The Secret Longing for a Despot

July 1, 2016

Decades apart, Donald Trump seems to be stealing notes from Ayatollah Khomeini’s playbook.

Donald Trump at Laconia Rally. Laconia, New Hampshire. July 16, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon.

Donald Trump at Laconia Rally. Laconia, New Hampshire. July 16, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon.

Even in the face of campaign-staff drama, refusal to reveal tax returns and “ devastating” fundraising woes, Donald Trump has maintained a body of vocal supporters—some identifying so strongly with their candidate that they’ve joined an online dating site to meet other Trump-minded singles. Trump’s ascendancy continues to confuse and mystify, but perhaps we shouldn’t be confused by the response to his blowhard tactics. They’re a lot like those super-nanny reality TV shows in which a British woman comes to your home to berate you for your horrible parenting skills. Or the relationship you might have with a trainer—he yells at you, tells you how fat you are and orders you to drop and give him 20, you pig! He says that your effort is a disgrace, those push-ups are an embarrassment, your abs are flab and you’ll never have his pecs. He has the best, classiest pecs, believe me, let me tell you. You may not want to hang out with him, you might find him rather disgusting, but he’s getting the job done. He’s like your own personal dictator, a cruel strongman who will get you a beach bod. And maybe that’s what’s behind the passion of Trump’s supporters: a secret longing for a personal despot.

Trump supporters aren’t the first bloc of voters to welcome their own plain-talking despot with open arms.

Trump supporters aren’t the first bloc of voters to welcome their own plain-talking despot with open arms. During the 1979 Iranian Revolution the people knew that they wanted change. Millions of protestors took to the streets representing disparate groups—some communists, some nationalists, some left-wing splinter groups—but they shared one goal: getting rid of the repressive shah of Iran. In swooped a charismatic voice, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He spoke to the masses in a language they could understand. He wasn’t beholden to Tehran’s urban elite. Cassette tapes of Khomeini speaking circulated around the country—the equivalent of viral YouTube videos. He made sense!

Trump and Khomeini have treated their political opponents to the same bombastic rhetoric. After the grisly tragedy in Orlando, Trump issued a public statement suggesting that President Obama may have had something to do with it: “ Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind.” The Washington Post reported on this statement, the way news organizations tend to do, and for that, its press credentials were revoked. For Trump, the Post is like all them Muslims, very ban-worthy. This isn’t isolated either because Trump has also barred Buzzfeed, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, the Des Moines Register, Univision, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Fusion. Khomeini took his relationship with the press a step further, of course, laying the groundwork for policies that have made Iran into one of the biggest prisons for journalists, so Trump has some room to “ grow.” If you have a secret longing for a despot, you should know that very generous restrictions on the press are part of the package.

Trump has also praised torture, vowing to use it when he’s in office, you know, the way despots do. I used to have a trainer who would tell me stories about how he beat up random dudes over the weekend. Maybe he should run for president. Trump also claims that when he takes out the terrorists, he plans on attacking their families as well, without regard to international law. Let’s not forget that he wants to track Muslims, Constitution be damned! Both despots, both dedicated to making lists—or, you know, “ registries”—based on religion and loyalty. The big difference between them is that Trump’s lists are for people who are too Muslim and Khomeini’s were for people who weren’t Muslim enough. Alas, opposites attract.

As the Republican convention gets closer, Republican leaders are taking part in the ritual process of falling in line: Supporting! Endorsing! Uniting! (Sometimes pausing to decry the odd bit of flagrant racism but basically falling in line.)

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” Khomeini would say. Wait, he didn’t say that—Trump did!

Trump’s supporters, endorsers and uniters have to look the other way . . . a lot. They’re hoping that Trump’s bombastic proposals are just empty rhetoric, that we won’t actually have to worry about a future President Trump instituting any of these policies. (Woah, just writing “ President Trump” gave me the heebie-jeebies AND the creepy-crawlies.) They reason that his racist bromides are just a ruse to get elected, that he doesn’t really mean it. But who knows? I bet a lot of countries thought they weren’t a ripe target for authoritarianism and then, kablam!

Khomeini too often made contradictory statements or went back on his word—he once famously declared, “ [The fact that] I have said something does not mean that I should be bound by my word.”Which sounds a lot like . . . Trump.

And like Trump’s message, Khomeini’s contained some creepy extremism. He wasn’t preaching that immigrants are rapists, but he was preaching a rather aggressive vision of Islam in Iran. But whatever, the stuff about returning Iran to its people and overthrowing the shah, that stuff sounded great.

The disparate parties fell in line—they united, they supported, they endorsed. The bloodless revolution was a success, and Khomeini took the reins. It was a victory! It felt so pregnant with possibility. Regime change was all they had wanted! And then . . . well that’s when one repressive regime was exchanged not for the revolutionary promise of freedom but for . . . another repressive regime. All the stuff about Khomeini that hadn’t been scrutinized, that supporters had glossed over in their thrall to his message of change—his views on women, his planned persecution of the Baha’is—became actual policy. Iran became an international pariah, and the people still yearn for a revolution because they never got the one they signed up for. All because they coalesced around the wrong guy.

Oh yeah, you know who else was a huge fan of torture? Khomeini. Because he was a despot. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” Khomeini would say. Wait, he didn’t say that—Trump did!

So if you or someone you know is going to support this guy or even just vote for him, you have to ask yourself, do I secretly want a despot? Do I really know what that means? Because a future President Trump won’t just give you the heebie-jeebies; he could ban or torture you and, when he’s done, take out your family. Because that’s actually what he says he would do. Maybe we should listen to him.