Sans Harissa! A Chinaman in Tunisia

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I spent my summer in Tunisia working as an intern for iiDebate, a local NGO based in the capital city of Tunis. My interest in the country first started in 2015, my first year of university in London, when I read an article about the Nobel Prize-winning National Dialogue Quartet. I also met a close Tunisian friend at university who steadily built up my fascination with the country: a brilliant case study for a Political Science student like me. But I won’t be discussing Tunisian politics here. The topic is too interesting and complicated. It deserves its own piece. Rather, what I want to do here is report on my experience of the country: the culture, places, people and – of course – the food.

In-between existence

On a world map, Tunisia is pretty much at the centre of the world. Perched on the northernmost tip of Africa, the small country of 11.4 million people faces the southern shores of the Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles away from the picturesque island of Sicilia.

Looking northwards, it meets Europe, the vieux continent. Behind it, the great plains of the Sahara. Gazing east, the Arab world. Turning west, the Berbers and the Maghreb.  Situated in the midst of all these great powers – great civilisations even – Tunisian culture reflects this fact of the country’s in-between existence.

Tunisian Arabic is the dominant language which everyone speaks, a unique Arabic dialect unintelligible even to some Arabic speakers from other countries. Words and sounds influenced by Berber, Latin, French and even Spanish origins are alternated alongside traditional Arabic words to form a special dialect that is only spoken, not written.

Most Tunisians speak several languages, primarily due to having a French colonial history. Therefore, many Tunisians switch quickly between French and Arabic in conversations (and even English for young people), which makes listening to these conversations a somewhat surreal experience. The sounds being emitted can be, at once, both familiar and alien for an English-speaker like me in their cadences and pitch.

Tunisia’s cuisine has the same eclectic quality. Typical of any Arab country, meat and bread are staples, whilst the Mediterranean influence can be found in the common consumption of olive oil and seafood. Meanwhile, the country’s proximity to Europe means that Italian-style cafes serve up spaghetti and penne to office workers daily, typically with fries or salad.

The French culinary imprint can be found in the Kafteji sandwich, served in baguettes, probably the most popular food amongst the working class. Then there’s the African influence, or more specifically the Maghreb. Tunisia’s national dish is couscous (far better than the couscous I used to have in school) which is also a staple of Algerian, Moroccan and Libyan cuisine.

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Couscous with rabbit meat

But where Tunisia stands out from the region in terms of culinary tradition is its uniquely spicy palette. And when I say spicy, I mean very spicy. Whether it be Tunisian couscous or the local dish ojja (a special stew containing merguez, chilies, eggs and tomatoes), spicy is the only flavour Tunisians know. Whereas other North African countries tend to prefer their food cool and a source of relief from the sun, particularly in the summer months, Tunisians seem to prefer everything they eat – and I mean everything – to equal the African heat, whatever the season.

At the centre of Tunisians’ love for spice is harissa, the legendary Tunisian chili paste. It is served as a condiment with anything and found as an ingredient in everything, and though I was determined to eat like the locals, I soon found myself uttering two words every time I was ordering food: Sans Harissa! Without Harissa please! Harissa is seriously hot and, unfortunately, too hot for me (I can already see the heads of my Tunisian friends shaking in disapproval as I write this).

During my two months in Tunisia, I got the chance to sample much of Tunisian cuisine including a lot of the food mentioned above. But what I ate the most, by far, were the many kinds of sandwiches Tunisia has to offer. Sandwiches like malfouf, keftaji, mlewi and – my absolute favourite – makloub, a folded sandwich made from pizza dough filled with meat, cheese and salad. I also enjoyed some truly Tunisian street food, largely eaten by the lower classes and too “authentic” even for some locals’ tastes, such as the ayari sandwich and mraweb, a slightly seasoned raw egg that is downed like a shot.

Familiar and alien

The capital city of Tunis is located on the northern coast of the country. In the city centre, the streets boast a delightful mix of European- and Islamic-style architecture, with well-maintained rows of ficus trees and French balconies giving off a distinctively cultured aesthetic. All throughout the summer, women would enjoy the many open-air Sicilian-style cafes and shops in low-cut tops and skinny jeans, whether it be in the city centre or at one of the popular seaside towns of Sidi Bou Said or La Marsa, holding bags filled with their latest purchases in scenes resembling those of Naples or Nice.

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A traditional coffeehouse in Sfax

Cafes are always filled with young people, smoking, laughing and sipping on cappuccinos, no matter the time of day, with the latest summer tunes inevitably blaring in the background. But every so often, the familiar melodies of Shape of You and Despacito would be interrupted by a man’s deep hum, cackling in the crisp Mediterranean heat, flowing through every nook and cranny in the city streets to reach everyone awake and to awake anyone asleep.

Tunisia being a Muslim country, this is of course the Adhan (call to prayer), broadcast five times a day from loudspeakers atop every mosque. It summons Muslims to fulfil their duty to pray, the Islamic Pillar of Salat.

Each rendition demands my attention, the intonations so deep and captivating that it can only be described as godlike (I guess that’s half the point). But for many Tunisians, the call to worship prompts, at most, a momentary interlude in whatever hedonic activity they were doing and will quickly return to – a moment’s hesitation before the next puff or sip.

For though the country is 99% Muslim, few Tunisians observe the pious practices of their religion. Few pray five times a day, if at all. Many young Tunisians I met prefer to think of themselves as Muslims by name only, without commitment to the spiritual doctrines of the religion. A flatmate of mine during my summer in Tunisia, a pious Algerian Muslim, remarked that even Friday prayers, the most important time of every Muslim’s week, is scantily attended in Tunis. Back home, he said, there would be no businesses open or people on the streets on Fridays, except those coming and going from the mosque. In Tunis, Fridays are very much business as usual.

But perhaps that is a bit unfair. Fridays are slightly different from the rest of the week in Tunis, because alcohol aren’t sold in the supermarkets on Fridays. That seems to be the extent to which the holy day is made special in any way. At least from what I could see. But though this may seem trivial, its significance should not be understated, because Tunisians drink a lot.

Tunisia has always had a love for alcohol, one which was consolidated and refined by French colonial rule. Drinking is an integral part of many Tunisians’ social lives, especially men. In fact, the country famously produces its own wine and exports it to France. Bear in mind that alcohol is, by most accounts, forbidden in Islam, and one can see why there are deep divisions between moderate and more conservative Muslims in the country today.

Not being a wine person, I never tried Tunisian wine. What I did try was Tunisian beer – and lots of it. From the moment I arrived, many weekends (and weekdays, let’s be honest) were spent in the company of the local beers, Celtia and Berber. At the various bars I was taken to, there was never a shortage of patrons. Most tables were filled, even on weekdays. Seeing the extent to which drinking is integral to Tunisian culture was somewhat surprising but not entirely alien – I do live in the UK after all. What was slightly surreal was hearing the call to prayer in the background whilst in one of these bars, and sometimes even seeing several patrons packing up and leaving when the call is heard.

Tunisians’ fondness for drink is indicative of a more general culture of hedonism in Tunisian society, one which highly values relaxation and a style of life I can only describe as lackadaisical living. Business hours in the days are short, beginning at 10am and finishing promptly around 3-4pm, and most evenings are spent either at the bar or at the café where hours on end could be spent. Most young people I met smoke and drink – much more so than young people in London.

When I asked locals about the business hours, they blamed the summer heat (“it’s too hot to work!”) but also told me about the general Arab approach to life, which is much less manic and stressful than in the West. This attitude often manifests itself in widespread lateness, and is common across Arab countries. It even has a name: Arab Time.

In one memorable instance, at a prestigious competition I helped to organise involving projects designed to improve local communities, the teams involved were all late to the first event of the day, the earliest arriving 30 minutes after the official start time. Such collective tardiness would be impossible to find in London.

But perhaps this laidback lifestyle shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, Tunisia has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Blessed with the gorgeous opalescence of Mediterranean water, they are the country’s biggest tourist attraction, particularly in the summer months. Whether it was in the seaside cities of Tunis, Hammamet, Sousse or Bizerte, I spent more time at the beach in two months in Tunisia than in my whole life altogether.

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At a beach in Jen Island, near Bizerte

This approach to life is a far cry from London’s notoriously stressful environment. Whereas Londoners despise slow-walking pedestrians with the intensity of a thousand suns, all Tunisians are slow-walkers. Whereas Londoners see downtime as mere lulls between important events like exams and job interviews, Tunisians take pride in thoroughly enjoying the present moment, relishing it the same way they relish each sip of coffee and each puff of tobacco.

If there was one thing about Tunisian society that took time to get used to, it was this. In the first few days in Tunisia, I would get strange looks for closing taxi doors too hard, for taking food to go, for getting to work on time. I certainly became more understanding of such an approach to life as the summer wore on, with each trip to the beach and each evening spent in a café enjoying round after round of thé à la menthe – my favourite drink in Tunisia (Celtia a close second).

I love Tunisia*

I want to sum up my experience of Tunisia by telling you about a conversation I had. It was at a training event where young people from Douar Hicher and Mornaguia, two poor suburbs on the outskirts of Tunis, were brought to the capital city for a day for leadership and skills training. These participants were picked out for their low socioeconomic status and for being at high-risk of radicalisation. Most of them were around my age.

I was helping with the running of the event, and as I made my way around the room, I stopped and chatted with a few of these young people. They introduced themselves and I introduced myself. They asked me questions, and so I answered.

I told them about my background and what I was doing in Tunisia. I told them about my experience of their country: how I loved their food, how I found Harissa too spicy, how I found the streets of the capital so beautiful, how I loved bathing in the summer sun on their beaches. I also told them about London: how much it rains, how fast-paced everything is, how much more expensive life there is, how I loved that everything in Tunisia is cheap.

I told them about my experience of Tunisia similar to how I’ve told you about it in the sections above. It was at this point that one of them asked:

“So you like Tunisia?”

I quickly responded, giving the answer I had already given dozens of times before whenever this question was posed to me:

“Yes! I love Tunisia.”

To which the response was:

“Oh. We hate Tunisia.”

I hope it’s clear why this conversation is important.

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Manich Msamah – a protest against a new amnesty law for corrupt officials of the former regime, translation being “I do not forgive”

The fact is that the Tunisia I’ve described above is not Tunisia. At least not completely. Rather, it is my experience of Tunisia – just one experience out of many possible ones. It is just one chapter of a book, just one story in a sea of many. My story, in this case, being a fundamentally privileged and unrepresentative one.

The fact is that a tourist is an ugly human being. These are the words of Jamaica Kincaid in her essay A Small Place, where she writes about tourists visiting her native country of Antigua. Rich tourists to countries like Antigua and Tunisia are ugly because they enjoy the beauty of a country whilst ignorant and, even worse, indifferent to the problems and actual conditions of those who actually live in these countries. Tourists see mysterious rundown buildings as authentic and quaint – locals see them as schools or hospitals that were never repaired.

My experience of Tunisia is very much like that. I arrived as a rich foreigner and found myself primarily navigating around the bubble of the rich capital city. Most of the people I hung out with are also rich. Where I did leave Tunis, it was to other relatively rich cities around the northern coast like Bizerte and Sousse. I never left the North to see the interior areas of the country where people don’t have access to beautiful beaches and manicured streets. I didn’t even make my way to poor suburbs of the capital, places like Douar Hicher and Mornaguia.

In defence of myself, I did not come to Tunisia as a tourist. I came to work for a fantastic local NGO that was set up after the revolution with the goal of developing the potential of young Tunisians to become active citizens and even leaders in their communities. But that does not mean that Kincaid’s critique does not apply to me, because it has important implications for how I evaluate my experience.

And so if asked that question again, I would have a different response.

So you like Tunisia?

I loved every second of my time in Tunisia. But my experience is not an experience that many Tunisians get to have or will ever have. What’s more, the Tunisia I saw was its richest cities with their beautiful beaches and manicured streets, not the Tunisia which is rundown and neglected where many problems exist and many people are suffering.

I hesitate even to say that I’ve been to Tunisia when I’ve only really been to a small part of it. The age-old cliché of barely scratched the surface certainly applies in my case. It is for this reason that I hope to visit Tunisia again, so that I may continue reading the book which I’ve only just begun.

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Posing for a photo in Sousse when a strong gust of wind created this moment, an apt summation of my summer in Tunisia

 

 

 

 

 

Policy Memo – IR101 – Stanford University

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Authors: Vincent Chow & Abby Edwards

Executive Summary

Although Tunisia is an emerging democracy, it still faces economic stagnation and weak borders that has led it to become the largest source of ISIS recruits. By increasing aid to Tunisia for the creation of border security jobs, more people will have stable jobs and the border will be more secure, making it both more difficult and less appealing for Tunisians to join ISIS.

Economic Stagnation Fueling ISIS Recruitments

Since becoming a democracy in 2011, Tunisia has become the largest source of ISIS recruits. [1] Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, part of the Arab Spring, was successful in overthrowing the dictatorship of President Ben Ali and forming a democratic government, but did not solve the existing problem of economic stagnation.[2]

As of January 2016, Tunisia’s unemployment rate sat at about 15.4%, an increase of over 50% from before the revolution.[3] By incentivizing young adults with payment that is often twice what they could make in a stable job, ISIS has already been able to recruit between six and seven thousand Tunisians.[4] The passage of these Tunisians into nearby countries such as Algeria and Libya is made increasingly possible due to the permeability of Tunisia’s borders.[5]

As both a struggling democracy and the largest source of ISIS recruits, Tunisia should be considered doubly important to the USG (United States Government). It is especially crucial that Tunisia’s new government and economy are supported by the USG as it is the only country that succeeded in the Arab Spring with the formation of a functioning democracy. Should the democratic government or the economy collapse as has happened in some of the other countries involved in the Arab Spring, it is likely that the number of Tunisian ISIS recruits will grow exponentially.[6] Because of its location near Syria and Iraq, and its border with Libya, where the U.S. has recently begun bombing,[7] increased aid to Tunisia is an extension of the existing battle against ISIS.

The aid that Tunisia currently receives from the USG has had little effect, and is not necessarily pointed in the right directions. By the end of 2016, Tunisia is budgeted to receive $141,900,000 in aid from the USG – $81.9 million in military aid and $60 million in economic aid.[8] While military aid to Tunisia has increased over 350% from before the revolution, Tunisia’s borders still remain highly insecure, making it easier for ISIS recruits to leave Tunisia.[9] Current USG aid does not adequately address economic stagnation as the cause of terrorism and growth in recruitments, leading to aid likely being misappropriated. The $20 million in economic aid that Tunisia received in 2015 has clearly proven unsuccessful as the unemployment rate has risen from 15% in January 2015 to 15.4% in January 2016.[10]

Addressing Economic Stagnation Whilst Improving Security

The USG must ensure that the amount of aid addressing Tunisia’s economic needs is increased. Based on border control data from Mexico and Tunisia’s living wage, it is estimated that the USG will need to spend $118,491,300 to employ 4,247 security workers to protect Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria over 15 years.[11] Rather than shifting aid allocated for military spending to economic spending, the USG aid will be used to employ more border agents to surveil the borders. This should increase Tunisia’s security as well as improve its unemployment rate and economy, thus addressing the two main causes of radicalization: high unemployment and a weak economy. As an additional benefit, securing Tunisia’s borders will help its declining tourism industry, which has been struggling because of the threat of terrorism in the country – a vicious cycle of economic decline fostering radicalization and vice versa.[12] Securing the borders will not only help improve the country’s security problems, but also improve its economy by employing more people.

The USG should incorporate two conditions into the provision of aid. Firstly, the USG should make clear that it expects to see increased spending on the aforementioned issue of border security. The USG will monitor the numbers of security personnel being deployed at the borders. Secondly, aid will be disbursed on the condition that corruption in Tunisia improves, to ensure that aid is used efficiently. The USG will base its assessment of whether this condition is being met by referring annually to the Corruption Perceptions Index.[13]

This policy prescription is modeled on the successful USG aid to South Korea in the past, in that it confronts Tunisia’s interrelated security and economic problems at the same time. In the aftermath of the Korean War, South Korea’s economy was very weak.[14] North Korea posed a security threat that hampered efforts to rejuvenate a moribund economy. From 1953 onwards, the USG provided South Korea $35 billion in aid.[15] Today, South Korea is a prosperous democracy with the 11th biggest economy in the world.[16] The USG recognized the importance of addressing both the pressing security and long-term economic needs of South Korea at the same time.[17]

This new policy is projected to last 15 years, and is therefore long-term in nature, as it looks to tackle the fundamental economic factors motivating Tunisians to fight abroad. As such, a shortcoming is that it is not a solution that will deliver all desirable short-term goals. For example, having more security personnel at the borders won’t immediately decrease the amount of those who want to do so – in the short-run, unemployment will still be high and the economy will still be weak. However, this shortcoming of the new policy is also its biggest strength. The policy is not a measure merely designed to ameliorate Tunisia’s security problems – it is part of a course of action that looks to solve the problem comprehensively in the long-run.

Political Feasibility

Recent proposals for increased aid to Tunisia have generally garnered bipartisan support. Both Republicans and Democrats have lauded Tunisia’s progress, as well as recognized the general need for aid to support the country’s democratic transition. This overall support was demonstrated when the House of Representatives approved a $50 million increase in aid to Tunisia for 2016.[18] However, the proposed increase did not pass the Senate, largely because senators from both parties were reluctant to increase overall budget spending of any kind.[19] This issue would be eliminated by taking the additional aid needed for Tunisia from aid that is currently allocated to Israel, a highly developed country that currently receives a disproportionate amount of USG foreign aid. Many specialists argue that USG aid to Israel should be decreased now that Israel has a strong military capable of defending itself and a highly developed economy with a GDP over six times higher than that of Tunisia.[20]

Conclusion

The main problems Tunisia face today is a weak economy with high unemployment, and instability due to the threat of terrorism – two problems that are interrelated. These problems are relevant to the USG because Tunisia is a vital interest in the fight against ISIS. By increasing aid to Tunisia to create border security jobs, this solution tackles both the high unemployment rate and border insecurity: the fundamental causes of widespread radicalization within Tunisia.

 

Endnotes

[1] Sullivan, Kevin. “Tunisia, after Igniting Arab Spring, Sends the Most Fighters to Islamic State in Syria.” The Washington Post. N.p., 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/tunisia-after-igniting-arab-spring-sends-the-most-fighters-to-islamic-state-in-syria/2014/10/28/b5db4faa-5971-11e4-8264-deed989ae9a2_story.html>.

[2] Trofinov, Yaroslov. “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-tunisia-became-a-top-source-of-isis-recruits-1456396203&gt;.

[3] Massi, Alessandria. “ISIS, Extremists Recruit the Young Unemployed And Underpaid In Tunisia.” International Business Times. N.p., 27 Jan. 2016. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. <http://www.ibtimes.com/isis-extremists-recruit-young-unemployed-underpaid-tunisia-2282752&gt;.

[4] Trofinov. “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits.”

[5] Bendermel, Rafika. “Why Are so Many Tunisians Joining IS?” Middle East Eye. N.p., 4 July2016. Web. 08 Aug. 2016. <http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/why-are-so-many-tunisians-joining-748811153>.

[6] Trofinov. “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits.”

[7] “US Launches Air Strikes on IS in Libya.” BBC News. N.p., 2016. Web. 08 Aug. 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36941934>.

[8] “Tunisia.” Security Assistance Monitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Aug. 2016 <http://securityassistance.org/tunisia&gt;.

[9] Kimball, Sam. “Tunisia’s Getting More Guns than Democracy.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 21 Apr. 2016. Web. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/21/tunisias-getting-more-guns-than-democracy/>.

[10] Massi. “ISIS, Extremists Recruit The Young Unemployed And Underpaid In

Tunisia.”

[11] Tunisia has a total of 1,424 km of land borders, equaling 4671916 feet. Based on the number of border control workers the USG employs on its border with Mexico (about 1 per 1,100 feet), Tunisia should employ 4,247 workers. The living wage for a 48 hour work week in Tunisia is 170 dinars, which is the equivalent of $155 per month. This additional aid would cost the USG $7,899,420 per year. Based on past aid to South Korea, the USG should continue to provide this aid for 15 years, meaning that total aid spent would be $118,491,300.

Bonne, John. “Huge Gaps Remain on Northern Border.” TODAY.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug.2016.<http://www.today.com/id/3070731/ns/today-today_news/t/huge-gaps-remainon-n

rthern-border/#.V6ldJJMrKb8>.

“Tunisia – Working Conditions.” Tunisia Working Conditions, Information about Working Conditions in Tunisia. Nations Encyclopedia, n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2016. <http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Africa/Tunisia-WORKING-CONDITIONS.html&gt;.

“[Case Study] South Korea: From Aid Recipient to Donor”  Embassy of the United States, Seoul. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2016. <http://seoul.usembassy.gov/p_rok_60th_econ_18.html>

[12] Bensemra, Zohra. “After Islamist attacks, Tunisia’s tourism struggles.” Reuters. N.p., 25 Jun. 2016. Web. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-tourism-idUSKCN0ZB0B8&gt;

[13] “Corruption Perceptions Index” Transparency International Annual Report <http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview>

[14] Chapin, Emerson. “Success Story in South Korea.” Foreign Affairs Vol. 47, No. 3. Apr. 1969. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20039397?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>

[15] Griffin, Christopher & Christy, Patrick. “Why American Foreign Aid Works” RealClearWorld. N.p., 17 Apr. 2014. Web.  <http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2014/04/17/why_american_foreign_aid_works.html>

[16] “World Economic Outlook Database, April 2016” International Monetary Fund. N,p., Apr. 2016. Web. <http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/01>

[17] Chapin. “Success Story in South Korea.”

[18] Mudallali, Amal. “US Congress Divided on Aid Levels to Tunisia.” The Arab Weekly. N.p., 7

Aug. 2015. Web. 09 Aug. 2016. <http://www.thearabweekly.com/?id=1449&gt;.

[19] Ibid.

            [20] “Should Israel Continue to Receive Aid from the United States?” ProCon. N.p., 14 July

  1. Web. <http://israelipalestinian.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000596>.

What if life is a treadmill?

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What if life is a treadmill?

Running, chasing, wanting

but stuck

Always moving, passing, cruising

in the mud

Eyeballs popping, always entertained

but if life is the show

primetime, reality, no rewind

then turn up the speed

 

Goodbye Boy

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In me I see a feigned reality

my mind explodes in sentimentality

who made it thus?

A cruel prank I say:

Long had I longed

for love and hurt and the day

in which the voids are filled and mind distilled.

Santa comes with elves and joy

but the boy is no longer – goodbye boy.

Why I write

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I write because death awaits

because there is no God

because there is no afterlife

because I wish my dad had written

because my writing is the best version of me

I write because Carl Sagan said it well:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Three takeaways from last night’s debate

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TRUMP’S IMPLOSION

It was inevitable that the first question to Trump would be about the recently leaked video of him revealing his avid hobby of non-consensual kissing and grabbing of women by their genitals. A moderator, Anderson Cooper from CNN, asked him to explain to the American people what he said and meant in the leaked audio. Trump dismissed it as “locker-room talk”, then quickly changed the subject – actually, to a plethora of subjects. He proceeded to engage in a barrage of topics ranging from everything to anything, as long as it wasn’t related to the tape: ISIS, borders, Hillary’s emails, Bill Clinton etc. He even went on to utter, in quick succession, his promise to make America great, safe and wealthy again.

This word salad of unrelated talking points all came in response to the question about the leaked tape. For a candidate who has repeatedly branded himself as the only non-politician amongst a sea of what he calls lying, immoral and unqualified career politicians, this was a very politician-like performance from Trump. The questions the moderators asked never seemed relevant to him throughout the night – he had a clear plan, and that was to divert as much attention away from the tape as possible.

For the first time in a long campaign, Trump looked clearly like he wasn’t enjoying himself. Whereas in the Republican primary debates, where he dismantled “low-energy Jeb” and “lyin’ Ted” with a gleeful smirk and swagger, his facial expressions last night as Clinton carefully and precisely attacked him, calling him “unfit to be president and commander-in-chief”, betrayed a rattled man after a rattling week.

The prime example illustrating this was the pre-debate press conference he held with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or rape, and his subsequent strategic placement of these women in the audience. He pointed them out as he sneered: “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse… there’s never been anybody in the history so politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women.” Setting the fact that Bill Clinton has never had charges brought against him aside, Trump said this as if any of it made his boasts about sexual assault less inflammatory or unacceptable.

His discomfort also manifested itself in the form of aggressive and constant interrupting of his opponent, which certainly will not help improve his dwindling support amongst women. At times in the debate, he would tower a few feet from Clinton as she spoke, perhaps in the attempt to show physical dominance. What it looked like was a hyper-masculine expression of insecurity; a desperate leap to the final page of the playbook that says men simply look more presidential then women. His presidential credentials certainly did not reveal itself – his desperation certainly did.

A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN… OR HELL

The fact that Clinton has been unable to generate any significant momentum and pull away from Trump in the polls is an indictment of her campaign and, more significantly, of her as a politician. Trump is one of the most divisive, polarising, controversial and hated presidential candidates in the history of American politics, and yet Clinton has largely been unable to show any promise of finally halting the Trump machine.

Clinton’s inefficacy when it comes to capitalising on Trump’s many gaffes and scandals continued last night. Too many times, she allowed Trump to attack her with impunity. Repeating the tactic she employed in the last debate, she once again asked viewers to go to her website for a real-time fact checking of Trump’s statements.

Her response to Trump’s aggressive attacks felt timid and inappropriate, because a demagogic candidate like Trump deserves a scathing critique. Clinton’s repeated pleas to viewers towards her campaign website certainly fell short of what Trump deserves and what many viewers would like to see. The fact that many observers, including Clinton supporters, have declared yesterday’s debate a draw is certainly not to the credit of Clinton’s performance last night.

It has been repeatedly said that this presidential election features two extremely flawed candidates who are facing the one candidate they can beat: the two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever. This truth certainly rang true as we watched Clinton defend herself last night as an imploding Trump did his best to make sure that Clinton would implode alongside him.

Coming into the debate, Clinton already possessed several self-inflicted wounds: her emails, her “deplorables” comment and, her most recent wound, the leak of transcripts from her Wall Street speeches. These wounds were repeatedly and ferociously jabbed at by Trump throughout the night. First, he reinvigorated his attacks on her for her email scandal, a stain in her campaign that she has largely been unable to get rid of: “The thing that you should be apologizing for are the 33,000 emails that you deleted…” he bellowed. He accused her of “acid-washing” the deleted emails, portraying her as having knowingly broken rules during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Then, he engaged in a blistering attack of her character, saying that she “has tremendous hate in her heart”, alluding to her “basket of deplorables” comment. To say Trump did not land any punches in last night’s debate is to have one’s judgement clouded by bias. Trump’s aggressive jabs did not necessarily have to land, but land they did, because Clinton was surprisingly unconvincing in her responses to both Trump’s attacks on her as well as the moderators’ questions over her emails and other controversies.

She apologised again for her email fiasco, and in perhaps the worst moment of the night for her, she was questioned over recently leaked transcripts of speeches she made to Wall Street bankers, where she said that politicians “need both a public and a private position” on issues. She defended her remarks by citing Abraham Lincoln and the Spielberg biopic released a few years ago, which she says was the inspiration behind her statement: “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment.” Her confused and unconvincing response did not seem an adequate defence of her controversial remarks which seem to justify politicians being two-faced – this is especially damaging to her campaign because two-faced is exactly what many see her as.

TRUMP DOESN’T UNDERSTAND DEMOCRACY… OR DOESN’T CARE

“If I win,” Trump said, “I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”

Presidential debates often provide the soundbites that can encapsulate in a few words an entire presidential campaign. In 1980, Ronald Reagan summed up the general sentiment after four years of economic “stagflation” under the Carter administration by asking viewers: “’Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”. In 1992, Bill Clinton responded intensely to a question about the economy and in doing so, portrayed himself as the more compassionate candidate at the expense of incumbent George Bush Sr., who did not have the oratory skills to compete: “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know their names”.

It is a sad truth that this election can be encapsulated by Trump’s aforementioned threat to Clinton in last night’s debate, which was followed up by a guarantee of imprisonment for Clinton if he were to become president: “You would be in jail.” What this shows is that Trump is ignorant (actually we already know that). More specifically, he is ignorant about how the legal system works. Special prosecutors are appointed by the attorney general, for the specific and important reason to enable investigations into government officials without political interference or the threat of it. Trump’s threat to jail his political opponent if he were to become president is an exact contravention of the purpose of special prosecutors and the principle of judicial independence within the democratic framework of separation of powers.

But perhaps Trump knows that what he’s saying is undemocratic but doesn’t care. This is a much scarier proposition, because it is then therefore a reflection of his voters, Americans, who in their desire to see their opponent defeated by their candidate are willing to support someone who flagrantly disregards the democratic principles America was built upon.

We must bear in mind Trump’s other promises, most of which infused with authoritarian rather than democratic undertones: as president he would utilise executive power to target ethnic and religious minorities, barring Muslims from entering the US, forcefully deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as disregard the privacy of Muslim Americans by putting into place surveillance of mosques. Trump’s presidential campaign is more befitting of a banana republic than an advanced liberal democracy in the 21st century.

This is a problem that transcends any of the pantomime politics we’ve witnessed in the past year, or any of the petty arguments over whether Trump is racist, homophobe or misogynist. It is a serious problem in the long-run if increasing numbers of Americans are susceptible to demagoguery in the pursuit of political exaltation. This is because though many might consider this year’s presidential election to be a “one-off”, in terms of the unprecedented stupidity, ignorance and controversy we’ve witnessed thus far, Trump’s campaign is not just an indictment of himself but of his voters, the American people, and American society today as well. A “one-off” election could very well become the norm.

How Trump-Haters have helped Trump

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The 45th President of the United States: Donald Trump.

Picture that for a second.

Similarly in Europe, a plethora of far-right, nationalist and populist (some even neo-fascist) parties have propelled to new heights of power in their respective countries. In Sweden (Bernie’s education-and-healthcare-for-all socialist paradise), the third biggest party in parliament currently is one that has roots in white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Across Europe, several Trump-like politicians have gained as much support in their countries as Trump has in his: Marine Le Pen in France, Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary.

I want to argue that the root causes of far-right resurgence in both the US and in Europe has been misdiagnosed – or rather, incomprehensively so. Even though the supporters of demagogues like Trump are the ones voting them into office, their supporters are not entirely to blame for what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Growing support for Trump and for politicians like him is as much a product of those who aren’t voting for them as those who are. Here’s why.

Immigration, Terrorism and Refugees

The far-right has built its support amongst their electorates by capitalising on three issues which they have bound together: immigration, terrorism and more recently, refugees.

In Europe, so-called “losers” of globalisation and laissez-faire economics are lashing out at the status quo. Smack in the centre of their crosshairs has been the EU and its central policy of free movement of people.

Across the pond, Trump astutely summarises the prevalent sentiment amongst his core working-class voters when he proclaims in rallies: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

Though I am sure that Trump himself has no idea what he is talking about (or what “credo” even means), it is indisputable that Trump is tapping into a culmination of frustration pent-up over the years – a well of frustration his European equivalents are bathing in as well.

Now consider terrorism. The quickening pace by which attacks are occurring in Europe and the US has exacerbated an already polarised political landscape. The debate over terrorism and its causes has been intertwined with the immigration debate to further deepen the schism that divides opposing sides in public discourse.

On top of all this, the emotionally-fraught matter of refugees has emerged and intensified over the last few years, like a shell exploding smack in between opposing trenches already deeply divided over immigration and terrorism. Virtually any common-ground that existed in the first place has been obliterated, the trenches further apart than ever before, and the few brave souls with olive branches in hand who venture into no man’s land are shot at from both sides.

The chief reason why many who hate Trump are themselves culpable for his rise is their contribution to creating the trench warfare that is our public discourse today – they’re digging trenches as ferociously as their enemies.

They’re not culpable because of the policies they prescribe. Rather, it is their approach in tackling those who disagree with them, especially when it comes to the three aforementioned issues, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Racist, Bigoted, Xenophobic etc.

In a democracy, there’s no guarantee that the best policy will prevail amongst a set of alternatives. Brexit reflects this fact. The best policy will most likely come about when a significant part of the electorate wants it, and rarely if that isn’t the case. The implementation of your ideal policies is contingent on the approval of your fellow voters.

Bearing this fact about our democratic politics in mind, the question must be raised: why have so many people developed a propensity to demonise those who hold different views to theirs? Surely they know that calling someone a racist makes that person less likely to agree with them.

Ad hominem attacks is the preferred strategy of many people today when confronting those who disagree, especially on the three aforementioned issues. Labels such as racist, bigot and xenophobe are thrown around callously at those who dare to have a different opinion.

Is someone who opposes illegal immigration undoubtedly a racist? Is someone who has concerns about the security of letting refugees into Europe invariably a xenophobe? Is someone who asks whether Islam played a role in motivating a terrorist automatically an Islamophobe?  Many people today seem to have a certain answer to such questions: Yes.

The incessant demonisation is hugely consequential because it hasn’t just been inflicted on the far-right, where the genuine bigots, racists and xenophobes reside. The moderate-right has not been spared by tactics of demonisation, which have been indiscriminate, to say the least. It has become increasingly clear that the only condition that must be met for a flurry of insults and personal attacks to be deployed is that the target simply disagrees.

Think back to the days before Trump’s campaign (how far away those days seem now). Were the labels of racist, bigot and xenophobe used much more sparingly, rarely ever heard in public discourse? The answer is no. Long before Trump emerged, moderate establishment Republicans were already being targeted, examples such as John McCain and Paul Ryan being called “racists”, Mitt Romney being labelled a “homophobe”.

Of course, tactics targeting the character and integrity of a rival politician pays dividends. No one wants to be called a “racist” or a “bigot”, especially in the deeply race-sensitive United States. By presenting the political divisions between the left and the right as one steeped in a moral disparity between the two sides, the left benefited politically from the superior position they placed themselves in, whilst portraying their opponents as morally inferior, bigoted beings.

Many on the left, instead of devising the best arguments to persuade the dissenters of their erroneous conclusions, focussed its efforts on questioning the dissenter’s intentions and integrity. Rarely was the goal to convert the dissenter to their side of the argument – more often, the rhetoric employed had the aim of rendering the dissenting grievance illegitimate and present it as being borne out of racism and bigotry.

Legitimate Grievances

But years of demonisation has completed the proverbial cycle of coming back and biting the left in its ass. When the grievances of a large group of voters in a democracy are not even afforded the respect of being perceived as legitimate by fellow voters and politicians, what will inevitably occur is the unsavoury process of these disillusioned, marginalised and ostracised voters latching on to demagogues who will at least provide them the luxury of certifying the legitimacy of their grievances, and that is what we’ve seen.

One of the reasons Trump commands the support he has is that his campaign legitimises grievances previously delegitimised by political correctness, ad hominem rebukes and establishment politics. Tired of years of politicians and the media moralising about how their opinions reveal them to be bigots and racists, voters with aberrant views have secured a champion for their cause – a man who observed an overly politically correct public sphere and proceeded then to blow it apart through a campaign strategy of saying outrageous things and then, infuriatingly for many, not apologising for saying them.

Before Trump, voters could not voice their legitimate opposition to illegal immigration without their opinion being straw-manned as being anti-immigration. They could not voice legitimate concerns about the influx of refugees without being called anti-refugee. They could not raise legitimate questions about the role Islam plays in the radicalising of young Muslim men without being called islamophobic or racist. Actually, they still can’t today without these labels being hurled at them, but the difference is that today they have a major presidential candidate who will say and ask the same things.

Until people banish their habit of demonising those who merely disagree with them, the far-right will continue its growing influence in both European and American politics. This is because there will continue to be marginalised voters who would rather support genuinely bigoted demagogues who will at least allow their grievances to be aired, than politicians who refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.