Warning From the Syrian Border: Trump Reminds Us a Bit Too Much of Assad

"We are scared. For all of us, not only you," a Syrian doctor says of a potential Donald Trump presidency

Studies have shown that the trait that predicts support for Trump is a voter's authoritarian leaning. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY—I've been interviewing Jalal Nofal and Beshr al-Haj Hussein – both psychologists from Damascus who now live in this border town in southern Turkey – for about an hour, when al-Haj Hussein turns the tables on me. "We have a question for you," he says. "How can the American people vote for Donald Trump?"

The two men laugh. I say I'm worried that if elected president, Trump would rule as a strongman, authoritarian-type figure.

"You will have your Assad!" says Nofal, who was arrested several times by the Assad regime for his work in the Syrian revolution, and has been in Turkey for 15 months.

"It's scary," I respond. "Actually, we are scared," says al-Haj Hussein. "For all of us, not only you." He then says something I don't fully catch about "doomsday," but his point is clear: Trump is an unpredictable madman, who could spell destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Both doctors make the comparison between Trump and Assad partially in jest, and it's important not to push the analogy too far. Still, these men fled an authoritarian regime guilty of some of the worst crimes against humanity in decades, and their fear of a Trump presidency shouldn't be dismissed. Trump is regularly compared with Russian President Vladimir Putin, about whom he has spoken admiringly. Trump could also be compared to Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose crackdown on the press and consolidation of power might serve as a template of sorts for a President Trump. What all of these figures share is an authoritarian grip on power — one Trump seems more than ready to emulate, and his supporters seem to want in a leader.

Studies have shown that the trait that predicts support for Trump is a voter's authoritarian leaning. Trump's continued success in the Republican primary suggests the amount of latent authoritarianism in the United States may be greater than previously acknowledged.

Whatever strongman one prefers as an analog, none are particularly comforting. In the United States, discussions of authoritarianism are rare, and often dismissed as hyperbolic. But for many observers, Trump's dictatorial inclinations are obvious – from his constant performance of dominance in Republican debates, to his promise to "loosen up libel laws" to make it easier to retaliate against the press, to his pledge to bring back torture and "a whole lot worse." He does not discuss policy, he discusses power – namely, his power.

The feeling here in Gaziantep is reportedly shared by leaders worldwide. "I am getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made," President Obama said in early April, referencing both Trump and his then-rival Ted Cruz. Just weeks prior, Secretary of State John Kerry said the GOP primary was worrying heads of state around the world. "Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it," Kerry said on CBS's Face the Nation. The following day, State Department spokesperson John Kirby doubled down on the comments. "Virtually every foreign leader the secretary meets with expresses concerns about the campaign rhetoric here in the United States, and expresses a fair bit of angst about where things are going," he said. And The Guardian recently reported that top diplomats and government officials used the following string of words to describe a possible Trump presidency: "Dangerous, foolish, irrational, scary, terrifying, irresponsible, a clown, a disaster."

For Nofal, Trump's rise is baffling. "How [is it that] civilized people, like Americans, can choose that? How?" he asks. "Fear," I respond. "Fear of what?" he asks, genuinely curious. Islamophobia, first and foremost, I say. Fear that ISIS is going to sneak up through the Mexican border. Fear that white Americans are losing ground to black Americans and Latinos. I say Trump's ascendancy seems to be built on a fear that what The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander calls America's racial caste system is eroding, and that Trump can maintain it even in the face of demographic shifts.  

"He is a descendent of the Ku Klux Klan," Nofal says. I note that he's not so far off: Trump at first declined to disavow David Duke's support. Nofal then compares the way whites treat blacks and Latinos in America to the way many Europeans are discriminating against refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones. "You're both Americans," he says, of the different races in America. "How are you fearful of them?" I respond by talking about slavery and the American Civil War. Sitting just miles from where the Syrian Civil War continues to be fought, our conversation is a reminder that even when the fighting eventually stops in Syria, whatever is left of the country will almost certainly remain fractured for generations.

Whipping up fear of the "other" is a common tactic to rally support of a homogenous ethnic group, and one Trump has successfully exploited. Even after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump has continued to say he would ban all Muslims from entering the country. (He has made a possible exception for Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Muslim mayor of London, and recently referred to the proposed ban as "just a suggestion.") An anti-Muslim folktale has become a part of Trump's stump speech; he retells a myth of a U.S. general dipping bullets in pig's blood to execute 49 Muslims, leaving one alive to tell the story of what happened.

The fear Trump traffics in is not limited to Muslims, of course. The rocket fuel for Trump's candidacy was his early claim that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. His company has been accused of practicing racist housing policies. His comments about women often seem more appropriate in a men's rights activist's message board than in mainstream discourse. The list goes on. Many pundits thought his hateful comments would tank him, but they didn't — perhaps because, among Republican primary voters, implicit and explicit appeals to authoritarian tendencies are a winning strategy.

After my conversation with the two mental heath experts, I ask my translator, Abdel Salam Dallal, if he's been following any candidates besides Trump. He says he supports Bernie Sanders, because he finds him to be the "most logical" candidate, and his message of the dangers of wealth inequality resonate with him. "Yes, we here in Gaziantep are feeling the Bern," Dallal says, after I explain the English homonym in Sanders' catchphrase.

Despite the support from the good people in Gaziantep, it now seems all but certain the general election will be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When it comes to the role the U.S. will play in the world in the next four years, there's much to be worried about: Clinton's hawkish tendencies and penchant for regime change are a cause for concern among U.S. progressives, and Trump's strongman approach terrifies people around the globe. Whichever candidate wins, the United States will be poised to increase the amount of violence it unleashes on the world – either domestically, against racial and ethnic minorities, or abroad, in so-called humanitarian interventions.

On the drive to the Gaziantep airport, there's a highway sign for Aleppo. Just a short drive away, Syrians gather at the Turkish border to escape the onslaught of that city carried out by Assad and Putin. In the United States, this world, and the violence in it, feel far away — but in that moment they feel much too close.