This week has seen some belated, tentative steps by elected Republicans to condemn President Trump: Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) both called the president unfit for office in dramatic fashion. But neither one is running for reelection, as Trump’s loyal voters would surely punish them for their apostasy if they did. If other Republicans are feeling similar concerns, they are staying silent. We can’t know whether this is because they lack moral fortitude to stand up against their base and join their voices with those of their departing colleagues or because they believe that they can effect change from within the system.
Like many revolutionaries before them, they may later regret going along with a leader who aspires to be a despot. In Iran, many of those who worked for and hailed the 1979 revolution came to regret the outcome. It is not a perfect comparison, but, as the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself perfectly — it rhymes.
During the 2016 campaign, I listened as a chorus of Republicans excused their support for Trump: They said they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the other candidate. They said having a conservative justice appointed to the Supreme Court was worth the four-year sacrifice. They said an Obamacare repeal was worth anything. I listened as they soothed themselves and one another by promising everything would be okay because the president was just hyperbolic.
As I listened, I thought about my parents, who had been Iranian revolutionaries in the 1970s but later suffered terribly at the hands of the people they helped bring to power. My father was executed, my mother exiled. I thought about how the way they were then is a lot like how the Republicans are now: willing to upend the old regime to usher in a new order regardless of the cost.
True, Trump is not the Ayatollah Khomeini. Unlike Khomeini, Trump doesn’t have a vision for this country; his cohorts may, but he does not. Apart from being a sometimes-successful capitalist, Trump doesn’t have a strong political or religious philosophy he wants to espouse. He is all about himself, so he is also about anyone or anything that will get him more power and wealth. Trump is a leader who is only compelling when he stands in opposition to something.
But when Khomeini came to power, he wasn’t the Khomeini we now understand, either. My parents were radical leftists, a part of the coalition of Iranians — communists and nationalists, the intelligentsia and the religious — who came together to oust Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his government in 1979. My parents chose to believe the ayatollah when he said the Islamic Republic would be a democracy under God. For more than a decade before the revolution, my parents and many other Iranians took to the streets shouting slogans about freedom for all and calling for independence from foreign influence. After the shah fled, my parents celebrated a democracy that may have been promised, but didn’t exist.
“For more than five months I tolerated, we tolerated, those who did not think as we do,” Khomeini said in a November 1979 interview with the New York Times. “They were free, absolutely free to do whatever they wanted. They fully enjoyed the freedom that was granted to them.” He continued, “We understood that they were taking advantage of our tolerance to sabotage us, that they did not want freedom but the license to subvert, and we decided to stop them. … [W]e shut them up.”
After the shah fled Iran, my parents rejoiced. They were Western-educated communists, and by that time, they had been working against the shah and his government for a decade. They believed the shah’s government was so corrupted, it needed to be pulled up by the roots. With near-messianic charisma, Khomeini was able to give voice to the outrage of people like my parents and the broader populace. Many Iranians, the religious and those who didn’t live in large cities, had long felt their traditional values had been rejected, undermined and disrespected during the decades-long reign of the shah. Many nationalists felt as if they had little or no control over their economic future. They were angry. Khomeini and his mullahs were able to capitalize on this fury: They called on national pride; they spoke about God and tradition. Khomeini’s speeches were fire and brimstone; he stoked prejudice and fear.
Not unlike Trump.
My parents expected great things from the revolution they helped foment. At minimum, they expected to have influence over the new regime; they expected reason and democracy to prevail — even if they didn’t believe in the demagogue at the helm. While my parents and their cohorts were on the far left of the anti-shah movement, there were those, such as the first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who were more closely aligned with the ayatollah and his system of belief. Bani-Sadr spent years at Khomeini’s right hand helping him craft the ideals of what he believed would be “non-theocratic spiritual Islam” that embraced the principles of “independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and development.” These principles, Bani-Sadr says, were more or less reflected in the first draft of the 1979 Iranian Constitution.
It took less than two years for Bani-Sadr to challenge Khomeini’s vision for Iran and find himself ousted in a coup blessed by the ayatollah — it was another sign that Iran had tumbled headlong into despotic rule.
More Republicans who are enthusiastic about Trump’s rhetoric and his half-baked agenda are in Washington (or probably arriving soon) to replace Corker and Flake, men such as Senate nominee Roy Moore in Alabama and freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte (Mont.), both of whom embrace Trump’s ethos of incivility. So it may come to pass that Trump’s narcissism and legislative incompetence are the best checks against our president’s despotic aspirations.
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Because my parents never publicly voiced their regret for choosing revolution, some of my relatives could never forgive them. Eventually, my parents did work against Khomeini’s regime. They both paid a high price for their political choices.
In the past, when my family members spoke about revolution, civic responsibility and blame, I sensed their frustration and anger, but I didn’t understand it.
Now, of course, I do.
Today we are in the midst of a hard rhyme between Iran and the United States. Where my relatives blamed the coalition of political groups who worked together to remove the shah from power, I find myself disgusted and furious with the Republicans who helped secure Trump’s victory. Not the true Trump believers all along — the tea party activists who I disagree with vehemently or the alt-right racists whom I abhor. My true scorn is reserved for those who should have known better. People such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), both of whom were so single-minded in their pursuit of blocking the Obama administration and advancing their own conservative agenda that they gave over their party and this nation to Trump and his cronies.
Trump, like all trolls, has been consistently hateful. He has been vocal about his ambition to upend the system. He is a man incapable of subtlety. He told us exactly who he was. Yet after each hateful slogan he spewed and every hate-filled rally he held, the Republican establishment moved closer to him. Few may have embraced Trump warmly — many held their noses — but the result remained the same: America’s conservative party supported, and supports, a man who wants to be a demagogue.
Now the rest of us are left waiting for the stalwarts of the Grand Old Party to either separate or wrest their party back from Trump and his deplorable army of sycophants. We are waiting for those who claim to be opposed to Trumpist politics to acknowledge that by pandering to a hostile base, they helped create this epoch of uncertainty and fear. We are waiting for those Republicans who believed they could influence an unstable administration to acknowledge their own foolhardiness. We are waiting for those who chose to overlook the president’s hate-tweets, hateful slogans, conspiracy theories and open sexism to repent. We can only hope they don’t have to repent for as much — and we don’t have to wait as long — as their counterparts in Iran.