Four years ago and eight months before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote “Trump, the American Ahmadinejad?,” as a warning that not only was Donald Trump likely to win the GOP primary, but that the US was on the verge of producing its own version of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency, a homegrown, made-in-the-USA calamity whose corruption and incompetence would, unlike the Iranian version, have meaningful consequences for the entire world. This is the third, and I hope, last entry in the series.
It has become impossible to watch events unfolding in the final days of the US presidential campaign without thinking about another presidential race, the failed 2009 elections in Iran and the summer protests that became the Green Movement. The similarities, though imperfect, begin to add up: An unpopular president in an election year, a rude populist who lies about obvious truths leading what began as a movement of national renewal but that now more closely resembles a cult. The performative use of religion and masculinity by the leader to hold his dwindling constituencies together, the beguiled remnants of a losing coalition in its final days.
His opposition, led by an establishment figure come out of retirement, an uncharismatic figure incapable of generating the enthusiasm of his predecessor but who nonetheless runs a flawless campaign based on character and competence. On election day, an unprecedented turnout, citizens willing, even eager, to wait in long lines to cast their ballot for change. In the final stages of the election the defeat of the incumbent appears all but certain, despite warning signs that winning the vote won’t be enough to win, that victory may come down to will and the use of force.
Comparisons between Iran and the US tend to run in one direction, namely how Iran might improve by becoming more like the US, freer, more democratic. This essay asks the reader to look in the opposite direction, to consider the possibility that here, in the final hours before election day, with store fronts in major cities boarded up in anticipation of post-election violence and confronted with the spectacle of campaign busses run off the side of the road by partisans, cheered on by the president and at least one sitting US senator, it is the US that is in need of help.
Trump has made it clear that he does not intend to accept tomorrow’s results unless the right side — his side — wins. There is no reason to not take him at his word. Eleven summers ago Iranians, facing similar circumstances, responded by doubling down on the electoral wager rather than backing down before a tinpot, determined to make sure that their votes mattered in the end.
Their experience is available for the taking, and should not be refused or dismissed out of hand simply because formal democracy in Iran does not exist, or is a figment of what Americans imagine a real democracy ought to be. If Iranians are willing to struggle in a system such as their own, then there is no excuse for American voters, with all of the advantages available to them, to not do the same.
What follows are three basic lessons we might take from each other, ways to ensure that democracy continues to exist in the US, and what to do when leaders attempt to take away our votes and our rights. This brief essay is, above all, an account of what happens when an electorate insists on being recognized as citizens, as fully human, the story of how the members of a long aggrieved population takes possession of their own dignity.
Lesson 1: Show up
Iranian voters may doubt the efficacy of their ballots, but they still show up at the polls. They do so, voting at rates rarely seen in the US, because they expect elections to be rigged. Even in 2013, with the threat of violence and the memory of 2009 hanging over the election resulting in a “down” year, well over 70 percent of the voting age population, some 37 million Iranians, showed up on election day.
Mobilization is a non-negotiable imperative for the opposition in Iran, as low turnout — anything below 60–65 percent — favors the status quo. The organization of the non-voter and of large numbers of irregular voters provides the best and perhaps only means for Iran’s opposition to overcome the structural barriers arrayed against them, most notably the illiberal screening of eligible candidates by the Guardian Council. (Unlike the GOP, the Iranian authorities see advantage in bringing out large numbers of voters on election day, as it makes for good television, “proof” of the public’s love for the revolution.)
Like Iran’s reform movement, the Democrats simply cannot afford to leave any voter behind. Biden doesn’t just need a win, he needs a blowout, one that is undeniable and preferably evident on election night. By one estimate, Biden’s chances of an Electoral College victory stands at 46 percent if he wins the popular vote by “only” 3 percent; that figure plummets to a paltry 6 percent chance if he beats Trump by 1 point.
No one doubts that the democratic opposition in the US will win the most votes on November 3rd. No one can say for sure that the incumbent regime will lose or give up power. Borrowing from the work of Levitsky and Way, if the US were Iran, we would treat November 3rd as an “inflection point.” Biden needs a win that not only puts him over the top in the EC count, but that puts the election in territory that deters intervention by the judicial branch, above all the Supreme Court, which the current president views as his personal Guardian Council.
All indications are that Biden is going to get the numbers he needs. Two years ago I argued that “the problem of [American] democracy is the nonvoter, the nearly 103 million Americans who either refused or were unable to cast a ballot in 2016.” As of Monday, November 2, nearly that many Americans have voted early, an astonishing two-thirds of all ballots cast in 2016 already in the books. Texas alone saw nearly 10 million voters participate before November 3rd, an astonishing 108 percent of its entire 2016 total.
The turnout numbers we’re seeing across the country should serve as a warning signal to the GOP. Put bluntly, big turnouts have the added benefit of making it harder for aspiring despots and their cronies to ratfuck their way to reelection. Trump and the GOP, for all their efforts to throw election day into chaos, remain dependent on the veneer of democratic legitimacy. They rely on plausibility, for the results to be close enough to put their efforts within cheating distance. Turnout denies them the option, makes Trump’s plan to declare victory at the first opportunity a moot point.
The moral investment in voting becomes the predicate for what comes next, the vigorous defense of that vote should it become necessary. When millions of votes vanished in the early morning hours of June 13, 2009, Iranians immediately turned out in the streets, demanding to know, Where is my vote? The voter standing on line in the rain in central Florida, the North Carolina father who brings his young son to witness his dad cast his first-ever vote, are unlikely to expect any less.
Lesson 2: Stay
It was unimaginable on election night in 2009 that the authorities would cheat. The feeling on the ground and amongst the leadership of the opposition was that the nezam wouldn’t dare. After all, the numbers were there. After four years of Ahmadinejad, worn out by endless crises at home and a national reputation ruined abroad by their president’s antics, Iranians turned up in record numbers to turn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad out, only to see their votes taken away, triggering the greatest political crisis in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.
The widespread and fast-moving protests that gripped the country throughout the summer of 2009 should be seen for what they were, an extension of voting, not its replacement, a necessary way for the electorate to hold its elected officials accountable
“Mass protest,” the Iranian journalist and dissident Ali Reza Eshraghi observes, “is like a medical treatment that is both poison and cure. It could expand the scope of participatory politicking or shrink it into more exclusionary and authoritarian forms of government.” Protests offered remedy for a body politic plagued by the pathologies of corruption and arbitrary rule. It was left up to Iran’s leaders to take or reject this difficult medicine.
Citizens took to the streets to preserve the system, to make it work for them and not against them. Counter-intuitively, demonstrations were, and remain still, an expression of hope, not abandonment. Protests have a long and proud pedigree in Iran, and should, for now, be seen as politics by other means, a way to avoid the change that comes by any means necessary. Less off with their heads and more do your damn job.
Show up, expect to lose, be prepared to stay. This is the lesson from 2009, the subsequent vindication of Mousavi and the Green Movement in 2013 teaching us once again what we already knew from Poland and Czechoslovakia under communism in the 1980s, or South Africa under apartheid, the wisdom of Beckett’s call to “ fail again, fail better.” Show up, expect to lose, let them know that you’re not leaving.
Lesson 3: Exit (End Game)
Trump and Ahmadinejad won as cagey disruptors, populists who defied the odds. Their victories over establishment figures sold as a release from the dead weight of the past. At stake was the promise, the illusion, of ending “politics as usual.” Norm-breaking would serve as their preferred mechanism for reform, under the theory that any disruption was “good” because the system was presumed to be “bad.”
They governed as they had run, as entertainers, the manner of their victories not just a means to an ends but the thing itself. Ahmadinejad and Trump performed grievance, and a segment of the crowd chomped at the bread thrown their way.
The same spontaneous and undisciplined behavior that had made both men such appealing figures on the campaign trail and on television fueled the mismanagement and corruption of their respective governments. Ill-mannered by disposition and constantly drawn to the din of unnecessary conflict, Ahmadinejad and Trump presided over administrations marked by constant turnover and the absence of ability among the rank and file.
Whereas their supporters sought improvement in their daily lives, for their loyalty they received incompetence and insouciance instead. Trump’s transgressions have produced the same policy outcomes as they did under Ahmadinejad, which is to say, not much.
Their erratic and tempestuous style proved to be corrosive to the ties that bound the president’s ruling coalition together. Iran’s already fractious conservative wing has yet to recover from Ahmadinejad’s time in office, and remains unglued to this day, a preview of the ruinous fate awaiting the GOP after November 3rd.
After eight years of chaos and crisis, a new dynamic of governance emerged in Iran in 2013 that lasted nearly a decade, a reaction to the catastrophic years of the Ahmadinejad administration. The unexpected election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency was a consequence of the tacit agreement between ordinary and elite Iranians to seek change through electoral politics and to forge a path of national reconciliation based on centrist and coalitional politics, a self-made thermidor, unprecedented in postrevolutionary Iran.
All indications are that the current US administration will come to a similar, ruinous end. The president’s ceaseless pursuit of affirmation, combined with a limitless capacity for self-undermining behavior, has revealed the GOP to be a party without options, the proverbial orchestra on the top deck of a sinking ship. (It has taken years for Iran’s conservative wing to recover from Ahmadinejad’s time in office, aided, ironically, by the misbegotten “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump administration. With Iran’s security forces on a war footing as a result of the US sanctions regime and increasingly willing to use offical violence to quell a restless population at home, the democracy movement in Iran has gone into retreat, discredited ahead of next year’s pivotal presidential election.)
As for Ahmadinejad, he remains a toxic figure within Iran, shunned by his political peers and much of society, consigned to making absurd proclamations on Twitter. Trump appears to be headed to a similar end, an oversized giant on social media with little else to show for his efforts. Trump is certain to become a disposable figure, a scapegoat for the sins of his party, remembered if at all as a politician whose toxic mix of arrogance, abrasiveness, and self-confidence did as much to divide his own camp as it did society at large.
For all of their shared qualities, one crucial difference sets Trump apart from Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s noxious bellowing remained for the most part aspirational, penned in by his country’s relative weakness and corralled by the authority of the more cautious and temperate Khamanei. It was Khamanei who acted as the guardrail, and it was Khamanei, not Ahmadinejad’s letters, that approved backchannel communications with the Americans via Oman which led to the current nuclear treaty. Safeguards and restraints meant that there were always breaks on Ahmadinejad’s bad behavior, so that his sound and fury largely went nowhere.
No such boundaries exist for Trump, despite the professed efforts of his aides. There is no Supreme Leader, no version of the current GOP competent or brave enough to stand up to the administration as it continues on its unconstitutional, perhaps treasonous path. Whatever guardrails once existed within the White House have long been dismantled, replaced by sycophants and strivers.
For years Ahmadinejad played the part of the madcap tyrant on TV, faithfully performing his clownish act for American audiences, performed against a rotating stable of straight men, all eager for the ratings of an interview with the Iranian ‘dictator.’
He turned out to be a simulacrum of the real thing. The truth is that America had its own Ahmadinejad from the start. What we imagine tyranny to be was already here, within us, gnawing at our conscience while we doom scroll through an early morning twitter feed in search of the latest catastrophe.