Why Studying Middle East Politics Helped This Expert Understand Trump's Appeal

Shadi Hamid's work on "illiberal democracy" helped him see the reasons behind Trump's rise.

Donald Trump’s election was a frightening event for many Muslim Americans ― and Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was no exception.

Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, found himself assuring anxious relatives at the Thanksgiving table that the idea of a Muslim registry remained “unlikely.”

“Even if it’s unlikely, we’ve entered into the realm where we have had to have that conversation,” Hamid told The Huffington Post in a Facebook Live interview on Tuesday.

But what may be more remarkable than Hamid’s understandable unease at the election of a president who demonized Muslims on the campaign trail is his frustration with those who are now writing off Trump voters as incorrigible racists.

“I’ve been very uncomfortable with this idea of seeing Trump voters as this kind of problematic, deplorable mass, because in my work, I study Islamist movements, so I study people that I disagree with, I study people that we as Americans are uncomfortable with,” Hamid said. “I think it’s very important to us, even if we don’t like something, if we feel that it’s a threat to us, that we still have to go out of our way to understand [it].”

Hamid’s research in the Middle East leads him to see parallels between Trump’s appeal and that of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

Although Islamists do not adhere to the same ideals as Trump voters, they often share a willingness to elect candidates with disdain for traditional liberal values like protections for minorities and individual rights, Hamid noted.

“When Trump was sort of rising, there was something about him that made sense to me, that I could almost relate to, because I have lived in the Middle East and studied movements from the Middle East that are illiberal in their orientation, meaning that they do not believe in the classic liberal tradition of non-negotiable rights and civil liberties,” he said.

Both Trumpism and its non-American counterparts succeed by offering a politics of meaning that allows its adherents to be part of a movement with existential urgency, Hamid posited. 

Trump cultivated that urgency by appealing to a combination of white identity, nostalgia and economic concerns, but it gained traction because in arousing those sentiments it made people feel like they were a part of something greater than themselves, Hamid maintained. 

“Our starting point as observers shouldn’t be, why did people vote for Trump? It should be, why did members of the so-called white working class ― why wouldn’t they vote for Trump? Because Trump offers them a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging, that their lives were exciting, that there was something to fight for again ― and that’s a very natural human impulse,” Hamid said.

The Democratic Party’s brand of non-racist, center-left technocracy simply does not have a similar hold on people, Hamid observed.

“Let’s be honest: The Democratic Party is kind of boring, which is fine because I don’t need excitement in my life, I have enough excitement in my life,” he said.

“But apparently it’s not good enough for many Americans who want something more,” Hamid concluded. “And that’s a very interesting debate within the Democratic Party now, which is, how do we sort of return to a fighting faith that can inspire people.”



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