What Does Donald Trump’s Rise in US Politics Mean for the Middle East?

From the Middle East Policy Council comes this exploration of opinions of the effects of a potential Trump presidency on the Middle East. How realistic are his proposed policies?

U.S. presidential elections have consequences beyond the borders of the United States of America, making the campaign season a focus for observers and commentators abroad. In the Middle East there is a heightened interest in the outcome, as many fret about the foreign policy of a hypothetical President Trump. Such an outcome, in light of Trump’s dominance in the Republican primaries, is met mostly with dread. Mr. Trump’s inflammatory statements about Islam have drawn special attention, with the brash politician promising to ban Muslims from entering the United States and declaring that “Islam hates us.” Meanwhile, other commentators wonder what Trump means for U.S. democracy and soft power.

In an op-ed for the Tehran Times, Yuram Abdullah Weiler suggests that US politics have been infected by a “malignant virus,” but argues that Trump might still find it difficult to offer a different vision once in office: “Strangely enough, Trump, sounded more like a rational realist than a flamboyant fascist on international relations at the Republican debate in Detroit, Michigan on March 3….Trump would still have to spend a few trillion dollars to build the huge, invincible military he vainly envisions, and, aside from absorbing projected savings, such a military build-up would not be conducive to better interstate relations….In 1980, the late Bertram Gross…a former professor of political science and adviser to presidents Roosevelt and Truman, warned of ‘friendly fascism,’ and it would appear that this appealing but malignant strain has already infected America. So if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, it should come as no surprise. After all, how much would his victory really change?”

Ramzy Baroud, writing for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, notes that Trump’s extreme views are only a reflection of an electorate that has apparently shifted further and further to the right: “Regardless of the outcome of the American presidential primaries, or even the result of the general elections next November, a frightening phenomenon is under way. The U.S. has decidedly moved to the Right, in fact the Ultra-Right; class differences are more pronounced than ever before, thanks to decades of neoliberal policies, the kind of capitalism that has concentrated the wealth in even fewer hands; racism is on the rise and the unmistakable signs of fascism are evident whenever Donald Trump holds a campaign rally….The sad reality is that there is little political consciousness that currently defines the attitudes of most Americans outside limited racial, class and tribal-like political ideologies.”

Many are aware of efforts that are underway to prevent a Trump victory, but Jordan Times’ Rami Khour warns that U.S. democracy risks losing credibility should Trump be prevented by the Republican “establishment” from becoming the GOP flag bearer: “The political establishment of this reputedly greatest democracy in the world, meanwhile, works overtime to find a way to undermine the greatest democratic principle — the consent of the governed — by finding a way to disregard and override the expressed will of the citizens as revealed in their voting in the primaries…. In this way, the United States is acting like most other autocracies or oligarchies in the world, by saying it accepts the results of a democratic process, but only if the results match the wishes of those who control the system, rather than reflecting the will of the citizenry….the world will mostly laugh when the conversation turns to how the United States wants to promote its style of democracy around the world, because the democratic practices taking place these days in the US generate no respect at all.”

As such the upcoming November elections, opines Selin Nasi in a recent op-ed for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, will be a test of the durability of U.S. democratic ideals: “What Trump offers to cheering crowds is not simply an overturning of the policies of the previous president. His political stance on migration, freedom of religion and the prohibition of torture challenge core American values secured by the Constitution. Thus, the elections will serve as a litmus test for the strength of democratic culture and institutions and define the way forward for Americans….At a time when the post-war liberal democratic order shows a sign of falling apart, the U.S. is more crucial than ever before in terms of upholding the democratic ideals it stands for. Let’s hope that the conventional wisdom prevails.”

Another Hurriyet Daily News contributor, Verda Özer explores a question that gets to a more fundamental discussion of U.S. democracy, namely what has given rise to the Trump phenomenon and “why have Americans made Trump such a strong presidential candidate? The main reason behind is the thesis of ‘the collapse of the center’….Since Sept. 11 Americans have been afraid of terrorism, Islam and Muslims. The ISIL reality has only triggered this fear. And the refugee crisis has been the last straw. A candidate who plays to these fears gives them comfort, just like self-therapy. At the same time, they want a leader who is strong enough to overcome their fears. And Trump’s welfare and vocalness provides them with this basic feeling….President Obama’s passive policies have led to a backlash. American people are striving for action. They think that Trump as a businessman and go-getter can “go and get” in politics too and showcase U.S. leadership to the world once again.”

Some explanations, such as the ones offered by Norman Bailey, a regular contributor of the Israeli business daily The Globes, go beyond specific American political dynamics, reaching into global patterns of economic inequality: “What is behind this transformation of the political scene, not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, when as recently as the turn of the century things looked so optimistic? In short, social entropy in the Western world, triggered by the rapidly-increasing concentration of wealth (defined as productive assets)….The owners of capital are now coming ever-closer to monopolizing wealth, which they share with the scientific, technological and managerial elite–the one percent and the ten percent….the rage, fear, envy and resentment are entirely understandable and to a large extent justified. If no steps are taken, and soon, to encourage the expansion of capital ownership in the population as a whole in the Western World (including Israel), through such mechanisms as cooperatives, employee stock ownership plans and community investment trusts, social entropy and its resulting political manifestations will continue to increase, until the fabric of civilized society is torn beyond repair.”

There are also those who wonder what the U.S. election means for the region. For example, Arab News’s Osama Al Sharif notes that while Trump may be the most bombastic of the GOP candidates, his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be the most balanced: “Arabs and Muslims all over the world also fear that Trump’s policies will deepen the divide between America and the Muslim world. His rivals in the race have distanced themselves from such positions, but it was interesting that while all re-affirmed their loyalty and bias in favor of Israel, Trump was the only candidate to say that he will try to be neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle hoping that this will help him push both sides to reach a deal….With the exception of Trump, U.S. policy toward key regional issues is unlikely to change dramatically under either Clinton or Cruz. Both will adhere to their party’s declared policies on Israel and Iran. On the war against Daesh both are expected to increase US military involvement. For the Arabs no candidate is showing readiness to address core issues that have troubled the region for decades.”

But as this Peninsula editorial attests, there seems to be a limited supply of patience with the current political discourse and squabbling in the United States, considering the perceived weakness and aloofness of current U.S. policy in the Middle East: “Americans and the rest of the world will be watching to see whether Trump sticks to all his hatred, or mellow down as he moves closer to the White House. But he continues to be as unpredictable and mysterious as ever….Trump wants to make America great again, while Clinton wants to make America whole again. The world will expect both of them to make America great and whole again because what we see today is a weakened Washington that’s not bold enough to perform the seminal role it has been playing until now, and the country remains divided more than ever before, with racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia at their peak.”

Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

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