For those of my particular political persuasion, who might be called liberal conservatives or conservative liberals, the spectacle of the Trump presidency has not been edifying. Donald Trump has always seemed to us as, at best, a dreadful aberration — a vulgar, amoral, narcissistic bull in a china shop who has degraded his office. Trump’s conduct after losing the 2020 election has only confirmed and deepened this impression, with his disgraceful attempt to delegitimize democracy itself.
For those of us who are mainly concerned with American politics, this is a largely uncomplicated position to take. But for those of us who are Israelis or simply Americans concerned with Israel, it is a profoundly unsettling thing — because it is impossible to deny that Trump has been extremely good for Israel and, indeed, for the cause of Middle East peace in general.
It is important even for those of us who despise Trump to acknowledge that in containing Iran, unconditionally supporting most American allies in the region, and finally brokering a series of normalization agreements between Israel and various Muslim countries, the Middle East may be the only place where Trump has enjoyed unalloyed success.
If Trump is to get credit for this success (as he should), it seems worthwhile to ask why he managed to achieve it when so many other presidents failed.
It may help to examine the conduct of Trump’s immediate and hapless predecessor Barack Obama. While Obama managed to alienate all of America’s major Middle Eastern allies, especially Israel, and empower Iranian tyranny, Trump managed to reverse almost all of these mistakes while bringing the kind of diplomatic breakthroughs that Obama dreamed of.
Ironically, it is the comparison to Obama that reveals those qualities that make Trump so disgraceful in other areas but that allowed him succeed in the Middle East. Obama, while far more admirable than Trump as a person, was immensely ill-suited to a place as violent and unforgiving as the Middle East. His ideological origins are in the progressive movement and the Black church, which both place enormous emphasis on the idea of redemption — the redemption of the individual and the redemption of the world. The goal is to make the world into a kind of righteous city of God, in which justice will reign forever. Most of the adherents of these movements know, on some level, that this is not fully possible; but it nonetheless guides their political conduct.
The problem with such an ideology, however, is that it cannot conceive of a world in which a great many people are not only unredeemed, but have no interest in being redeemed. Leaders like Vladimir Putin, for example, do not care in the least whether they are instruments of justice or redemption. To them, the world is beyond good and evil: dictated by the use of power, and a war of all against all that produces winners and losers, with nothing in between. This is, in fact, how politics was conducted for most of human history, and still is today in much of the world outside Europe and North America. The Middle East is certainly no exception to this rule. Indeed, I have often felt that affluent Westerners do not understand that their politics are like Downton Abbey, while Middle Eastern politics are like The Godfather. If you cannot understand this, as Obama could not, then one is doomed to embarrassing failure at best.
Ironically, then, the secret to Trump’s success in the Middle East is more or less exactly what makes him such a deplorable human being. The Middle East is an unredeemed place, and Trump, as an irredeemable man, was perfectly suited to it. He is also obsessed with power; uninterested in moral rectitude, which he views as weakness; lives a life that is beyond good and evil; sees the world as a war of all against all; and, as he constantly reminds us, divides that world into “winners” and “losers.” Indeed, his utterly disgraceful conduct since the election is likely caused almost entirely by Trump’s complete inability to even contemplate the possibility that he himself proved to be the “loser.”
In this sense, Trump’s triumphs in the Middle East may provide a lesson and a warning to his incoming successor, Joe Biden. If Biden is anything, he is a decent man; but he must remember that decency is not always an asset when confronting an indecent world often led by indecent people. Certainly, Biden should attempt to retain as much of his decency as possible. But in the Middle East, he should keep in mind that Trump succeeded because he is, in many ways, a terrible person; and that allowing just a little bit of Trump’s indecency to remain might not be an entirely bad thing.
Originally published at the Algemeiner.