December 10, 2019

Abu Trump, an apt comparison

Of all the misleading metaphors the critics of President Donald Trump have used, the least apt, and most despicable, is Hitler.

It’s an easy go-to, partly because people don’t know much history, but they watch a lot of History Channel.

But this isn’t 1933 and Trump is no Hitler. He’s not anti-Semitic, he doesn’t have a coherent (if insane) political philosophy, he’s far more interested in Trump than any cause or country.

Still, like many Trump critics, I’ve been searching for months to figure out exactly what kind of threat our president poses. If not a circa 1930s fascist takeover or a Russian klepto-oligarchy, then what? And then, on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit last month, it occurred to me: Trump has all the characteristics that define Israel’s autocratic neighbors. He’s not Il Duce. He’s Abu Trump.

Let’s run down the Arab strongman checklist:

They Take (Fragile) Power: Most Arab dictators rise on some form of popular support. They take power as an extension of “the street” — the average man or woman tired of the ruling elites. Quickly they establish themselves as the savior who alone can protect and fix the country. 

But this support, even if it is fierce, is often thin, just as it was with Trump’ election. Why else would he spend so much time trying to convince us we couldn’t see the millions of people who stole votes from him, and the millions more who appeared at his inauguration?

They Feed a Massive Ego: The only thing more fragile than these potentates’ popular support is their ego. They buttress it with lavish spending — Trump decorated like a sheik even before he became one — collecting portraits of themselves, and indulging their sexual impulses (Billy Bush? Russian dossiers?). Their domestic policies inevitably reflect their desire for immortality: Don’t be surprised if Trump’s infrastructure spending results in several massive projects bearing the name Trump.

They Put Family First: Even a small circle of advisers can’t penetrate the Arab dictator’s ultimate inner circle: his family.  Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gave his sons carte blanche; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was dethroned as he tried to pass power to his son; Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi bequeathed his sons his kingdom — except they were killed 20 minutes after him. Keeping it all in the family is a way to maintain trust, loyalty — and wealth. This week, Jared Kushner’s family business received what analysts are calling a sweetheart $400 million investment deal from Chinese interests. Just saying.

They Peddle Fake News: From Palestine to Pakistan, Muslim strongmen feed their people a steady diet of BS. The Arab media are filled with anti-West conspiracy theories featuring a scapegoat on whom the leaders can blame their own incompetence. In much of the Arab world, that bogeyman has been Israel and “the Zionists.” In Trumpistan, it’s “The Left” and “The Mainstream Media.” What people read, watch and listen to is the single greatest determinant of who they vote for. Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, have nourished an alt-right media ecosystem that will be shoveling profitable BS long after they’re gone.

They Attack Judges. After the press, the Arab dictators go after the courts. The Egyptian court system has been eviscerated by a series of dictators. They could easily recognize themselves in the way Trump attacked the 9th Circuit Court judges who stayed his Muslim travel ban.

Once a ruler goes after the courts, noted Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev,  “It’s not a slippery slope. It’s a free fall.”

They Want Only to Win. All rulers want to stay in power, but for the Arab dictators, power is an end in itself: Winning is everything. “He doesn’t believe in anything and is loyal to no one,” writer Amir Taheri said of Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian dictator. “He could be your friend in the morning but betray you in the evening. He has only two goals in life: to survive and to make money.” Where have we heard that before? 

They Are Really Sore Losers. At some point, the people who lifted them to power turn on these strongmen. 

“You can control the people you choose,” Egypt’s late President Gamal Abdel Nasser said, “but you can’t control the people who choose you.”

At that point, things get dicey. Whatever great intentions these rulers began with are tossed aside in the fight for survival. The ruler then has to decide to leave his country and whatever civil institutions remain intact, or bring it all down around him. For Libya’s Gadhafi, the choice between his survival and his country’s was clear.

“Those who do not love me do not deserve to live,” he said, and a bloody civil war ensued.

Fortunately for Israel, Netanyahu has learned to deal with these strongmen and their egos, their posturing, their empty threats and fake niceties. 

How fitting, then, that this week Trump’s representative has been exploring the Middle East regional peace plan pushed by Arab dictators —  it’s a club to which Trump feels he belongs.

“I have never seen Arab dictators, their officials, media and their usual clowns so supportive of an American president,” wrote Aziz Abu Sarah, an Arab-Israeli commentator. “Egyptian media talks about how Trump is inspired by [Egyptian strongman] Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is considering Trump to be ally, and from Saudi [Arabia] to UAE public support statements are outpouring. This scares me more than anything else.”

Me, too.