Western coverage of Iran has long relied on the convention of describing important public personalities as the Persian version of their American counterparts, replicas of the real thing. The Iranian Brad Pitt. The Iranian Frank Sinatra. The Madonna of Iran.
Last week’s Republican primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina presented us with an opportunity to reverse the construction, to exchange modifier with object, by confirming what has long been evident: that Donald Trump is the American Ahmadinejad.
As populists gifted with a preternatural ability to understand their country’s low mood, Trump and Ahmadinejad possess the authenticity of the non-politician and newcomer who says what he means. One is a brash businessman from the outer boroughs and the other a blacksmith’s son, but they both give voice to those who feel like they have no say. They are impervious to good manners or the pieties of good politics, their rhetoric is corrosive to the prospect of civil discourse, and they represent permanent thorns in the sides of their respective political establishments. And both men have nonetheless forced their societies to reckon with truths long unspoken, a necessary precursor to the improvement of the polity. In their reckless, emperor-has-no-clothes style of politics, Trump and Ahmadinejad demonstrate why it is necessary to destroy taboos as a salutary act, even as they remind us of why we need taboos in the first place.
Ahmadinejad gained celebrity in the U.S. for his scandalous repertoire, asserting, among other things, that the Holocaust was a lie “based on an unprovable and mythical claim.” Like Augusto Pinochetadorned in cape and Cold War sunglasses, Ahmadinejad’s affect and performance in his interviews with Western journalists affirmed what many Americans already took to be the Islamic Republic’s worst qualities. Iran’s sixth president played the part of the “petty dictator” so broadly and enthusiastically that one couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a put-on, an act designed to shore up his prestige with his real audiences back home in Iran and in the developing world.
Trump is no less the performer, an entertainer with an actual celebrity TV show. A candidate who shuns the dog-whistle for the bellow of an unfiltered Twitter feed, with his relentless tirades against immigrants, women, and his rivals in the GOP, Trump espouses a naked politics of division that nonetheless adheres to the reproduction of the welfare state, an American version of herrenvolkdemocracy. Transparently phony in his religiosity, unapologetic in his opposition to abortion and defense of Planned Parenthood, Trump speaks for a voting public no longer amenable to the bait-and-switch. His campaign is a “delivery vehicle” for beliefs that the Republican Party “has long exploited without satisfying: racism, nationalism, xenophobia.”
Confusing callowness for integrity, the supporters of Trump and Ahmadinejad have managed to elevate their candidates into accidental agents of change. After eight years of chaos and crisis in the domestic and foreign policy realms, a new dynamic of governance has emerged in Iran, a reaction in part to the catastrophic years of the Ahmadinejad administration. The unexpected election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in 2013 was a consequence of the tacit agreement between ordinary and elite Iranians to seek change through electoral politics and to forge a path of national reconciliation based on centrist and coalitional politics, unprecedented in the postrevolutionary Iran.
Trump appears to be having a similar, catalytic effect on the GOP, where the threshold for change could not be much lower. The rejection of plain truths in Charleston—including the fevered, even savage response to Trump’s observation that George W. Bush was president when the September 11 attacks occurred and therefore bears some measure of blame for the more than 3,000 lives lost on American soil—shined a klieg light on the remaining red line from that era, turning it ruby red before a national audience. When Jeb Bush insisted that his brother kept the country safe while Donald Trump was chasing his reality TV career, Trump replied, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that?”
It was an astonishing scene that will surely haunt the Republican Party for years to come. As James Poulous and others have pointed out, the exchange exposed the cognitive dissonance that continues to affect many in the Republican Party, and that may yet tear it apart. That calls for waterboarding and the mass deportation of nearly 12 million men, women, and children for the crime of violating immigration laws also drew cheers in the previous week surely did not go unnoticed by moderates and the dispassionate Republican viewer watching at home.
Analysts and observers throughout the summer and fall of 2015 coolly dismissed Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the national and local polls as a passing novelty, a candidacy certain to tumble gracelessly back down to earth. If the numbers in Iowa or in New Hampshire said otherwise, if in the final instance the laws of political gravity could be countervailed, then there was always the turn to magical thinking: Trump won’t become president because he simply can’t, can he? After New Hampshire and South Carolina the answer is indubitably, Yes he can.
Therein lies the irony, the point where comparisons between Ahmadinejad and Trump diverge. After four years of Ahmadinejad, worn out by rampant inflation and an international reputation ruined by their president’s overseas antics, the voting public in Iran turned out in June 2009 to turn Ahmadinejad out, only to see their votes taken away, triggering the greatest political crisis in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.
It took a disputed election to put Ahmadinejad back into office. Come July when the GOP gathers in Cleveland, Ohio to pick its nominee for the general election, only a rigged convention can keep Trump off the ticket. If Trump becomes the party’s candidate, we’ll see if the American voters can succeed where the Iranian voters failed: keeping a rude populist out of office.