Campaign 2016 Has the Worst of Middle Eastern Politics
Politics in the land of the free has started cribbing from a region full of dictators, demagogues, and dynasties.
I had never covered a U.S. presidential election until I was assigned to follow the 2016 race. I was born and raised in Beirut; I covered the Middle East for half my career and American foreign policy for the second half. What a daunting job to cover the campaign, I thought. My frame of reference for politics is the Arab world, where politics are often tribal, elections are a rare occurrence, and candidates give no details about their platforms. Would I understand the math of caucusing in Iowa and the intricacies of delegate rules?
I shouldn’t have worried. In fact, I’ve been feeling right at home in this campaign. It may be because I’m hearing a faint echo of the Middle East in this vibrant democracy: From the displays of demagoguery, television shouting matches, invocations of God’s greatness, to the disaffected working class who feel they have no control over their fate, here are the ways that this American election cycle reminds me of the politics in the dysfunctional region from which I hail.
“My people love me” syndrome: Demagoguery tops the list, for obvious reasons. We have a long and rich tradition of this in the Middle East, starting with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who commanded the attention of huge crowds of people who saw in him a savior as he promised them a brighter future that never quite materialized.
The similarities are many when it comes to Donald Trump, from his quoting Mussolini to asking supporters to raise their right hand and pledge they will vote for him. But for my money, this is the scariest Trump quote: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue [in New York City] and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” This is the kind of blind obedience that Arab dictators expect from their people — the kind of obedience that is brought on by a lack of education and critical thinking.
In the words of one of the best satirical Arab writers on Twitter, Libyan artist and writer Hend Amry: “If you’re an American confusedly watching the darkest forces of your nation rally behind a demagogue, maybe you can understand the Middle East now.”
Political dynasties: For a while last year, it looked as if the U.S. presidential campaign would be fought between two well-established political families: the Clintons and the Bushes. Decades of political power, wealth, and massive networks of donors and operatives seemed to be coming together to maintain their influence. Friends back home told me: They’re just like us — power stays in the family!
Forget about caucuses and delegates, this was a much more familiar pattern for watchers of American politics in the Arab world. The key difference, of course, is that in the United States, you are subjected to endless questions about your policies rather than your pedigree, and you have to win fair and square. There is no referendum that will register a 99.9 percent “vote” in favor of a father passing power to his son.
And now, as E.J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post, one dynasty has survived while the other has been “routed,” all of it within a democratic process. No lives were lost, though I’m sure Jeb Bush has lost a lot of sleep.
God is great: When Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, he declared, “To God, be the glory.” That sounds a lot like English for Allahu Akbar, an invocation that Westerners equate with the rallying cry of jihadist militants.
But aside from being central to the call to prayer, it is a regular incantation in moments of hope or joy. In the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011, fearful Syrian civilians who marveled in disbelief at the crowds of protesters thronging the streets of their cities, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” before they gathered their courage and joined their compatriots. Today, every time a child is pulled from under the rubble of a building leveled by shelling in a Syrian village, rescuers scream “Allahu Akbar!”– in effect, they’re saying, “Praise the Lord.”
But Cruz takes it further, down the path of the religious fundamentalist parties we are used to in the Middle East. His wife, Heidi, declared that her husband’s faith-based campaign was showing America “the face of the God that we serve.” Cruz then said, “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third, and Republican fourth.”
Religion as your main identity? That’s a key reason why the Middle East is in trouble, fragmenting along sectarian lines.
Violent language: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” This was the joke that Sen. Lindsey Graham made at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s 72nd Congressional Dinner last month.
The audience laughed. About the idea of a murder.
Trump has made no secret of his dislike of journalists — and he’s also made a distasteful joke about whether he would kill them. “I hate some of these people. I hate ’em,” he told the crowd at a Michigan rally in December. “I would never kill them. I would never do that.” He then decided to reconsider, tilting his head with a smile as though he was debating the idea before eventually resolving he wouldn’t kill reporters.
This reminds me of the kind of creeping references to violence in everyday language that turns brutality into a banal act. In some countries in the Middle East or in Pakistan it is eventually used to justify the use of violence. This kind of language, used by leaders who appeal to their supporters’ passion and anger, fosters a permissive environment when it comes to violence. We saw the first signs of this trend after tensions between Trump supporters and opponents reached a boiling point in Chicago on Friday, forcing Trump to cancel a planned rally.
Then there was this tweet from The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel: “Trump advisor says if he comes to Cleveland (with) lead and establishment tries to deny him, his delegates ‘will burn the place down.’”
Gabriel told me the advisor was speaking about the specific scenario in which Trump had a majority of delegates, not just a plurality, and his comment was not made in anger but in a matter-of-fact way. But this is the type of zero-sum thinking that is popular in the Middle East: If I can’t have it, no one will. I can think of a few rulers in the Arab world who destroyed their country with this approach.
Journalists are the enemy: When Cruz was asked during one of the debates whether he was a problem solver when it comes to the national debt, he didn’t use the opportunity to address the issue at hand, but instead he berated the person who posed the question. The inquiry, he said, illustrated “why the American people don’t trust the media” — and then proceeded to ignore the question.
I’ve covered Democratic candidates only in this campaign and have felt welcome everywhere. But at Trump rallies, journalists have been booed, evicted, choked by the Secret Service, confined to pens, and escorted to the bathroom by security. The anti-media mood is whipped up by Trump himself, with his comments about journalists being “scum.”
There’s a long history behind why so many Americans have come to mistrust the media — but the misdirected anger feels very familiar. The Egyptian government often blames the media outlets it doesn’t control — especially the foreign media — of conspiring against the state. The government blames it indirectly for some of the ails of Egypt, which gives rise to popular anger.
In 2013, a colleague working there was assigned to cover a train derailment on the outskirts of Cairo in which 19 new army recruits had died. People directed their rage at the journalists, and the mob eventually drove out the TV crew that was there simply to report on a human tragedy.
Permission to scapegoat often comes from the top. Last month, Trump said that if he won, he would “open up our libel laws so when [news organizations] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Sound familiar? Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relies extensively on an old insult law, Article 299 of the penal code, to silence criticism. The government just seized Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, allegedly for disseminating “terrorist propaganda” — another widely used accusation to silence critics. Last year, Zaman’s editor in chief joined a campaign to warn against the dangers of Article 299.
Blame the empire: There aren’t that many vocal anti-imperialists in the United States, but we still have plenty in the Middle East. Bernie Sanders could fit right in. His critics say he seems to have stopped paying attention to international events in the 1980s. During the Cold War, he took a work trip to the Soviet Union, stood up to President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Latin America, and was hosted by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
During the Miami debate on Wednesday, Sanders was asked about his comments defending Fidel Castro’s social policies in a 1985 interview. He did not exactly walk back his support, instead using the question to castigate U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 1980s. These views were also popular among many Arab politicians, who embraced socialism, labor movements, and anti-imperialism.
But this anti-imperialist discourse seems to still frame Sanders’ views about international affairs. When pressed on foreign policy during a debate in February in Milwaukee, Sanders eventually launched into a tirade about the United States overthrowing governments in the 1950s and 1960s, including Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. For me, it was a familiar line: When I sat down for interviews with moderate and hard-line officials in Tehran last summer and asked about their reaction to the nuclear deal, they started by bringing up the 1953 coup against Mossadegh.
Sanders is not wrong: The CIA’s undercover activities in Latin America did wreak havoc, and the coup in Iran dramatically altered the course of the region’s history. But obsessing about the past — a favorite pastime in the Middle East — isn’t going to fix the future.
Testosterone-filled brawls: Back in January, Chris Christie tried to silence Marco Rubio during the Charleston, S.C., debate. “You already had your chance, Marco. You blew it,” the New Jersey governor said.
Then in February, Trump shushed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, raising one finger to his mouth and telling Bush, “Quiet.” The debate subsequently degenerated into a full-fledged shouting match.
I hadn’t been able to put my finger on why such exchanges, down to the “[unintelligible yelling]” captions on the TV screen, were giving me such a strong sense of déjà vu. Then I remembered this talk show debate on Lebanese television from a few years ago about the war in Syria. The participants yelled, called each other liars – and then the moderator totally lost control. One of the speakers tossed water in the face of his opponent, and they then tried to throw chairs at each other.
So there’s really only one thing missing on the U.S. presidential trail: candidates throwing things at one another on stage, live on national television. But I guess there’s still time until November…
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