dominated by hard-rightists who are paying for Israel’s settlement project, debating whether the Jewish state really needs to remain a democracy, and supporting Israeli Jewish nationalists’ wave of anti-democratic laws, such as cracking down on NGOs and requiring loyalty oaths. 

Really, when you think about it, Trump has a lot in common with these nationalists—Bibi personally, but even more so Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and other parties in his coalition. Both aren’t crazy about Muslims, and don’t hesitate to race-bait if it’ll get them votes. Both encourage and/or tolerate racist thugs at their rallies (in Israel’s case, often at soccer matches). Both have openly contemplated the forced transfer of millions of people. And both like building walls.

To be sure, not everyone at AIPAC shares these views. But many do, and they were the ones applauding last night. They’re also the ones disproportionately writing the checks.  To be shocked at their presence rings as hollow as Republicans shocked by Trump’s supporters. What do you expect, when you goad, encourage, and depend upon a reactionary base, year after year after year? 

 Of course they applauded what Trump had to say.  You’ve encouraged them to do so for decades.