Politics & Policy

Is Trump the American Sadr?

Muqtada al-Sadr (Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty)
The mercurial Iraqi political leader uses similar appeals and has similar adherents.

Donald Trump continues to upend traditional politics. Few if any pollsters or professional political analysts could have predicted that a man repeatedly caught lying outright, disparaging women, making menstruation jokes that even sixth graders in a locker room wouldn’t find funny, making racist remarks about Mexicans, casting doubt on his competitor’s citizenship, or committing any number of other outrages, would now be leading the field of a major political party.

What he says might strike more-educated Americans as noxious, but his supporters relish the middle finger that he gives to political correctness, to a political elite (on both sides of the aisle) that many of his followers believe has failed to deliver, and to the media, which many Americans feel have struck a devil’s bargain with those in power. Indeed, for all the whining of journalists about Trump’s outrages, the very fact that he remains coated with Teflon suggests that blue-collar Americans and many others simply do not share the values or strive to uphold the political correctness that the media and political class expect from public officials.

In some ways, it may be useful to understand the Trump phenomenon through the lens of Iraqi firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That is not to suggest that Trump is the moral equivalent of Sadr; he is no murderer or terrorist. But, just as with Trump in the United States, Sadr has long been a household name in Iraq, even if Muqtada has sought to capitalize on it largely at the expense of the reputation for intelligence and religious sincerity built by his father, father-in-law, and brothers.

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No one, however, has accused Muqtada (like Trump) of being overly intellectual or hampered by facts. Whereas his brothers and father distinguished themselves through scholarship, Muqtada preferred showmanship and material wealth.

Against the backdrop of Iraq’s liberation, Sadr attracted those who felt they had been left behind by the new order. Most elites eschewed him, but he encouraged his followers to plaster his name and visage everywhere they could. Even today, huge billboards bear Sadr’s image in the traffic circles of southern Iraqi towns and cities, regardless of the movement’s electoral success. Trump, of course, is famous for his self-promotion. He is no dummy, however, and has capitalized by successfully selling himself to those dissatisfied with the established order.

The two political movements have many other parallels. Sadr can spout the most illogical conspiracies in order to rally the public, and discount law, process, and reality to espouse solutions. Trump is no different, as he threatens mass deportations, embraces coarse nativism, and, in the case of President Obama’s birth certificate, has sought to leverage suspicions of foreign birth long since disproved. Pomposity in both cases became an asset, not a liability.

#share#Both Sadr and Trump also gathered supporters based on what their voters opposed at any particular moment, rather than articulating any positive platform. Trump has not sought to tackle policy with any ideological consistency, as have opponents like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul; and Sadr, for his part, has not been true to the theological or political exegesis espoused by major Shiite thinkers in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, London, or, for that matter, Tehran. Because it was always so reactionary and built around a person more than a philosophy, the Sadrist movement has always been volatile. So too is Trump’s movement.

That said, some ambitious politicians were willing to ride Sadr’s coattails, just as some ambitious Washington types might for their own personal benefit join the Trump campaign should he become the Republican nominee. The loyalty of most Sadrists to their political scion has always been skin deep, however, and Trump likewise may attract the least party or personal loyalty of any potential president in history. Make a Sadrist a better offer, and it’s possible to peel him away. Indeed, this has always been the logic of those who argued that Sadr’s power might be diminished by co-opting his associates. Many in Trumpland will likely jump ship if it appears their leader is steering it to dangerous shoals.

#related#And that said, not everything need be negative when it comes to the phenomenon that Sadr and Trump represent in their respective countries. Sadr’s movement became a ladder to inject new perspectives and personalities into politics. Ali Dawai, the popular governor of the Maysan governorate, for example, arose out of the Sadrist movement. With a limited budget, he has implemented a program building parks and corniches, which has won the hearts and minds of constituents. It is quite possible that Trump’s coattails could interject new blood into a system that so many Americans believe no longer serves their interests.

Sadr has seen ups and downs over the last twelve years — thankfully, more of the latter than former. He has managed to remain a disruptive political force in Baghdad even as his chance of real national power remains slim. Whatever happens with Trump personally, the fact that he has already lasted so long probably means that the phenomenon he represents will endure for years. Had Sadr not derailed Iraq politically, militarily, and economically, that country might be far better off today. How unfortunate it is that Trump’s love of rhetoric and showmanship over substance will likewise hamper America’s growth, security, economy, and development.

— Michael Rubin is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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