A total of 10 scholars, based in Doha and Washington, DC, contributed to a one-day academic symposium hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies on the factors which led to the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in November. The meeting, held at the new campus of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, began with a lecture by Azmi Bishara, who spoke on the rapidly crystalizing cultural divides within traditionally democratic societies and the rise of populist rightwing movements.

The kind of isolationism which Trump purported, however, was qualitatively distinct from what many in the Arab region have grown used to over the past decade. According to Marwan Kabalan, speaking on the first panel to follow Bishara, “While [Obama] has avoided military involvements abroad, he was engaged in international diplomacy, signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the, for example and extending the system brought in by George HW Bush with NAFTA. Trump, on the other hand, really wants to withdraw the United States from the international arena.” In fact, Kabalan continued, Trump’s presidency could entirely undo the entire post-World War II international system based on the existence of a NATO bulwark against Russia.  According to Abdulwahab El-Affendi, another Doha-based academic who spoke at the meeting, had earlier suggested that this seemingly unshakeable global order was in fact the outcome of deliberate machinations which date only to the wake of the Second World War, when the Allies engineered a system intended to check the growth and reach of nationalism in the developed West. This entailed the unwinding of colonialism, said El-Affendi, in order to help create physical spaces where the new liberal regimes could exist and led the speaker to the counter-intuitive conclusion that “former colonies owe their independence to Hitler and Stalin”: worried that colonized peoples would be lured by homegrown nationalist and communist ideologues, Paris and London abandoned their plans to rule wide swathes of Africa and Asia.    

Ultimately, that withdrawal from colonization reached a crescendo with the “internalization of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ into the domestic affairs of established democracies like the United States”, a parallel made by Azmi Bishara during his opening lecture. This was a phenomenon not limited to American borders, however, with Bishara suggesting that Samuel Huntington would “turn in his grave” to realize that his theories of international relations were being embraced by the potentate in Moscow. Bishara argued that Putin, motivated by the “Eurasian” dreams of his theoretician Aleksandr Dugin to promote the creation of nationally homogeneous “Living Spaces” which allow autonomous civilizations their own geographical territories and political spaces, analogous to how students of Huntington understand the world.

Of particular interest to the audience at the symposium was how this would play out in terms of the Palestinian cause and American sponsorship of a Middle East peace agreement and a two-state solution. Ibrahim Fraihat, who worked at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution as a foreign policy analyst before joining the faculty at the Doha Institute, delivered a presentation focused specifically on this point. Fraihat detailed a number of the worries which many pro-Palestinians have with regards to the rise of Trump—including, for example, the unorthodox of the president-elect’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to become a special envoy to the Middle East, given the Kushner family’s strong connections to Israel—before going on to reassure the audience that this uniquely untested president-elect of the United States could only do a limited amount of damage to the Palestinian cause. “US foreign policy is defined by an establishment and the interests defined by that establishment: institutions, lobbies and large companies. The power of the presidency will be restricted, largely, to arranging those interests by order of priority.”  

More to the point, participants at the symposium in Doha viewed Trump’s electoral victory not in the framework of an international conflict, but rather as one which pitted different strata of American society against each other. The resentment which saw a former First Lady defeated by a real estate speculator was fueled, said Mark Farha, speaking during the second session, by a surging class resentment which saw the real income of the most Americans collapse over the past five decades, while unemployment now affected one in four in the labor force. All of this highlights the point made by Bishara at the beginning of the one-day workshop that “The [real] challenge to the rule of Trump will come not from international affairs but from his own domestic audience”.