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While much of the country — and even the world — focused on the last U.S. election and remained engrossed even after its results and consequences, the picture of this historic event in the Arab world was unlike anything that was happening here. Regrettably, the distorted analysis and coverage by Arab media influenced to some extent the attitudes and electoral choices of many Arab immigrants in the U.S. Many Arab immigrants, mainly those who arrived between the 1970s and 1980s and after, still apply the same sectarian criteria employed in their countries of origin to analyze their politics in diaspora.
During his 2016 presidential election, Trump appealed to segments of Arab Christian immigrants, namely Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian. Trump’s widely publicized anti-Muslim views appealed to some in these communities, especially those who carried their sectarian sentiments with them to the U.S. Trump also launched the 2016 electoral campaign against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) atrocities in Syria and Iraq, although its genocidal campaigns did not target Christians only, but included Muslim Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Yezidis, leaving death and ruin wherever it settled.
Trump’s appeal to Palestinians in 2016 added a dimension that was relatively less religious and more political. The Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton energized many activist Palestinian organizations against Clinton as the “most pro-Zionist” candidate, contrasted with Bernie Sanders, whose pro-Palestinian stance remained steadfast in his opposition of Israel’s human rights violations. The anti-Clinton campaign publicized by Trump supporters and some Arab immigrant activists (though not cohorts) falsely portrayed Clinton as one of ISIS’ “founders,” misrepresenting parts of her book “Hard Choices” (2014) to this effect. Thus, when Clinton claimed the Democratic nomination, many Palestinian activists went as far to call for either abstaining from voting or supporting the Green Party’s nominee, Jill Stein. In either choice, Trump was the primary beneficiary.
The Arab world’s Christian-Muslim conflicts factored little in the electoral choices of Arab Muslim immigrants. What did matter was the “Zionization” of Clinton, or her “anti-Arab” positions, which had also benefited Trump regardless of his own anti-Arab and anti-Muslim proclamations. Both Muslim and Christian activist immigrants adopted a nationalist political stance that disadvantaged Clinton, whether by staying home, casting their vote for the third party candidate, or even voting for Trump, any of which benefited him.
One would expect that Trump’s ultra-Zionist policies exposed his deception of Palestinian Christians and some Arab immigrants, especially in his policies that broke with all his predecessors. He openly discussed Israel’s West Bank annexation around June 2020, announced the U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel in March 2019, and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move all previous administrations refused to make. These measures left no doubt on who of the two, between Trump and Clinton, fulfil the “most Zionist criteria.”
How Trump’s policies toward Israel affected the Arab voting preferences of the diverse groups that make up the Arab-American diaspora in 2020 remain to be studied. As far as I know, there is no reliable survey research of their preferences and the forces influencing their electoral choices. An impressionistic judgment leads us to expect little change among Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi Christian sympathies toward Trump, for reasons already discussed. Should Trump policies have altered any voting behavior towards him, one can only speculate that Palestinian immigrants became more aware of Trump as his policies toward their homeland were disastrous.
Palestinian hostilities toward Clinton may not have changed, but since Clinton was not a candidate in 2020, this issue becomes immaterial. However, an additional factor entered the picture: Trump’s aggressive hostility toward Hezbollah and its Mideast allies, namely Lebanese Shiites. As far as Christian immigrants are concerned, Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the arms agreement, which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief, and the U.S.-imposed sanctions that followed against Iran and its Lebanese political allies, Christian and Muslims alike, had a limited effect on immigrant electoral choices. An exception, however, was Shiite immigrants who hoped for relief from more sanctions under the Biden administration, believing the new president’s association with former president Barack Obama, who originally negotiated the arms deal with Iran, would be less hostile toward Iran and by extension, its Lebanese allies.
While no significant Gulf immigrant community exists in the U.S. the Gulf media machine with its powerful and broad appeal to Arabic speaking communities, especially in the U.S., played a significant role in embellishing the image of the Trump presidency. With minor exceptions, Gulf media and major Lebanese satellite TVs created an image of Trump that stood in stark contrast to that which had formed around him in the U.S.
Iran is at the center of the Gulf media agenda. Trump and his associates, especially his son-in-law Jared Kushner, cozied up to the Gulf regimes — from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, to even Qatar, who is close to Iran. These close relations became clear in the several arms deals and in anti-Iran sanctions. This closeness reflected Gulf media’s friendly coverage of Trump and his 2020 presidential campaign.
Lebanese satellite channels mimicked Gulf media, whether by feeding pro-Trump coverage or by hosting experts who presented a polished image of his policies. The dissemination of this image earned Trump the support of Gulf States in negotiating economic and military sales deals. On another level, Trump was marketed as a savior to Christian immigrants because ISIS and Arab authoritarian regimes nudged Christians towards Western support, and the Trump administration was the ideal power to seek its protection. Arab Christian activists, at home and abroad, embraced this identification, which directed these sympathies into the American ballot box.
If the survival of minorities attracted Christians to Trump, the Gulf’s animosity towards Iran explains the warm relations developed between the Trump administration and the Gulf States, and by extension their media. This enabled the Gulf States to negotiate arms deals, which recent reports suggest the Biden administration will either halt or rethink.
All things considered, Gulf and Lebanese media subjected Arabs, including those in the diaspora, to vicious campaigns of disinformation about the Trump presidency. As a regular follower of this media coverage, whether through dispatches from the Middle East or broadcast and analyzed news here I neither read nor heard much about Trump’s domestic politics — corruption, nepotism, attitudes towards many immigrants, disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, etc. What mattered only to these media outlets were Iran and Hezbollah. Everything else was absent from the coverage.