American Studies students outside at the U.S. Consulate Election Party, November 9, 2016
It was Election Night in America when I stumbled into the Mahmoud Darwish Room at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah a few minutes after 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday November 9. The room, named for Palestine’s most celebrated poet, was brightly festooned in red, white and blue bunting, and men and women in business attire were already clustered around large screens on the walls.
The occasion was a post-election breakfast, sponsored by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem in cooperation with the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, with Consul General Donald Blome as the host. Visiting State Department officials from Washington D.C. chatted with Ramallah businessmen. West Bank Fulbright fellows had scored invitations . . . and the Consulate had kindly allowed me to put my 17 Al-Quds University graduate students in American Studies on the list as well. It was the least I could do – to introduce them by proxy to an American ritual. And show up they did, doing the program proud with their enthusiasm and their growing knowledge about U.S. affairs and institutions.
The Consulate had asked me and my colleague Dan Kryder to speak for a few minutes as U.S. experts . . .but as the hour for my talk approached I found myself unnerved. The chatter on the televisions when I arrived in the Darwish room was about “razor-thin” margins and the prospect of a “long night.” By the time Chris Hodges from the consulate was getting ready to introduce me, however, it was shortly after midnight (U.S. Eastern time), and I was coming swiftly to the realization that the “razor” was cutting Clinton more deeply than Trump. I walked around the room in a bit of a daze, trying to assimilate the sea-change that seemed to be coming. I was going to have to talk in real time to 100 or so diplomats, businesspeople, students, and scholars about the emerging developments.
I was contending with my own flailing emotions, in a situation that didn’t fully allow for them. The Consulate’s party, after all, was a non-partisan affair. The State Department personnel in attendance were strictly prohibited by penalty of law from expressing their political opinions. While I was not myself in any formal way bound by the Hatch Act, it would have violated the spirit of the event to take sides. In any case, my students were in attendance, and my own style as a teacher has always been to keep my own political opinions more or less off the table in the classroom and in student company.
Somehow I got through it. I said something that I basically believe – that the democratic institutions of the United States are strong, and that they have overcome bitter partisan divides (and incompetent presidents) in the past. (It is true, however, that in one tragic case it took a four-year Civil War to settle the issues.) I also tried to convey to the West Bank audience the diversity of the American population . . and something about the “dislocation” felt by so many white people in small towns and rural communities. I drew for inspiration on my own visits to and conversations with my close friend Michael Tierney in Harts Country, West Virginia, on my recent reading of Larissa MacFarquhar’s powerful reporting from nearby Logan County in the New Yorker last month, and also on George Packer’s masterful book The Unwinding. I did my best to conceal my inner turbulence – dwelling on the long view rather than what the unfolding results were saying about us as a nation. I spoke in something of a haze, and I’m not sure how I concluded or whether I came across as muddled or vaguely coherent.
Spending the next 90 minutes with my students, however, was cheering. They were sensitive to the historical consequences,. . but they were also removed enough just to enjoy the occasion: sampling the plentiful buffet; donning the red, white, and blue hats and foam Statue of Liberty crowns that the Consulate had provided for photo ops; basking in the attention of senior officials from Washington D.C. Their pleasure in the moment was a welcome distraction.
Some of my students – especially those who have spent time in the U.S. or who work closely with American institutions – were profoundly repelled by the idea of a Trump presidency. They have a passionate but not uncritical respect for American ideals, and they found the prospect of a U.S. president who has so openly flaunted his prejudices deeply disturbing. Leadership by insult, they felt, was common enough around the world, but it astonished them (even beforehand) that half of the U.S. electorate believed that Mr. Trump would make the better president.
Yet others – and many other Palestinians I have spoken with this week – felt little shock and little apprehension. The most common Palestinian reaction that I heard went something like this:
When it comes to the situation of the Palestinian people, there was little difference between Clinton and Trump. U.S. policy has been to “stand with Israel,” and neither of the major-party candidates are likely to break with that tradition. Sure, leaders in both parties have sometimes made noise about the two-state solution, and have tried to broker deals. But these efforts come to nothing, because in the end the American government has never shown a willingness to put any real pressure on the Israeli government to find a solution. The Americans make some public statements about restraining the growth of settlements, but when the Israeli government ignores them, there are no consequences. The Democrats – Clinton among them – have contributed more rhetoric about justice for the Palestinian people, but in the end the left has not created any real action. Clinton or Trump, Democrat or Republican – no change is likely. Sure, Trump may clamp down on visas for Arab visitors, and Muslims in America may face some discrimination . . .but the American government’s position towards Palestine is unlikely to be fundamentally different than it has been before.
That, as I say is a summary of the most commonly-held position that I have heard: Clinton or Trump, it made no difference. But a number of people I spoke with this week went further: they argued, in different ways, that a President Donald Trump might very well be better for the Palestinians than a President Hillary Clinton would have been.
One smart lawyer told me that Trump’s frank antipathy towards Muslims and his smarmy coziness with Bibi Netanyahu was actually refreshing and helpful to the Palestinian cause. These attitudes, he suggested, were deeply ingrained in American politics and society. But the Democrats have generally been better about masking them. Democrats adopt lots of high-flown rhetoric, and John Kerry earned thousands of frequent-flier miles. But in the end the Democrats tend to be in lockstep with their Jewish supporters – no less than their Republican counterparts. A Trump administration, this Palestinian professional argued, will have no scruples about putting its cards on the table. It may well encourage Israel to speed up the process of settlements – and even to consider annexation of the West Bank. The frank and open expression of this point-of-view from the American side will help people around the world – and Palestinians themselves – understand just where the U.S. really stands. This will in turn help mobilize resistance in the Palestinian community and rally external support.
This is a variation on the point-of-view that once had a following among African American civil rights workers – that it was actually better for the movement when unabashed racists were in charge of governments, rather than spineless liberals.
A seasoned Palestinian diplomat advanced a different argument to me. Trump, he told me, will be a truly terrible American president when it comes to foreign policy. He knows little about diplomacy, and he disdains alliances. His idea that everything is a win/lose “deal” will cost the U.S. dearly on the international scene. As a result, under a Trump presidency the U.S. will grow weaker as a global power, losing its power and prestige. Rather than a unipolar world order, we will at last have a genuinely multi-polar world order, where the U.S. will grudgingly have to share the stage with China and Russia. (Perhaps two years ago he would also have mentioned the European Union as well, but now . . . ) The Palestinians will benefit from a multi-polar world, because a weaker U.S. will not be able to back Israel as successfully. China, for example, may also play a part in backing the Palestinian cause (for its own self-interested reasons, naturally). Trump’s deficiencies just might pay off for Palestine.
A businessman I spoke to had a third theory: that Trump’s unpredictability and independence meant that he might be able to do things for Palestine that Clinton – with all of her political baggage – could never achieve. Sure Trump enjoyed the support of Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson . . .but no one could really think that Trump was actually “beholden” to Adelson in any serious way. Billionaires don’t “owe” anything to one another. Trump owes no one anything, he has no entrenched positions on the Middle East, and he likes “deals.” It’s worth waiting and seeing whether he just might be the one who could actually take the unorthodox position of putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation –for whatever mysterious reasons may move him.
These are not positions of extremists. They are all from people who are not only “moderates” in Palestinian political opinion, but who have actively worked with Israelis on the political and economic fronts. Still, for all of them, ending the occupation is the overriding concern. However odious Mr. Trump might be as a person, that’s the Americans’ problem. They are looking at the prospect of his leadership from a frankly self-interested Palestinian point-of-view.
It is hard to blame them. After 49 years of occupation, it’s easy to understand why Palestinians feel that they do not have the luxury of looking at the broader landscape. Their lives are hemmed in by checkpoints, restrictions on their travel, a hobbled economy, and little access to justice or the rule of law. Trump offers them, too, a prospect of “change” that the U.S. “establishment” has not provided. His sexism and racism are beside the point. Even the likely consequence that obtaining a visa to the U.S. will be harder and harder for Arab visitors and students pales in comparison to any chance to alter the local politics.
These are the arguments that have been offered aloud. Beneath the surface of some of my conversations, I have also detected an undercurrent of satisfaction that the 2016 election represents a kind of come-uppance to liberal Americans. Reading tone of voice and wry smiles is an uncertain art, but what I thought I was hearing was this:
The United States has been exposed for what it really IS: a nation with deep divisions, deep anger, and a firm commitment to its own self-interest. High-minded politicians (and scholars!) disguise American self-absorption well, but it’s an underlying fundamental truth. If the Trump revolution unmasks some of the hypocrisies of American liberals . . well that’s not altogether a bad thing.
By and large I have just been listening. This is a humbling moment in many ways, and my own opinions are perhaps not so important. I do, however, worry that my Palestinian friends and colleagues are underestimating the dangers of unpredictability and instability. Things are very bad in the Middle East – notably just miles away in Syria. But if the United States becomes a flagrantly irresponsible actor in the region and around the world, things could get worse, the conflicts even wider. It has happened before. And when things get worse, the powerless suffer. Some of my Palestinian friends may think that they have nothing more to lose, but I worry that in this they are wrong.
I don’t want to overdo this pessimism – either among my Palestinian colleagues or in my own reaction. As I have said in earlier posts, my students and many others whom I know here are not fatalists. They detest the occupation, but they also embrace the responsibility that they as Palestinians have to make changes within their own society – to whatever extent that they can. They are not sitting around waiting for the Americans to make a dramatic move, nor are they wallowing in self-pity. They are instead thinking about how to improve their own institutions, while at the same time seeking some stability and growth in their own personal situations. If they are just a little cavalier about this American moment, I cannot hold it against them. We Americans can’t expect much sympathy for our plight!