The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland was a watershed moment for American politics, when the Grand Old Party replaced the tattered top hat of Abraham Lincoln with the voluminous, aristocratic blond tresses of Donald Trump. Why would Trump ever cover up his alleged $600,000 weave with a dead president’s ratty hat?
An open and shameless hostility to democracy lurks in the squishy primate brains inside Republican skulls covered in hats bearing Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again. One man, who considered Trump the lesser of two evils, argued passionately that women voting means socialism. Another man held a sign reading “Democracy is Not An American Value.”
Despite his fear mongering about Muslims and Arabs, Trump is turning American politics Middle Eastern, his voters opinions’ reveal, even if they don’t realize it. The paranoia, the conspiracy theories, the unrestrained nationalistic fervor, the abuse of religious minorities, the bitter hatred of political opponents and trading rights away for promises of security are all features of Trump’s campaign, the selling points really. These are all contenders in the war of ideas in the Middle East.
Although Cleveland did not wind up being the bloodbath some had feared, it did give the Alt Right, the Internet’s phalanx of White nationalists, a chance to spread its cowardly message of fear and hate and obsession with what they imagine skin color means. Trump was able to deliver a speech on Thursday night that should make anybody who cares about human rights and justice vomit from fear. Strange arguments between regular citizens broke out on Public Square, a forum in downtown Cleveland affixed to a monument to the state’s Civil War dead.
The last time I saw an equivalent level of hatred and fear in American politics was at the Republican National Convention in 2004, when I was 19, and people got into verbal altercations on the street in SoHo about the Iraq War etc. etc. Anarchists camped out on the steps of St. Mark’s on the Lower East Side. As you might recall, the Republicans won that year. Democrats are bad at selling fear, and that’s all they’re doing this year: Fear of a Trump Planet. Republicans, on the other hand, are master fear dealers, and they have been for generations.
But at least that was a recognizable kind of politics, in what most believe America is. This year, Trump has transformed the country’s public debate into something you would see in a country left traumatized by colonial and post-colonial abuses. Perhaps it’s because millions of Americans are starting to see Globalization as something that runs the United States, and not the other way around.
A fear of outsiders, a demand for law and order at all costs, demonizing enemies, talk of “love,” as Trump does, when leaders’ words make little Arab children stay awake at night, wondering if the president will deport their parents.
As Richard B. Spencer, Alt Right author and devoted Trump fan, said of refugees who’d be killed if forced to return home to create a racially pure White nation.
“Tough shit,” he said.
Spencer had moments before complimented me thusly: “You’re the whitest person I’ve ever seen.”
Right now, after days of sun, I’d say I’m more pink than anything else. One of many Irish curses.
Eli and Austin
But it’s not all Trump’s fault, and Spencer is just a symptom. The Middle Easternification, or, to borrow the Arabic word for Middle East, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the Sharqification of American politics is not something that happened in a vacuum, and responsibility lies with both Democrats and Republicans. Since September 11, 2001, both parties have shown disregard for rights, human and civil. How can the government expect citizens to revere the Constitution when the government itself ignores it?
That’s why the Alt Right, people who believe race is the most important aspect of identity, tout “survival” as more important than the Constitution. They can thank Establishment politicians like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and both Clintons, Bill and Hillary, for prepping the American people for Trump’s message of fear and mean vibes. And it’s not just Spencer, by any means, it’s guys like Eli, 32, who came all the way from Alaska, and Austin, 23, who hails from Cleveland. Both were wearing Trump hats. Austin had a can of pepper spray on his belt, and a sign that read “Democracy is Not an American Value.”
What’s he mean by that? Well just what it sounds like. Austin’s eyes, behind a pair of wraparound sunglasses, see a return to rule by an enlightened nobility as the best way to go, a more fundamental expression of the “Americanism credo” Trump touted in his acceptance speech. Spencer, for his part, said that he would have remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolutionary War.
Austin was there to “show solidarity with Trump,” see what was going on and “maybe become a part of it.”
“Why is Democracy not an American value?” I asked him.
“Because it implies that everybody has this equal say, sociologically.”
“That’s not true?”
“The other thing is that it [America] was founded on more of a Republic. And that came out of more of an artisocricy…An Aristocratic system,” he corrected himself.
“So an Aristocratic system is actually what we are?”
“Well it’s what the U.S. was. It’s gotten more Democratic over time,” he said.
“Why is that bad?”
“Because it capitulates to the lowest common denominator,” he replied.
“What if voting were only restricted to White people?”
“Then the outcomes would be a lot better from our perspective,” he said.
“Because we are white people and those are the kinds of values and the kinds of preferences that we would exhibit,” he said. “White interests would be generally more catered to, but things wouldn’t be all perfect.”
“What does this all mean for Arab and Jewish Americans?”
“That’s something they have to figure out for themselves,” Eli interjected. “We’re just saying we have Interests as what we are and we feel like it’s ok for us to articulate those interests and defend those interests.”
“Does Trump make you feel more confident in doing so?”
“Yes. In the past, we haven’t been allowed to do that. But Trump has really kind of pushed the envelope, as far as PC stuff goes,” Eli said.
“What’s the biggest threat to America?”
“That’s tough. There’s a lot. The general decline in the standards of public discourse and public life,” he said, in part because of the erosion of Whiteness.
Given the tremendous heat in Philadelphia, where I am today, and the stifling hotness of Cleveland, I would say that Climate Change and the Sixth Mass Extinction are far bigger threats to the United States. Trump, like all politicians, is a mere dust mote of skin and bone in the unstoppable whirlwind that is the Real Government: The Earth’s Mutated Atmosphere.
“What about the Constitution?” I asked.
“The Constitution of the United States?” Austin inquired.
“It’s pretty much a dead letter at this point. Or a living document, which amounts to the same thing,” Eli said.
The Zombie Document Apocalypse is upon us. Schrodinger’s Constitution, crammed in a case at the National Archives under a cloud of Xenon, is both living and dead until someone tries to apply it.
“Who do you read online?” I asked Eli.
“Let’s see. There’s a guy name Kurt Doolittle…Mencius Moldbug,” he said.
“Have you ever heard of Richard Spencer? I met him yesterday.” I said.
“Yeah we ran into him too,” said Austin. “I’ve read a few things by him. Not much. But he seems to be pretty legit as far as I’m concerned.”
“Would you agree when he says that power matters more than rights?”
“I think rights are a fictitious thing. They’re an abstract thing,” said Austin.
“Yeah, because if you’re strong, you have rights de facto,” Eli explained. “If you don’t, you don’t no matter what the law says.”
“You asked about Constitutional protections a moment ago. When Whites are a minority, I don’t think those Constitutional protections will amount to diddly squat. Even less than they do now.”
“So that’s the survival thing?”
The whole “when we’re the minority we’ll be destroyed” idea echoes in the politics of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. Austin and Eli are the pointy tip of the Sharqification spear.
The Spread of Anti-Democracy
Trump, along with Alt Right writers Eli mentioned, have imported the most anti-Democratic aspects of the politics of the Middle East, the same “we have no choice” attitude where existential threats are everywhere. It’s classic Saddam Hussein type talk. One could imagine Trump donning some sunglasses and firing an awesome shotgun into the air, to get big cheers from the crowd. But I don’t know if a guy who eats pizza with a fork, like Trump, has hands big enough to pull off the whole Saddam shotgun act.
For as much as Trump has made hay out of villainizing Muslims and Arabs, points his most ardent supporters take far, far farther right, it is ironic how the characteristics of Arab politics are showing up in American politics this year. There are aspects of Egyptian, Syrian and Israeli public life starting to bubble up to the surface of the witch’s brew of the 2016 election.
Public Square in Cleveland feels a bit like Tahrir Square in 2013, during the counter-revolution. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine Hillary Clinton making a speech about her “legitimacy” as a professional politician, just like Mohammed Morsi, elected in 2012 following the 2011 overthrow of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. One of the chants this year was “Lock Her Up.” Guess where Morsi is right now? He’s in prison. More than prison, he’s on Egyptian death row, along with hundreds of his friends, following their ouster in 2013 by Egypt’s new autocrat Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. A Trump delegate, New Hampshire state representative Al Baldasaro, suggested capital punishment for the former Secretary of State.
The plot thickened on Sunday, when the Clinton campaign blamed leaks of internal emails on the Russians “trying to influence the outcome of the election.” What that amounts to are two American presidential candidates accusing each other of treason. The Trump campaign and its supporters online have correctly pointed out Clinton’s ties to Saudi Arabia, via the Clinton Foundation. Slate’s Franklin Foer has pointed out Trump’s close financial and ideological connections to Russia under Putin.
That both accusations contain threads of truth only makes the election more sharqified. The same kind of client-seeking thing happened in Egypt in 2013, with billions of Qatari dollars came crashing into billions of Saudi dollars, two Gulf patrons competing for an ally in Cairo, the most populous Arab country. Russia and Saudi Arabia, two oil-laden non-democracies run by violent, fundamentalist cadres, are vying for a client in Washington. For both, a friend in the White House would help them advance foreign policy goals like undermining Russia’s old foe NATO, a Trump platform plank, or putting the sanctions screws back to Iran, as Saudi Arabia would love to see and Clinton has threatened to do ad nauseum.
Now Egypt’s current president General Sisi surely doesn’t have Trump’s heavy, Mozart-ass wig, but he also came in promising to bring safety back to the country. Trump is doing the same thing as Sisi, in a country where society has begun to resemble Syria’s. An globalized elite, the Assad family, hailing from an esoteric minority religious group, the Alawis, tied to a foreign entity, Shia Iran, were at the tippy top of the Syrian Political Ziggurat for decades and decades. Now, that ziggurat (an ancient Mesopotamian tower) has gotten a bit more crowded and also partially collapsed.
In the same way, Hillary Clinton and the Political Establishment, another esoteric, elite religion of Capital Gains Tax and Ivy League Attendance, is politically liable for her own ties to Saudi Arabia and the Globalized Elite, which antisemites on Twitter are quick to equate with Jews. Just like in Syria before its civil war began, this suspicion of elites comes as America’s rural and urban areas have diverged drastically in their interpretations of civil and criminal law. That phenomenon is present all over the Arab and Muslim world. Resentments between people in cities and the hinterlands are as real in the Middle East as they are here. Although the monarchist contingent that Eli and Austin represented is a relatively small contingent of Trump voters, they also reflect a confidence in rule by a royalty one finds in the Persian Gulf. Any aspect of Middle Eastern politics, one could find in sharqification of Public Square.
More horrifying, the United States is starting to take on the most terrible aspects of Israeli politics, where a giant wall is revered for its alleged ability to keep out dangerous outsiders. Meanwhile, in Israel there’s a lot of “We have no choice” justifications for anything from why a Bedouin encampment needs to be razed, to why a border guard won’t let someone pass. His papers aren’t in order, or whatever. Israel is a “law and order” society too, but that doesn’t make it much safer, especially if you’re Palestinian. At bottom, everything in Israeli politics circles back to the threat of existential destruction, just like Trump’s point of view. The deep and dangerous dysfunction in American immigration policy mirrors the plight of Palestinians who try desperately to get work in Israel.
Egypt, Syria and Israel are all law and order societies, they’re police states, actually. But they don’t deliver justice, even if they deliver law. That’s what Trump threatens to do. I once met a Lebanese-American guy living in Bay Ridge who told me straight up why he was voting for Trump. He saw his new home, the United States, at risk, and perceived Trump as a solution.
“You might curse your mother but that doesn’t mean you do not love her,” Ali Moussar said (here’s a link to the article). “We need a strong leader who cares about the country, who will defend us from terrorists.”
I also heard the same attitude in Syria in 2006, where many Syrians excused the brutality of Assad’s police state in return for the stability and safety some Syrians had. Not Kurds or political dissidents, of course, and, as it turned out, not enough Syrians, or Egyptians, were satisfied with the tradeoff to stave off civil war rending both countries apart.
In these Arab countries, both secular and religious politicians use security as a reason for overruling Democracy and law. When survival is at stake, human dignity be damned. That’s what leads to torture and mass murder of minority ethnic groups by Arab dictators.
It’s the same thing that could lead the United States to add even more pages to its already shameful history of genocide, witch hunts and imprisoning people their entire lives, either as convicted criminals or, earlier, slaves. Oppression and racism are chronic conditions in the United States, and right now, we’re having a bad relapse.
Humanity in the Face of Fear
OK, so I know what you’re thinking: “This is all terrible. I am currently vomiting in fear, as you suggested above. What else can I do?”
Well you can stop now, because here’s the good news: The sharqification of American politics also leads to acts of extraordinary humanity in the face of fear and loathing unbound online and offline. It’s what you see in the Middle East, too, acts of selfless bravery, valiant challenges to racism and bigotry, and determined attempts to use peaceful means to confront racism. Those are all present in acts of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Passionate arguments in favor of love and hope were there alongside confidence pronouncements of hatred. Moments before I heard Richard Spencer dismiss the value of human life, I had heard Dr. Cornel West proclaim the preciousness of all human life.
The problem with these sharqified ideas, whether in the United States or in the Middle East, is that they don’t stand up to even a few moments of thought not deformed by dread.
Take the case of Galina Abdelaziz, 23. She was in Cleveland on Wednesday with her father, Mohamed, to see what was up and to protest Trump’s arrival in their state, Ohio. Abdelaziz goes to to school in Florida, studying international relations. She hopes to make documentaries one day. She wore a shirt that read in Arabic “Ayna Al-Hub?” or “Where’s the Love?”
I had just gotten done talking to Austin and Eli.
“I just had a disturbing conversation with a couple of White Nationalists who were like this country would be better if everyone were White. They also want to expel Arab Americans. But Arab Americans don’t have their own box on the census, which treats them as White.”
“I have a crisis of identity every time I fill out anything,” she said.
The reason why that box is so hard to fill out is because racial identity is a social construct, no matter what Spencer and others say. My Irish Catholic ancestors weren’t considered all that White when they arrived, and even Eli said that their arrival “might not have been ideal…but they can’t go back now.” Somalis, another “clannish” group, Eli said, don’t belong here.
Abdelaziz acknowledged this kind of thinking, speaking calmly despite the panic one might feel discussing people who want her removed from the country by force. Or at least half of her. Or something. Who knows? Their ideas are political alchemy, trying to turn elements into other elements, in defiance of physical reality. In the same way, the Alt Right’s assumptions of the growing self-separation of the “races” is contradicted by the rise in couplings between people of different ethnic backgrounds and skin tones.
Even Breitbart, more a friend to the Trump campaign than to its own employees, acknowledges this trend.
“I see people who are White Nationalists who are generally supporters of Trump, I become concerned,” Abdelaziz said. “I would say that these people are afraid of what we have become. We’ve become a more globalized world and a lot of people are suffering from that, not only in this country but all around the world. And they’re misplacing their blame I think. I have heard Trump supporters say that Globalization is bad. We need to bring back all the jobs to America, but Globalization is a force that’s much too strong to reverse at this point. What we need to do is we need to manage it better. We need to have more transparency and I think it’s an element of miseducation and lack of education that they don’t know this. A lot of the time I listen to Trump supporters and I feel bad for them. I think they’re misguided. I think they’re being taken advantage of.”
“It’s really scary. I could go much further into depth.”
“The White man is the most weaponized man in this country. Trump is giving power and justification to that group of people and I’m afraid whether he wins or loses they’re going to take action they’re going to do something,” she said.
“I agree. I think they’re rejecting the entire Enlightenment, when what they really need to do is to reject the neoliberal branch of the Enlightenment,” said I. “But they want to cut down the whole fucking tree.”
“What they don’t understand is that Trump is a large part of Globalization and Neoliberalism.”
“What’s amazing is the American capacity for forgiveness,” I said.
“You think so?”
:::Nervous laughter by both of us:::
“This guy Richard Spencer was saying our most important important identity is our racial identity, what do you think about that?”
“I think our most important identity is our identity as human beings. I don’t think it’s national racial or religious. I think we should identify as humans before all else. And I think that’s the problem,” she said.
Mohamed, Galina’s father, was nearby. I asked him what he thought. He’s a Palestinian American. I asked him about the intersection between Palestinian rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Mohamed was holding a sign that was a flier for a Martin Luther King Jr.
“The intersection between Palestinian rights and Black Lives Matter is justice, freedom, fairness, equality, simply being a human and treated as a human,” he said.
He said that the rise in mobile phone recordings of unjust killings in the United States and in Palestine is good, because it allows information to spread. Information, Mohamed believes, is the only thing that can challenge hatred.
“The more we are informed, probably the more we will make a decision for our future. They will decide who is right or wrong, based on facts not prejudice,” he said.
Nathan, Erica, Abdel, Galina, and Mohamed
So you know the Pokemon game where you catch the Pokemon and they fight or whatever? Well you can do that in journalism, too. Public Square in Cleveland was full of rare and special political Pokemon, like Galina and Austin and Eli, and also Nathan Damigo, one of Spencer’s Alt-Right friends. They were all there in the square, wandering around checking the scene.
A few minutes after I spoke to Galina, I ran into Nathan as I was talking to Erica, 75, a German immigrant supporting Trump “because Hillary is so crooked!” and Abdel Wudud, 38, an Uber driver from Cleveland.
Wudud was delivering an impassioned sermon on the sidewalk as Erica strolled by in her Trump swag. Wudud was talking about the how people of all colors and faiths want peace.
“The white lives! They want peace! The black lives they want peace, the yellow lives, the Muslim lives the Christian lives. Wake up, smell it. Can’t you smell the coffee. That’s what we want.. Why can’t we come to terms! They sages, the people who came before us with knowledge and wisdom said let’s come to common terms with peaceful. Our fight is not against each other,” he said.
Erica clapped heartily for Abdel Wudud. I asked her what she thought of White Supremacists and people who want to make the United States a White Country.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, honestly not knowing that such people were behind Trump.
But then I saw Nathan Damigo, and I asked him to come over and talk to Erica, Abdel Wudud, Galina, and Mohamed. Damigo, part of the Alt Right, was a great sport, and he walked over to talk to these four people, who I knew would challenge him on his ideas about racial separation. Could make for some interesting quotes.
“Abdel Wudud, this is Nathan, he’s a member of the Alt-Right, and it’d be an interesting dialogue,” I said. I introduced all four to Nathan. “Nathan is one these guys who likes the idea of the US being a white country. And having a place for people of European heritage. Why can’t America be a place for those people and others?”
“What is wrong with people of European heritage having their own society, having their own nation state?” Damigo asked, rhetorically.
“Am I white enough for you to be in this country?” Mohamed asked Damigo.
“How do you identify?” Damigo responded.
“Palestinian, Jewish, Greek,” said Mohamed.
“Ethiopian!” his daughter Galina chimed in.
“My grandmother is Ethiopian,” Mohamed said.
“Have you done a DNA test on that? Just curious,” Damigo asked.
More talking over each other.
“Do you believe in God?” Mohamed asked.
“I’m not really interested,” Damigo replied.
“Do you believe in a hurricane or a disaster?” Mohamed continued.
“If you were in trouble and you were in a hurricane, would you want my help or not?”
“Perhaps, yeah,” Damigo said.
“I’m inviting you to help you and for you to be my help when I need help,” Mohamed said.
“Perhaps, but does that mean we want to live in the same house?” Damigo asked.
“Are you afraid of what’s going to happen to the white man now is what happened to the Native Americans?” Galina asked.
“That’s what they’re afraid of,” Abdel Wudud said. “Where do I go?”
“There are many multiracial societies in the world. Perhaps you would be offered money to travel,” Damigo said.
“This is a form of oppression, because you’re telling me that I’m here, my parents are here and my grandparents were here, but you’re telling me because you want to do things a certain way that I have to leave, somehow this area. Why couldn’t you do that?” Abdel Wudud said.
“There’s no place for us,” Damigo said, referring to white people. “We are not to have that.”
“Since that’s the case for both of us, I don’t want to move either, and I’m here,” Abdel Wudud responded.
Mohamed said, “Let me make it more simple. Can you guarantee me that you will not fall in love with a black woman.”
“I wouldn’t…because I just wouldn’t be interested. Because I see the conflict that results…” Damigo said.
“How can you control your feeling?” Mohamed asked.
“You can’t control your feeling?”
“When I fell in love with my wife. I could not control it,” Mohamed said. He then referred to his daughter, Galina, as another example.
“What if she comes home, and says this person he is a black or an Asian or Italian and he is a successful, young person, and she loves him, what am I supposed to say?”
Then there was a lot of cross talk between the five of them about the origin of civilization belonging to all of humanity. Then Mohamed and his daughter said they had to go. It was hot out, and the conversation was going in circles.
“I have to go,” Mohamed said. “I think you are searching for your own soul. I think that you will find it. And I think you will appreciate that you talked to us. But it looks like you are looking for something, and you stopped at a certain exit. But there is farther to go. Try searching. You will find it, keep searching with open mind.”
The Republican National Convention was a place where people like Mohamed Abdelaziz and Galina and Abdel Wudud and Erica and Nathan could meet and talk, face to face, in a world that both binds and divides them so often by strings of silicon and slabs of plastic and glass. Although Trump scored many victories, recruiting moderate Republicans with a seductive lie about survival, it also let human beings meet and speak.
What Mohamed said of helping Damigo in a hurricane reminded me of one of the most disturbing and sad bits of New York City news, and it happened during Hurricane Sandy. An African-American woman, Glenda Moore, was driving along Staten Island’s south shore when the storm hit. After the surge of water overpowered her car, she struggled to rescue her two small children. She sought help from neighbors as the storm raged around them. She banged on doors but no one answered. The boys’ names were Connor, 4, and Brendan, 2. Their father, Moore’s husband, was white. This is the kind of relationship on Staten Island that still represents a taboo, especially for older generations of Irish and Italian Americans.
The two children drowned in the fierce storm surge, which took two dozen lives in the borough. The neighbors later said they didn’t open their doors for fear of being robbed. Their decision to let fear win meant the storm, a force more powerful than Trump could ever be, put two tiny caskets into the ground forever.
That’s the kind of callous denial of humanity that might happen in Israel/Palestine, where hatred and fear are the law of the land, where the might of an armed border guard trumps whatever rights you thought you had just by being a human. Damigo said he’d maybe want Mohamed’s help if he were stuck in a hurricane, but questioned whether the two would want to live in the same house.
Whether Damigo knows it or not, he does live in the same house as Mohamed and Galina and Erica and Abdel Wudud, and you and I and everyone else. That house is the Earth we all live on and share, breathing the same air and drinking the same ancient reservoir of water. Trump might really become president, but he will never be more powerful than the forces of nature, nor will he be able to render any more land out of walling part of the world off from another.
As climate change bears down on Philadelphia and Staten Island and Baghdad and Jerusalem, heat and scarcity threaten to combine with hatred and fear to make for more stories like Connor and Brendan’s. Trump’s sharqification of American politics acts as a herald for a future of cruel greed and indifference to suffering, made worse by a warming world. Our only chance as a species is if people of conscience decide to act against these impulses, to get up and answer history knocking at the door.