Trump presidency displays similarities to Mideast regimes

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July, 7. (CNS/Handout via Reuters)

To a keen observer of Mideast politics who spent the first 21 years of his life in the Middle East and a child of the Lebanese civil war, the United States has always stood out in stark contrast to the assorted dictatorships, monarchies and authoritarian governments that my neighborhood is largely composed of.

Which makes it even more troubling that with the Trump presidency, we are witnessing in the U.S. for the first time political and societal similarities with some of the more unsavory aspects of these Middle Eastern regimes. This is not to suggest in the least that the U.S. is now akin to these countries but the very idea that the leader of the free world, the traditional champion of democracy for the world, is even mentioned in the same breath as these countries is disturbing enough.

Here are some of the parallels that are most apparent:

Undermining the electoral process

Mideast leaders (see Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt) have regularly been "elected" by 98 to 99.9 percent of the vote, making a mockery of the principle of free and fair elections. The Trump version of this is that he won the popular vote had it not been for millions of people voting illegally for Hillary Clinton. Consequently, a majority of Republicans now mistakenly believe him. Such widespread inaccuracy like this seriously erodes public faith in a bedrock of American democracy.

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Trump also actively solicited and then denied Russian meddling in U.S. elections. He invited Russia to hack and publish Hillary Clinton's emails. He praised Wikileaks, an organization his own CIA director has labeled a "hostile intelligence service." Seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential elections yet Trump continues to deny or belittle both the meddling and his own intelligence agencies who reached that conclusion.

Attacking, undermining key democratic institutions

Trump has attacked the mainstream press and the independent judiciary whenever he has disagreed with them. He dismisses as "fake news" corroborated and accurate reporting. He has sought to diminish the news media's traditional role by communicating directly with the public by using Twitter and public rallies, tactics used by populist authoritarian leaders like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

The weakening of the establishment news media has been accompanied by an information polarization where Democrats and Republicans consume their news from completely different sources. As an example, a significant part of the population doesn't believe that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections and even feel positively about Russian President Putin.

Trump has undercut the judiciary by maligning judges in highly personal and reckless ways for simply ruling against his administration. The White House has accused judges of providing a "gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country." He has belittled another as a "so-called judge" and preemptively blamed him if a terrorist attack occurred during his presidency.

Fanning nepotism, shunning transparency

Trump has transformed the White House into what resembles a personal fiefdom with senior responsibilities and positions given to family members. While not illegal, the lack of diplomatic and government experience of these individuals accompanied by the competing spheres of influence in the executive has resulted in barely concealed chaos and infighting.

Transparency has also suffered. Access to information and the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable require transparency. Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns and White House visitor logs, something President Obama introduced, so nobody can see who is coming and going to meet the president.

Finally, a host of ethical and conflict of interest questions have been raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars to promote Trump businesses such as the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. and his Mar-a-Lago golf club, to host foreign leaders in a quid pro quo of presidential access and business opportunities.

Openly supporting authoritarian rulers

Trump has endorsed and applauded authoritarian leaders worldwide while de-emphasizing human rights in those countries, enabling these leaders to further crackdown on dissent and the media. He has embraced President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, a military dictator, congratulated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on winning a questionable referendum that centralized power in presidential hands, admired Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for the vigilante justice that has executed drug dealers and users with no due process, and praised Russian President Putin who is the first foreign leader to successfully tamper with a U.S. presidential election.

Diminishing worldwide influence

Trump's criticism of the Western defense alliance NATO that the U.S. leads and his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord is making countries chart their own course.

In July, the E.U. and Japan announced a large trade deal on July, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is resuming without the U.S. and the signatory countries to the Paris climate accord are proceeding alone.

As a result, the U.S. has dropped to third place behind France and the United Kingdom in the Soft Power 30 report for 2017, which identifies soft power as the "ability to achieve objectives through attraction and persuasion … crucial to the effective conduct of foreign policy." The report cited the emphasis in the U.S. of nationalist rhetoric rather than international alliances and the U.S. decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord as reasons for the U.S. drop.

One of the authors of the report, Jonathan McClory, puts it simply, "A reduction in American soft power ultimately means a diminished ability to lead on shaping global events."

Examples of this abound. Saudi Arabia is ignoring U.S. efforts to mediate the serious dispute between the Gulf states and Qatar. Israel has criticized Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute after he failed to deliver so far on his campaign promises. North Korea is well on its way to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, spurring South Korea to seek talks with North Korea.

Vilifying the other, polarizing the country

The political polarization in the U.S. is particularly concerning. When politicians and media personalities encourage their supporters to view their rivals as illegitimate and treasonous, it encourages politicians to break the rules, cooperate with extremists on their political fringe, justify authoritarian and liberty-reducing acts, and even tolerate or encourage violence to keep their rivals out of power.

It is healthy for Democrats and Republicans to disagree, even intensely, but it is imperative that they not question each other's loyalty as Americans because of their different views, and accept the legitimacy of other side winning elections and leading the country.

The "birther" movement championed by Trump questioned President Obama's very legitimacy as a president and conservative commentator Ann Coulter's best-selling books in which she describes liberals as traitors are only two of many examples of delegitimizing the other.

Disregard for the truth

The truth has become a flexible and often foreign concept under Trump and his administration. From the thousands of Arab Americans in New Jersey who cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, to Obama wire tapping Trump Tower, to claims that the size of the crowd at his inaugural address where the largest ever, Trump's personal "Pinocchio" list is endless.

The most recent example involved the constantly changing accounts of the meeting during the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump Jr., White House adviser Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a Russian-government connected lawyer connected to the Russian government, who offered damaging information on Hillary Clinton. This, after repeated and insistent denials by the Trump campaign and White House of any campaign-related contact with Russian officials during the election season.

The question is whether the above erosions to American democracy are temporary or permanent and whether the durability of American institutions will eventually overcome them. While institutions will probably right the ship once Trump is out of office, some of the damage to the American political landscape may take generations to undo.

[Ra'fat Al-Dajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]


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