Trump: The American Ahmadinejad?

Donald Trump

by Shervin Malekzadeh

[Given the outcome of the US presidential election, LobeLog is republishing this commentary from February]

Western coverage of Iran has long relied on the convention of describing important public personalities as the Persian version of their American counterparts, replicas of the real thing. The Iranian Brad Pitt. The Iranian Frank Sinatra. The Madonna of Iran.

Last week’s Republican primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina presented us with an opportunity to reverse the construction, to exchange modifier with object, by confirming what has long been evident: that Donald Trump is the American Ahmadinejad.

As populists gifted with a preternatural ability to understand their country’s low mood, Trump and Ahmadinejad possess the authenticity of the non-politician and newcomer who says what he means. One is a brash businessman from the outer boroughs and the other a blacksmith’s son, but they both give voice to those who feel like they have no say. They are impervious to good manners or the pieties of good politics, their rhetoric is corrosive to the prospect of civil discourse, and they represent permanent thorns in the sides of their respective political establishments. And both men have nonetheless forced their societies to reckon with truths long unspoken, a necessary precursor to the improvement of the polity. In their reckless, emperor-has-no-clothes style of politics, Trump and Ahmadinejad demonstrate why it is necessary to destroy taboos as a salutary act, even as they remind us of why we need taboos in the first place.

Ahmadinejad gained celebrity in the U.S. for his scandalous repertoire, asserting, among other things, that the Holocaust was a lie “based on an unprovable and mythical claim.” Like Augusto Pinochet adorned in cape and Cold War sunglasses, Ahmadinejad’s affect and performance in his interviews with Western journalists affirmed what many Americans already took to be the Islamic Republic’s worst qualities. Iran’s sixth president played the part of the “petty dictator” so broadly and enthusiastically that one couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a put-on, an act designed to shore up his prestige with his real audiences back home in Iran and in the developing world.

Trump is no less the performer, an entertainer with an actual celebrity TV show. A candidate who shuns the dog-whistle for the bellow of an unfiltered Twitter feed, with his relentless tirades against immigrants, women, and his rivals in the GOP, Trump espouses a naked politics of division that nonetheless adheres to the reproduction of the welfare state, an American version of herrenvolk democracy. Transparently phony in his religiosity, unapologetic in his opposition to abortion and defense of Planned Parenthood, Trump speaks for a voting public no longer amenable to the bait-and-switch. His campaign is a “delivery vehicle” for beliefs that the Republican Party “has long exploited without satisfying: racism, nationalism, xenophobia.”

Confusing callowness for integrity, the supporters of Trump and Ahmadinejad have managed to elevate their candidates into accidental agents of change. After eight years of chaos and crisis in the domestic and foreign policy realms, a new dynamic of governance has emerged in Iran, a reaction in part to the catastrophic years of the Ahmadinejad administration. The unexpected election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in 2013 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, unprecedented in the postrevolutionary Iran.

Trump appears to be having a similar, catalytic effect on the GOP, where the threshold for change could not be much lower. The rejection of plain truths in Charleston—including the fevered, even savage response to Trump’s observation that George W. Bush was president when the September 11 attacks occurred and therefore bears some measure of blame for the more than 3,000 lives lost on American soil—shined a klieg light on the remaining red line from that era, turning it ruby red before a national audience. When Jeb Bush insisted that his brother kept the country safe while Donald Trump was chasing his reality TV career, Trump replied, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that?”

It was an astonishing scene that will surely haunt the Republican Party for years to come. As James Poulous and others have pointed out, the exchange exposed the cognitive dissonance that continues to affect many in the Republican Party, and that may yet tear it apart. That calls for waterboarding and the mass deportation of nearly 12 million men, women, and children for the crime of violating immigration laws also drew cheers in the previous week surely did not go unnoticed by moderates and the dispassionate Republican viewer watching at home.

Analysts and observers throughout the summer and fall of 2015 coolly dismissed Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the national and local polls as a passing novelty, a candidacy certain to tumble gracelessly back down to earth. If the numbers in Iowa or in New Hampshire said otherwise, if in the final instance the laws of political gravity could be countervailed, then there was always the turn to magical thinking: Trump won’t become president because he simply can’t, can he? After New Hampshire and South Carolina the answer is indubitably, Yes he can.

Therein lies the irony, the point where comparisons between Ahmadinejad and Trump diverge. After four years of Ahmadinejad, worn out by rampant inflation and an international reputation ruined by their president’s overseas antics, the voting public in Iran turned out in June 2009 to turn Ahmadinejad out, only to see their votes taken away, triggering the greatest political crisis in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.

It took a disputed election to put Ahmadinejad back into office. Come July when the GOP gathers in Cleveland, Ohio to pick its nominee for the general election, only a rigged convention can keep Trump off the ticket. If Trump becomes the party’s candidate, we’ll see if the American voters can succeed where the Iranian voters failed: keeping a rude populist out of office.

Shervin Malekzadeh

Shervin Malekzadeh is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College where he is completing a book manuscript on post-revolutionary schooling in Iran from the perspective of ordinary families and local officials tasked with educating “the New Islamic Citizen.” Prior to coming to Williams, he served as Visiting Professor of Comparative Politics at Swarthmore College. A former schoolteacher and a regular visitor to Iran, as well as an accidental participant in the 2009 Green Movement, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Folha de São Paulo, among others. Shervin’s research and publications are available at his academic website,



  1. As much as I disagree with numerous positions and statements made by Donald Trump, I consider Shervin Molekzodeh’s allegation that Trump is the American Ahmadinejad to be absurd.

  2. Thank you Shervin Malekzadeh. This is the first I’ve seen or read a description and comparison of the uneducated Trump to uneducated and non-politician Ahmadinejad! Governing a country has never been, never is and never will be like operating a corporation! Corporations have only one goal in life and that is to make money for their shareholders and if they don’t it’d fold very quickly! But governing a country with 80 million individual interests and views in Iran or 300+ million interests and views in the USA is never easy! Trump may get elected in November but my concern is that he is going to blow it just like Ahmadinejad did! And then he is going to be the laughing stock of the entire world just like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! The countries will survive unlike the corporations!

  3. “Iran’s sixth president played the part of the ‘petty dictator’ so broadly and enthusiastically that one couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a put-on, an act designed to shore up his prestige with his real audiences back home in Iran and in the developing world.”

    If there was one thing that Iranians – including the ruling mullahs – liked about Ahmadinejad it was that, far from being an ignorant blowhard, he had an accurate knowledge of how to push American buttons – and every time he did so, America would give him precisely the knee-jerk response he was aiming for. He had virtually no power that couldn’t be immediately overridden by the mullahs, but he had many terrified Americans believing that he was a reincarnation of Hitler or Stalin – except maybe twice as evil, a view that was of course encouraged by Israel. (I always had an image in my mind of him making childish faces and thumbing his nose as he chanted: “nya-nya-nya the holocaust never happened, never happened, never happened, nya-nya.” I never believed for a minute that the Iranians, including Ahmadinejad were serious holocaust deniers. But I think they got a kick out of watching Bibi explode in a fit of holocaust-mongering.)

    I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet that most Republicans who support Trump do so, not because they think he has the answers to their problems with Washington, but more important, every time he opens his mouth he gives the finger to American government and all of its inept and/or corrupt and/or amoral departments and agencies. He also spits in the eye of the Republican party, whose base is equally pissed off with it as they are with government. It’s my guess that half of what appear to be his supporters will not in the end vote for Trump – not all Republicans are stupid enough for that – but making him a force to be reckoned with is a way to demonstrate their frustration. And if the media would only pay proper attention, they would see that Trump may also be mocking their stupidity in treating as completely serious the clowns who have unnecessarily swelled the ranks of presidential candidates over the past few elections.

    So, yes, both Ahmadinejad and Trump are performers and both enjoy(ed) great success with the American public – and the American media. Indeed, it’s their effect on Americans and their media that’s as important as the performances. And that needs to be studied in much more detail. I think the fate of the American republic/empire/whatever may depend upon it.

  4. The trouble in the USA election is that there are no candidates that have the stature of a president. They all look like amateurs. Clinton is a frustrated revenant. Bernie Sanders is an anxious idealist.
    Trump imposes with his strong personality, the absence of politically correct hang ups and this is maybe what the average Americans want now.

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