Sarah Palin, meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

You two right-wing populists have a surprising amount in common

Topics: Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran, John McCain, R-Ariz., Middle East

Sarah Palin, meet Mahmoud AhmadinejadIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Sarah Palin.

Is Sarah Palin America’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves — even in their rocky relationships with party elders.

Both are former governors of a northwest frontier state with great natural beauty (in Ahmadinejad’s case, Ardabil). Both are known for saying things that produce a classic Scooby-Doo double take in their audiences. Both appeal to a sort of wounded nationalism, speaking of the sacrifice of dedicated troops for an often feckless public, and identifying themselves with the common soldier. They are vigilant against foreign designs on their countries and insist on energy and other independence.

But above all, both are populists who claim to represent the little people against wily and unscrupulous elites, and against pampered upper-middle-class yuppies pretending to be the voice of democracy. Together, they tell us something about dangerous competing populisms in an age of globalization.

Both politicians glory in being mavericks, as a way of underlining their credentials as representatives of the ordinary person. Former beauty queen Palin calls herself a hockey mom and plays up her avocation of wolf and moose hunting, to rally her rural supporters and, perhaps, to disconcert squeamish urbanites. Ahmadinejad, who earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering with top grades, is said to have once dressed up as a janitor and swept the streets when campaigning for mayor of Tehran. Most recently, his supporters have dismissed the Iranian protesters as pampered young people from the wealthy neighborhoods of North Tehran. In fact, both figures are themselves quite comfortable.

Palin portrays herself as the small-town outsider. “I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,”  she proclaimed last fall. She blamed her bad press on not being in the “Washington elite,” when, in fact, self-inflicted debacles such as her deer-in-the-headlights interview with Katie Couric, in which she demonstrated a shaky grasp of world politics, are a better explanation for media questions about her qualifications. In his debates with rivals for the presidency this spring, Ahmadinejad apparently damaged his standing with voters by attacking the wife of his electoral rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and tarring previous presidents of the Islamic Republic from the centrist and reform factions as having been corrupt. On June 5, he said on Iranian radio that since he was not a part of that closed “power circle,” he had been targeted for both a domestic and an international media “smear campaign.” Actually, Ahmadinejad was raked over the coals during the campaign by Mousavi for his ignorant and bigoted statements about Israel, which, Mousavi pointed out, had damaged Iran’s standing in the international community.

Both so-called mavericks have had tense relations with their party elders at times. Many Republicans have made withering statements about Palin and consider her a “train wreck,” and her conflicts with the camp of her former running mate, Sen. John McCain, are legend. Ahmadinejad got into hot water last week with his patron, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for appointing an overly liberal relative as his first vice-president. Ahmadinejad dragged his feet on firing the man, but in the end bowed to pressure from his fellow hard-liners. On Friday, the president was forced to deny that there was any rift between him and Khamenei. For a maverick populist, such conflicts with the party elders are useful in emphasizing their independence from the establishment even as they remain largely within it.

Both leaders see press criticisms as coordinated attempts to discredit them not from the media’s duty to examine a political figure’s policies or public statements, but from an elite conspiracy. In her farewell address about a week ago, Palin fell into a Shakespearean soliloquy directed at the media, saying, “Democracy depends on you, and that is why, that’s why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how ’bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quit makin’ things up.” Palin did not say what exactly she thought the media was making up about the American soldier. On June 16, in his first news conference after his officially announced victory in Iran’s June 12 presidential election, Ahmadinejad complained, “During these elections, our nation was faced with a widespread psychological war and propaganda by some of mass media which have not learned from the past.” The people, he boasted, followed not the media but the path of “the martyrs [in war] …”

An armed citizenry is important to Palin’s conception of the republic, and she warned in her farewell address, “You’re going to see anti-hunting, anti-Second Amendment circuses from Hollywood …” She continued, “Stand strong, and remind them patriots will protect our guaranteed, individual right to bear arms …” By talking about “patriots” “protecting” the individual right to bear arms, Palin skated awfully close to the militia or “patriot” movement on the right-wing American fringe (and not for the first time). Ahmadinejad is not similarly in favor of all citizens having guns, but he comes out of a popular militia, the Basij, which consists of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizen patriots, armed and pledged to defend the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Right-wing populism, rooted in the religion, culture and aspirations of the lower middle class, is often caricatured as insane by its critics. That judgment is unfair. But it is true that such movements often encourage a political style of exhibitionism, disregard for the facts as understood by the mainstream media, and exaltation of the values of people who feel themselves marginalized by the political system. Not all forms of protest, however, are healthy, even if the protesters have legitimate grievances. Right-wing populism is centered on a theory of media conspiracy, a “my country right or wrong” chauvinism, a fascination with an armed citizenry, an intolerance of dissent and a willingness to declare political opponents mere terrorists. It is cavalier in its disregard of elementary facts and arrogant about the self-evident rightness of its religious and political doctrines. It therefore holds dangers both for the country in which it grows up and for the international community. Palin is polling well at the moment against other Republican front-runners such as Mitt Romney, and so, astonishingly, is a plausible future president. At least Iranians only got Ahmadinejad because of rigged elections, and they had the decency to mount massive protests against the result. 

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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