The secretive political guru Arthur Finkelstein, who was famous for getting rightwing candidates into office by running negative campaigns, died over the weekend at 72. He helped propel the careers of many rightwing Israeli figures, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, out of evident personal devotion to Israel.
The Times obit linked to a candid and very-Machiavellian lecture Finkelstein gave in 2011 in Prague. In listening to it, I was most struck by Finkelstein’s bitterness about his own achievement:
I have a real problem, and the ethical part of this is exactly right. I said upstairs [beforehand] that I went into this as a kid to change the world, because I was an absolute ideologue. I would stand outside on soapboxes in Greenwich Village at 3 o’clock in the morning and argue with people about the nature of freedom. [chuckling] I was one of those. I still am, kinda. But I said, I wanted to change the world. And I said, I did; I made it worse. And it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But this is an ethical question. About where do you go?
Finkelstein was specifically concerned about Republicans: “I hate the Republican field [for the 2012 election].” Republican candidates were socially intolerant; and Finkelstein himself was gay. While he regarded President Obama as a “disaster for America, for the world,” he said, “in my view, these people are no better. We have a problem.” He cited his boyhood hero Barry Goldwater as a champion of freedom, both for markets and people’s personal lives, and expressed admiration for Ron Paul (who he said did not want his services).
His regrets may well have gone more broadly to his style of openly-cynical negative campaigning, on behalf of candidates with whom he disagreed on many issues. Finkelstein earned a reputation as a “merchant of venom.” And the Times described him as “a reclusive political Svengali who revolutionized campaign polling and financing.”
In the lecture, Finkelstein expresses many misgivings about his line of work.
“The most overwhelming fact of politics is what people do not know rather than what they do know,” he said; and “good” politicians must exploit that ignorance. “In politics, it’s what people perceive to be true that matters, not what is true.” This is a difficult concept to absorb for rational people, he says; but it’s the norm in politics.
Finkelstein then lays out his Machiavellian ethos of politics: that if a politician tells a few true things to people, he can then lie to them.
“A good politician will tell you a few things that are true before he tells you a few things that are not true. Because you will then believe all the things he has said, true and untrue.”
He added sarcastically:
“It’s fascinating. It’s a wonderful business.”
He said the politics of fear and racial intolerance works. Someone who has the 7-point plan to fix the pension system “is going to disappear.”
But the guy who says, I know what we have to do, Throw them out, get rid of those people. Pick a group. And it becomes scary, because it can happen so fast.
Finkelstein described Israel as a society “always in a state of war,” and said that’s why Israelis love the military.
In a time of war we like generals. You know, in Israel almost everybody who’s been successful, because they’re always in a state of war, needs to have a military background. So I did Ariel Sharon’s campaigns for example. The fact that he was a great war hero to the Israelis was a big plus. Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower– these are people who are seen as having a qualification that’s important.
Haaretz says that Finkelstein was the man who saved Netanyahu’s career, by running a fear-filled campaign in 1996 that got around Netanyahu’s negative reputation for having a role in inciting Yitzhak Rabin’s murder in 1995.
When the ads Finkelstein crafted for Netanyahu’s campaign first aired, most Israeli election strategists were incredulous. They were short, simplistic and monochrome – dark glass shattering, giving way to a blurry photograph of Peres and Arafat together.
Finkelstein spoke to the Cevro Institute in Prague in 2011. The audio is below.
The lecture is filled with prescient views. Finkelstein anticipated the rise of Donald Trump.
“Personality voting is very very important because it’s the one vote that overwhelms structure and issues. If I like you, I might vote for you even if I totally disagree with you and you’re not my party… I don’t know if anyone here is watching Donald Trump in the United States, but it’s mind boggling. It’s just pure personality. John Kennedy was personality. Not substance, not structure– personality.”
He said that economic suffering drives intolerance and revolution. The Arab uprising then unfolding was economic in origins, he said; because young people don’t have work; and he saw it as dark.
The kid who are on the streets of Cairo I submit weren’t there because of the desire for freedom, but rather because of the economic crisis, they do not have a job or the money to sustain themselves or have hope for a better future. Until and unless the economic crisis is solved, we’re going to see these movements…
There is a belief in the west that the end result of these movement will be to have more freedom in the world. I do not necessarily believe that to be true. I think all we’re going to see is stronger not weaker governments, and we are going to see a call for stronger not weaker personalities. We are going to look for men and sometimes women who are capable of bringing their strength to government…
Finkelstein anticipated the rise of “anti-Muslim…. ethnically-charged, angry parties,” forming coalitions with centrist and socialists in Europe.
“They’re all saying the same thing. You’re taking away our jobs…. Why we pick one group over another to hate, and why we single them out for the failures– The point is the economic crisis is severe, it is creating an energy source around which these movements take place…. The word is xenophobic… it’s super-nationalism.”
He reflected regretfully on the rise of social conservatism, which is the antithesis of libertarianism inside the Republican Party.
I don’t know where this is heading. But I do know that the growth of this group… these people, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, these people are growing and growing and growing in the United States. And they will continue to grow … They’re about anger.
Finkelstein said he could well understand why Hitler came to power, given the 35 percent unemployment rate in Germany in the 1930s.
He also described his successful campaigns on behalf of Republicans Al D’Amato and George Pataki in New York. His job was to turn off Democrats, because there were so many more Democrats in New York than Republicans that you cannot win as a Republican. “You can [win] if you can create a negative vote against the Democratic vote among Democrats. The Republicans are irrelevant.” Of D’Amato:
I never once put him on television to talk… He was completely irrelevant to the campaign. The campaigns were vicious and mean, we attacked the opponent over and over again, I never showed them Al D’Amato. If you saw Al D’Amato, you’d know why. But we never talked about it, it just was totally negative. If he was to run today, I wouldn’t even show his face, it would just be negative, negative, negative, because you can’t win otherwise.”
He also said that the taller candidate wins an American election 70 percent of the times, and that with the rise of television, Americans won’t vote for an “ugly” candidate — Lyndon Johnson being the last such victor.
Finally, there was this note, which touches on Donald Trump today:
If you become an overnight sensation, you will fall apart also overnight.