Trump, Ahmadinejad and the danger of phony public figures

Both are populists, outrageous, liars and worse — ignorant of governance and of foreign policy issues. But the popularity of Donald Trump and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most worrying sign of social degradation at a global level, argues Saeed Rahnema.

By: /
April 14, 2016
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Rome, New York, April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

On the surface, no two public figures are more different than Donald Trump and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For one, the Republican frontrunner presidential candidate is tall, large and super rich, while the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran is short, small and was, at least until recently, a poor man (since his presidency he has become sort-of-rich). One brags about his billions, the other brags about the invisible heavenly halo protecting him.

Putting aside these and many other apparent differences, however, no two public figures are more similar in their approach and aims of attracting popular support to get to power. Both are populists of utmost vulgarity, who take advantage of the dissatisfactions and frustration of the public with the political elite in their respective social and cultural settings. Ahmadinejad appears in public in his notoriously ragged jacket, something the poor and deprived majority of Iranian citizens identify with. Trump wears his expensive suits and travels in luxury, appealing to those who feel deprived of the American dream.

Both say outrageous things to divert attention from the real issues. Ahmadinejad said he wanted to wipe Israel off the map, and Trump says he wants to build a wall preventing Mexicans from entering the United States, and calls for the punishment of women who are having abortions.  

Both are also brazen liars. Ahmadinejad said there are no homosexuals in Iran, and famously denies the Jewish holocaust. Trump claimed he watched thousands of people (presumably Muslims) cheering in New Jersey upon the fall of the Twin Towers.  

Both are free from constraints of moral ethics, civility and basic courtesy. Both have attacked the wives of their political adversaries. In the 2009 presidential election debate Ahmadinejad attacked and insulted Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of his opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi (the couple has been under house arrest without charge since 2011). Trump ridiculed Heidi Cruz, the wife of his opponent, Ted Cruz by tweeting an unflattering photo of her (though in a rare move, he later admitted this was a mistake). Both are bullies; Ahmadinejad would order his gangs to beat up and kick out those objecting to his remarks, Trump does and has publicly encouraged the same thing.  

And most importantly, both are ignorant of governance and of foreign policy issues. In his eight years in office, Ahmadinejad further isolated the Islamic regime, deepened its global pariah status, and exacerbated Iran’s economic problems, including cutting development projects and thoughtful public spending. Instead, he squandered the very high oil revenue of his time, wasting it on small temporary projects and distributing it among his cronies and supporters of his government.

Trump says he is going to bring back manufacturing from China and Mexico to “Make America great again,” without any understanding or explanation as to exactly how he would do it and what would be the consequences. He also wants to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, something that has excited and gained the support of Keyhan newspaper, the daily mouthpiece of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the ultra-conservative and hardline Islamists in Iran.

This is indeed a tragic moment in world history.

The current ‘success’ of these men is the clearest sign of social degradation at the global level, and the result of the ascent of neo-liberal globalization and the growth of right-wing conservatism, including religious fundamentalisms. Alarming is not just the rise of these phony figures, but the people who are attracted to them. As it has been stated, one should be more afraid of the people that support Trump than Trump himself. 

While Trump is getting closer to the Republican candidacy, and closer to possibly becoming the president of United States, Ahmadinejad and his gang are also preparing for the presidential elections in Iran in about a year. Perhaps not surprisingly the ultra-conservative hardliner Islamists in Iran are among those cheering for Trump!

Just imagine a world where Trump is the U.S. president, and his counterpart in Iran is Ahmadinejad, especially at a time when the Middle East’s SNAFU is messier than ever, and in addition to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, a new and a much bigger war looms on the horizon. The Taliban has become more powerful in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Israeli ultra-rightwing coalition is building more settlements and the Palestinian knife intifada is in full swing; ISIS has lost more territories of its “caliphate” and has spread its killers, executors and suicide bombers throughout the world; Europe is flooded with more refugees escaping wars and civil wars; the global economic crisis continues and austerity policies abound.  How much worse could it get? Somehow this warning message is not reaching a bulk of voters in the U.S., Iran and beyond.