Donald Trump is everything the Russian, Syrian and Iranian governments claim to despise about America. More than any US presidential candidate in modern history, he resembles a Soviet propaganda poster. Trump is a greedy, vain, Islamophobic, sexually amoral capitalist. He received a standing ovation at the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, he believes in mass violence against America's perceived opponents, especially Muslims.
So why is Trump so popular with governments that claim to despise America?
Trump has a proven record of praising or at the very least making excuses for authoritarians, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to deposed Libyan leader Gaddafi and most recently Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Trump's wave of authoritarian populism comes at a perfect time for strongmen like Putin, Assad, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who are circling the wagons, not against invading armies or perceived threats from abroad, but rather against creeping modernity that threatens the closed belief systems their regimes are built on.
Trump has come to embody 21st century authoritarian principals and the rejection of long standing multiculturalism, and the message is resonating with governments and organizations that ostensibly hate one another.
Putin praised the presidential candidate as "brilliant" or "colourful" depending on who you ask. Trump in return has praised Putin on MSNBC’s Morning Joe “At least he’s a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country” implying that he prefers Putin's leadership style to that of current President Barack Obama.
Iran’s English-language Press TV features some Trump critics but they also frequently feature Trump apologists who often try to frame the candidate as a supporter of the September 11 2001 attack conspiracy theories that Press TV frequently promotes.
The pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad internet commentator "SyrianGirlpartisan", who is the most important English language pro-regime propagandist has recognised the Trump wing of the Republican Party as her natural pro-regime allies, frequently appearing on pro-Trump YouTube channels, including David Duke’s podcast as well as the podcast of another noted pro-Trump Holocaust denier, Ry Dawson.
Despite Trump's popularity with neo-Nazis many right-wing pro-Israel figures promote him, largely because of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal which Hilary Clinton and the insurgent Sanders campaign support. Casino Mogul Sheldon Anderson who is a close confidant of Benjamin Netanyahu, a major funder of AIPAC and a major contributor to US political campaigns, has been rumoured to be considering funding Trumps campaign. At the very least it is certain that Israel’s most widely read newspaper Israel HaYom, which is owned by Anderson, has been giving Trump a great deal of positive coverage lately and some polls indicate that more Israeli Jews see him as “preserving Israel’s interests” effectively than Hillary Clinton.
Trumps loose interpretation of reality and penchant for authoritarianism have a broad appeal to governments and organisations that see modernity as dangerous. Even if it means ignoring traditional geopolitical and tribal allegiances, many hated enemies see Trump and his ilk as their guy.
This should be paradoxical. After all, how could Sheldon Anderson toy with the idea of supporting a candidate which has brought so many American anti-Semites into the political mainstream? How could Iran’s hardliner’s favour a politician that constantly claims Iran is untrustworthy and undeserving of diplomatic contact? How can neo-Nazis support a candidate with Jewish grandchildren, who got a standing ovation at AIPAC? The answer may be simpler than you think.
All 21st-century authoritarians share a trait common among Trump supporters: they feel that modernity and liberal international systems are the biggest threat to their existence, even more than external enemies. For the moment it would seem that arch enemies fear a well-informed populace more than any foreign rival. Enter the Trumps of the world.
It may seem counterintuitive that both Putin and Assad would indirectly praise the nationalistic Trump, and instruct their propaganda outlets to do the same. It doesn't seem obvious that neo-Nazis who are obsessed with what they see as a Zionist-dominated US government would support a man who made commercials for Benjamin Netanyahu.
All these varied authoritarians correctly see freedom of communication and dissent as the biggest threat to their power. Institutions of free expression and democracy are a nuisance to authoritarian ideology or delusional worldviews. It seems that many so-called enemies seem more than ready to put their differences aside in the face of the greatest challenge any of them has ever faced - free access to information in a shrinking, multicultural online world.
Trump has repeatedly threatened punitive action against his media critics, an unprecedented departure from the norms of American politics and democracy. Trump said that media organisations that criticise him will “have problems” if he is elected.
He has revoked the Washington Post’s press credentials at his events and has suggested he would make it easier to sue media outlets.
“We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
This thinking has alarmed liberals and puts Trump in line with authoritarian leaders who rely on intimidation, censorship, libel laws, and conspiracy narratives to push their agendas and deflect criticism.
Authoritarian systems can no longer survive by simply blocking access to information, though they will certainly continue to try. In the internet era a lie is a living organism that must not only be constructed but fed and kept alive. We see governments pushing back against an interconnected world in a way that is straining the boundaries of logic.
Netanyahu’s old school right-wing policies survived for decades on account of the American public’s ignorance of the brutality of occupation, as well and as a long-standing and increasingly indefensible notion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.
The once unchallengeable position that any and all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic has been shaken by the younger generation of Americans with vastly different opinions than their parents, who grew up without such easy access to unfiltered information. Israel’s right wing faces an unprecedented challenge, not from Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, but from the likes of Bernie Sanders, and a generation of well-informed young Jewish Americans.
Many of the challenges Likudniks face in the 21st century come from a shrinking world, most notably the non-violent BDS movement has thrived in an online world where activists and supporters the world over can express solidarity through simple civil disobedience. This new reality has resulted in an outlandish pushback.
Netanyahu and his surrogates want the suppression of non-participation like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement on American campuses, and have taken the desperately outlandish step of attacking Facebook for what pro-Israel groups call “incitement” i.e. any unfiltered footage of the atrocities committed by occupation forces.
The Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan has accused Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg of having blood on his hands. An ultra-right pro-Israel group, Shurat HaDin, has even taken the astonishing step of suing Facebook for one billion dollars in US federal court. None of this can prevent young Americans from going on YouTube to see violence inherent to military occupation. No one will convince your average liberal twentysomething that Sanders is an anti-Semite for snubbing AIPAC.
For oppressive regimes, building narratives based on conspiracies has always been par for the course, but with so much real information available on the internet it's getting harder to peddle a blatant lie. It is more important than ever to whip up extremist sentiments. A conspiracy theory used to be a simple pamphlet or a website but now a conspiracy theory needs a life of its own and an army of loyalists to survive.
Trump's claim that thousands of Muslim Americans cheered 9/11 was the turning point where critics realised facts don't matter at all to Trump's supporters. There is not a single image or credible eyewitness supporting what Trump describes, there is absolutely no way to believe Trump's version of events without simultaneously believing in a massive decades-long conspiracy to suppress it. Trump even went so far as to go on the Alex Jones Show to peddle his conspiracy theory, reversing a taboo on engaging a segment of the right that believes the US government engineered 9/11.
Russia’s Putin finds himself increasingly reliant on extremist sentiment as Russia’s economic isolation becomes more serious. The Russian state can’t hide a shrinking economy, casualties in Syria or tanks in Ukraine. Putin's propaganda machine needs more and more partisans who will believe that any criticism of Russia is part of some conspiracy; they have even invented a new word to shut down critics “Russophobia”.
Russian media’s coverage of the MH-117 shoot-down is a perfect example of how authoritarian governments push conspiracy theories in the digital age. As soon as news of the incident over Ukraine broke Russian media got to work constructing a narrative. First they claimed that a Ukrainian Su-27 had shot down the ill-fated jetliner, they even provided satellite imagery which was quickly debunked by the British blogger Eliot Higgins.
When the Dutch Safety Board presented irrefutable evidence that a BUK missile had shot down the airliner, Russian propaganda outlets switched narratives, insisting a Ukrainian BUK had downed MH-117. No explanation was provided for the sudden shift in absolute certainty over what happened.
The ability to cultivate irrational people and irrational ideas is what gives Islamic State its edge and transnational reach, but it’s also a crucial task for modern authoritarian states. Irrational angry people are quickly becoming the most important resource in the wars Netanyahu, Putin and Assad are fighting.
While there has always been a tug of war between isolationists and internationalists, between conservatism and modernity, conservative values have never come so close to mounting to a full-scale rejection of the reality that the world is shrinking. Internationalism was once a concept, now it is a reality. This is why authoritarians like Putin and Assad see the conspiracy-obsessed European far-right as their natural allies. The Kremlin has also given vast sums of money to a variety of these movements.
Indeed, we see governments taking more and more measures that amount to a desperate rejection of the simple reality that the world is now interconnected and multicultural. Legislation targeting the BDS movement has pushed logic to its breaking point. Not buying goods from Israel is now a punishable offence in some places. Not only is this a moral double standard, but it is a logical paradox because how can not doing something be illegal?
Many other examples exist. The abolition of “gay propaganda” in Russia, proposals to ban refugees from America in the wake of attacks carried out by US-born citizens, the idea of a UK “Independence Party”.
Populist ethno-nationalist movements are living in the desperate delusion that they can make the world disappear, that they can just shut Pandora’s Box by shadowboxing invisible enemies forever and abolishing the future of technology. Whatever tribe these 21st-century ethno-nationalists claim to speak for, free information is their enemy, and Trump is their king.
- Patrick Hilsman is a freelance journalist. He reported directly from Syria's Aleppo in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. He is a dual national of France and the US.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives on stage at the Republican National Convention on 18 July, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio (AFP).