Trump's America: The View from the Arab World

Donald J. Trump, mocking a disabled reporter in a campaign rally. Trump later denied that.
Donald J. Trump, mocking a disabled reporter in a campaign rally. Trump later denied that.

The US has always enjoyed a unique position in the Arab collective imaginary. It is the country where racial tensions run rife, where the people’s irrational passion for guns often results in mass shootings, and where the successive administrations never fail to wage oil-driven wars on the Middle East.

However, there is also a bright side to America. Irrespective of the disasters of its foreign policy, the average Arab citizen continues to see America as the land of opportunity, freedom, and equality. It is the land where hard work is not only appreciated but also rewarded. It is the land where values have always served as the foundation for success. It is the land where women are valued and treated with respect.

On November 8th, 2016, all the perceptions – or shall I say misperceptions, of “American greatness”, “American values” and “American democracy” have been called into question. Undoubtedly, Trump’s election represents a seism in American politics. A seism which has sent economic and political shockwaves all across the world. On another level, the election result has had many around the globe thinking that “the leader of the free world” might not be much of a leader after all. Trump’s supporters never grew tired of telling the world that they admired the man because “he tells it like it is”, and because he rejects “politically correct” discourse. Although I believe no one can ever be as out of touch with common sense and decency standards as Mr. Trump has been, here is me trying to follow his lead and “tell it like it is”.

For observers in Arab countries, several aspects of the 2016 US presidential race have been especially poignant. It has been quite perplexing to see someone other than the candidate with the most votes be declared president.

With Hillary Clinton leading the popular vote with more than two million ballots, the premise that “every vote counts” has been rendered meaningless. For people in the MENA region, seeing this many voters stripped of their authority due to an archaic regulation, namely the electoral college, struck a chord. Indeed, the greatest majority of Arab countries fall within the scope of two types of regimes. Some are monarchies where rulers inherit the country and its people like one inherits furniture and where the historical presence of the dynasty is thought to serve as the ultimate indicator of legitimacy. Others are republics ruled by authoritarian presidents -some of them come from military backgrounds, who run the country with an iron fist and who resort to voter fraud and corruption with a view to perpetuating their power. Instances of the former regime consist of the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco while the latter would include, among others, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Algeria. In either case, and like the two million people who won Ms. Clinton the popular vote, citizens of these countries do not have a say in who governs or how. It must also be noted that being part of a long-established historical tradition is no sufficient indication of validity for neither the Arab regimes nor the American Electoral College.

Apart from the dichotomy between the popular vote and the Electoral College, the FBI constant involvement with the presidential race is an issue of great import. In my part of the world, government intelligence agencies have a considerable sway over politics and politicians, not to mention ordinary citizens.

They can resort to torture, defamation, blackmail and intimidation to keep both the regime allies and adversaries in check. Their influence on the Arab political scene cannot be overestimated. The come-back of the FBI director James Comey in a renewed effort to redirect the public opinion in America just eleven days prior to election day was highly reminiscent of how things work here.

Naturally, Comey’s move had him under fire from both sides of the aisle. The graveness of the FBI transgression arises not only from the damage it caused to the Clinton campaign, but also, and more importantly, from the agency’s readiness to put the whole democratic principle in jeopardy. Even Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, credited the FBI Director with changing the course of the election in favor of the Republican nominee. The fact that nothing has been done to hold FBI Director accountable for his actions suggests, I am afraid, that America is on a dangerous path.

Besides the FBI service to the Trump campaign, Donald Trump’s business empire is believed to be one of the reasons behind his election “win”. The Media coverage of Trump’s rallies revealed that his supporters believe in the man’s ability to fix the economy. How anyone in the right frame of mind would think a real estate mogul living in a golden tower ― literally, is capable of identifying with their struggles as a middle or working-class person totally evades me.

If you add to that the fact that he allegedly never paid hundreds of the people who worked for him, these expectations would be even harder to fathom.

However, what is deeply troubling about a billionaire with a history of tax evasion and low moral standards in the highest power position is the imminent risk of corruption and abuse. People in the Arab World have learnt the hard way what a concentration of power and wealth can inflict on a nation at the social, political, and economic levels. Increasing voices in America itself have been warning of the looming conflicts of interest associated with a Trump presidency.

For those cognizant of the realities of the Arab World, Trump’s insistence to keep his business-active children in the hallways of his administration has a sense of déjà vu to it. One of the major faults with Middle Eastern and North African countries is the treatment of the ruler’s family and closest circle as an extension to the ruler himself. They are all entitled to unlimited political authority and major economic sway. It took Arab citizens decades of disenfranchisement and struggle to eventually realize that something had to be done. Thanks to the rising levels of education, awareness as well as disappointment amongst Arab youth, thousands of people engage in daily battles to dissolve the pernicious union between power and wealth.

As of last week, the White House welcomed the man who called on his supporters to punch protesters in the face. The man who launched blistering attacks on journalists and media outlets as only the most ruthless dictators can. The man who threatened that the American media would face a dark age if he is elected president. The man who claimed that “he alone can fix it” displaying a startling propensity for self-aggrandizement. The man who not only celebrated ignorance but also benefited from it both as a political and a business figure. Ignorance is a trait that all the flawed communities on earth share. In the Arab World, for instance, ignorance has long been the major hindrance to democratization and freedom. However, never could I imagine that the country with the world’s best universities would end up facing a threat of this scale because of misled and misinformed masses.

As a Muslim woman living in a Muslim-majority country, I have always believed that Islamic and Western societies share a whole slew of values. The most beautiful values, I believe, are human, not culture-specific. Like most Muslims, I never regarded Islam and democracy as incompatible or mutually exclusive. I never believed that America hates “us” or that, as Mr. Trump urges us to believe, Islam hates “them”. Obviously, there are some people in my part of the world who share Mr. Trump’s position. They also agree with his view that “putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing” and that Islam and America are natural enemies. A major difference between our societies is whereas people who espouse such opinions in the Arab World are rejected as extremists, America has “elected” a hate-preacher to the oval office. My message to the America that voted for Trump would be: Welcome to the club! You have proved that even the most powerful democracies could be easily broken. And to the America that has been alarmed and revolted by the rise of Trump, I feel your pain and share your concerns. A wise man, Albert Camus, once said: “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed, but in every case it is someone else’s blood.” I hope you’ve got the mechanisms in place to prevent things from getting that ugly.