יום רביעי, 3 באוגוסט 2016

How the GOP Lost Arab-American Voters

 Volunteers take part in the Yalla (which in Arabic means 'come on') Vote Walk October 24, 2004, in Dearborn, Michigan.

Volunteers take part in the Yalla (which in Arabic means 'come on') Vote Walk October 24, 2004, in Dearborn, Michigan.

In 2000, Arab-Americans were a sought-after GOP constituency. Now, in the Trump era, Republicans have alienated a voting bloc that could’ve offered them the chance to swing Michigan.

The 2000 presidential election was the Arab-American community’s apogee as a sought-after Republican constituency. But the community’s relationship with the GOP reached its nadir this year, run aground on the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic rhetoric that has fueled the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Now, Arab-Americans have turned away from the party that once won their support, and some fear the cultural divisions exposed by Trump’s candidacy. Because of Trump, the GOP has lost—perhaps for a generation—a voting bloc that could have offered the party both much-needed diversity and the prospect of helping put Michigan in play on the electoral map.


The GOP’s relationship with Arab-American voters began to fray after the 9/11 terror attacks. “Things got really messed up, is about the only way to describe it,” says John Truscott, a longtime Republican strategist in Michigan who was, at the time, a senior aide to Republican Governor John Engler. “It’s this racially motivated knee-jerk reaction. I think the whole [GOP] relationship with the Arab community went south very quickly, as they felt more like vulnerable targets of the anger.”

On April 28, 2003, Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido welcomes President George W. Bush to the city, where the president spoke before a largely Iraqi-American audience. In the Middle East, the speech was broadcast live on Arab satellite channels. | Getty Images

It manifested in the way Bush, once trusted by the community, framed the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in U.S. conduct both on and off the battlefield. In the days after 9/11, the Bush administration was careful to reach out to the Arab-American and Muslim communities, diligently building relationships between the communities and law enforcement, making sure that Arab-Americans understood that the Bush administration considered them allies, not enemies, in the fight against global terror.

But those outreach efforts contrasted with U.S. actions abroad. Ultimately, Arab-Americans, like many others, began to view the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as needlessly destructive, and its clumsy efforts at nation-building disingenuous. Abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo didn’t help, especially with emerging evidence that the administration’s domestic efforts to pursue suspected terrorists cast a wide net that implicated many, but resulted in few convictions.

All but nonexistent in America before 9/11, Islamophobia has risen sharply since according to a study by Gallup, driven by an organized network of misinformation all too willing to paint all Muslims with the brush of extremism.

“The Arab-American community and the Muslim-American community have two lives, one before 9/11 and one after,” says Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, the oldest and largest Arab-American newspaper in the country. “After 9/11, we were marked down several times.”

Life in Dearborn, clockwise from upper right: two volunteers prepare halal food for the poor; a football player at Dearborn’s Fordson High School throws a ball during Ramadan, when the fasting ritual drove the school to move football practice to nighttime; two children wait as their parents, Iraqi expatriates, vote in Dearborn in Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections; an Iraqi American man celebrates the death of Saddam Hussein.
The Arab-American community and the Muslim-American community have two lives, one before 9/11 and one after.” Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News

Courted in 2000 by Bush, the community didn’t enjoy the same desired status in 2004. Democratic candidate John Kerry, now secretary of state, sent his brother to meet with the community.

The meeting, Siblani said, happened at the airport.

Despite that hands-off campaigning, exit polls after the 2004 election showed that 85 percent of Arab-Americans had voted for Kerry. In 2008, 90 percent were for Barack Obama, who’d taken a similarly hands-off stance.

Siblani acknowledges that a candidate named Barack Hussein Obama had to be careful about his ties to the Arab-American community. But, he believes, the presence of an African-American man in the White House has engendered hate against other minority groups.

And Trump has played into it.

Trump has suggested that the U.S. bar Muslims from entering the country, using language that critics say legitimizes xenophobic fears that no Muslims are to be trusted. In December 2015, he suggested that the U.S. should forcibly close certain mosques (“Nobody wants to shut down religious institutions or anything, but you know. … We’re going to have no choice. Some really bad things are happening.”). Most recently, Trump attacked Ghazala Khan, the mother of a Muslim-American Marine killed in combat in Iraq, who stood by her husband’s side while he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Grief-stricken, she couldn’t speak. Trump insinuated that her religion barred her from speaking. Trump has hammered on the dangers posed by violence at home and abroad, insisting that radical Islam is an existential threat to America.
At the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit, Dearborn resident Moukhtar Alshamee demonstrates against terrorism during the January 2010 arraignment of suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year old Nigerian who allegedly attempted to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.
Trump’s mainstream surrogates deflect his comments, saying he’s speaking exclusively of Muslims affiliated with terror groups.

“He’s referring to radical Muslims. He’s not referring to a Muslim who’s been here for X number of years, is active in his community and is as American as anybody else,” says Saul Anuzis, chair of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005-2009. Through a spokesperson, current Michigan GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, who is supporting Trump, declined an interview. “Clearly there's a group of people who have been offended by what Donald Trump has said. There are others who understand his bravado, and it may have less of a determining factor.”

But most Arab-Americans aren’t buying it.

“I used to quite frequently see Arab-Americans identify on both sides of the aisle, proudly saying they’re Republican, proudly saying they’re Democrats, arguing back and forth,” says Ghida Dagher, who works in government affairs and on political campaigns. “Now, I struggle to find an Arab-American Trump supporter who truly believes in his platform. With any other presidential platform, that wouldn’t have been the case. Now it’s a consensus.”

Michigan is home to the largest Arab community in the United States, the second-largest outside of the Middle East. Present all over metro Detroit, Arab-Americans are concentrated on the east side of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that is home to the Ford Motor Co.’s world headquarters.

Demographers believe the U.S. Census undercounts Arab-Americans. Even so, the last update counted about 185,000 in Michigan, and it’s a safe estimate that Arab-Americans comprise as much as one-third of Dearborn’s 95,000 residents.

So how many voters could Michigan’s Arab-American community yield? Numerically, not that many—between 45,000 and 55,000, or about 1 percent of the state’s voting population, says Mark Grebner of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting.

But that’s not inconsequential.

“Winning elections in close states, you go through a process of addition, not subtraction,” says Truscott. “You know who your base is, and you’re getting them, no matter what. The winner is the one who is able to reach across to new groups and bring them into the fold.”

Arab-Americans, Grebner says, have the potential to swing Michigan’s statewide elections. Normally, states vote with their region—with rare exceptions, the upper Midwest tends to go Republican or Democrat as a group.

But, he says, “Once in a while, there’s a factor in a state that is not shared by the rest of the country.”

In Michigan, that factor is the Arab-American community. And the net effect of Michigan’s Arab-American outlier votes, Grebner says, has affected the state’s electoral outcomes. Heavily Arab-American precincts vote as high as 85 percent Democratic, he says, which has moved the state about 1 percentage point more Democratic.
A volunteer puts up a sign in a window as part of a 2004 election canvassing effort in Dearborn, sponsored by the Arab-American Institute. Volunteers spoke with residents, handed out voter guides and posted bilingual signs reminding people to vote on November 2.

Heavily Arab-American precincts have gone from purple to a deep blue.

As a result, Michigan is now about 1 percentage point further in the Democratic column.

In Michigan’s 1992 presidential primary, the Arab-American vote was split almost equally between the parties. In Michigan’s March 29 presidential primary, only one-third of Arab-Americans voted Republican—and in those east Dearborn precincts where Arab-Americans turned out for George W. Bush in 2000, just a few more than 400 ballots were cast for Trump.

The animosity Trump is brewing, says Mariam Bazzi, past president of the Arab-American Political Action Committee, will reverberate down the ballot.

“I think people see the silence of the Republican Party towards Donald Trump, and I think they are going to take it out on local politicians, which isn’t necessarily fair,” she says. “There are some conservative people, some Republicans that don’t fall in line, who don’t believe in the ideology Donald Trump is spewing out, but I think there is going to be a spillover effect.”


Repeated terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims associated with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS help keep Arab-Americans marginalized. “We have to condemn terrorism. We keep condemning it, but then we’re always put in the position of not doing it enough,” says Siblani, the publisher of Arab American News. “Well, we can’t stop it. It’s a public relations campaign we will not be able to win.”

In January 2010, Dearborn resident Moukhtar Alshamee demonstrates during the arraignment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year old Nigerian who attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In the meantime, he says a well-financed network of Islamophobia hammers at Arab-Americans.

“This is unprecedented, the anti-Islamic climate that has been created by invasion of Iraq, 9/11, invasion of Afghanistan, interference in Syria, also U.S. ability or indecision in how to fight ISIS, that has created an emboldened ISIS more than anyone would believe,” Siblani says. “The result has been culminated by candidacy of Donald Trump.”

But for former Republicans like Siblani, there are no easy choices. Siblani’s newspaper endorsed Bush in 2000. And while he and other Arab-Americans have turned away from the GOP, Siblani says he doesn’t sit easily with the Democratic Party, in no small part because of U.S. actions during and after the Arab Spring revolts, and subsequent stance toward Syria. As Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton is inextricably linked to those events. And then there’s Israel. Unsurprisingly, Arab-Americans are more sympathetic to Palestine than are the mainstreams of either major political party, and the bias of each in favor of Israel can grate.

“Hillary Clinton is not better than George W. Bush when it comes to foreign policy,” Sibliani says. “He invaded Iraq; she led a covert invasion of Libya.” In Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary, he voted for Bernie Sanders.

People see the silence of the Republican Party towards Donald Trump, and I think they are going to take it out on local politicians.” Mariam Bazzi, past president of the Arab-American PAC

Anuzis, against all odds, believes the GOP can make the case for Trump to Arab-Americans: “No. 1, it’s a function of ‘he shares many of your values.’ He may not be the most articulate person with what he has to say with radical Islam and radical Muslims, but I believe most of the Muslims here are patriotic Americans who have accepted our culture and Western civilization, and are tolerant of others.”

But whether Trump can, or will, make a pitch to Arab-American voters is largely moot. He won Michigan’s Republican primary without any significant Arab support. In Dearborn, he took 39 percent of the GOP vote — a surprising outcome, and one that has contributed to a sense of unease for many Arab-Americans.

Dagher says it’s an uncomfortable feeling: “How many of my neighbors feel that same way, feel aligned with his rhetoric? … Do they truly believe every word out of his mouth? If that is the case, we do have a serious division and segregation happening.”

A volunteer puts up a sign in a window as part of a 2004 election canvassing effort in Dearborn, sponsored by the Arab-American Institute. Volunteers spoke with residents, handed out voter guides and posted bilingual signs reminding people to vote on November 2. | Getty

It’s true even in Dearborn. Canvassing neighborhoods there for a campaign earlier this year, Dagher says she’s had doors slammed in her face: “You’re a Muslim, don’t come to my door.”

“For him to get as many votes, and for him to win in a city like Dearborn that has rich diversity … it makes you wonder what people really are like behind closed doors,” Bazzi says. “The people who support him say to me, ‘At least he says what he’s thinking.’ That doesn’t make it right. You’re telling me it’s wrong, but to say, ‘At least he says what he’s thinking’? It makes no sense to me.”

For Truscott, a lifelong Republican who is himself half-Lebanese, there are no easy answers.

“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do” in the November election, he says. “I keep holding out hope that the campaign is going to get a little more rational and he’ll stop being so bombastic. There’s a possibility … I’m waiting. My ultimate hope is that he becomes a more rational, mainstream candidate, a more normal person.”

He pauses, considering. “There’s no way I can vote for Hillary.”

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