PROMISES PROMISES

03.27.16 4:15 AM ET

Trump’s Eerie Echoes of the Ayatollah Khomeini

The crude populism, outlandish pronouncements, and primitive vocabulary have a familiar ring to someone who embraced, then fled, the Iranian revolution.

For weeks, Donald Trump’s words “Win, win, win! We’re gonna win so much you’re gonna get bored with winning!” had been swirling in my head. They had become a rhetorical riddle my mind would not quit turning over. The eyes, stunned by what had all the trappings of a debut, proved easier to fool. But the ears suspected an encore performance they had heard before—the repetitive speech, the stunted and imperfect sentences where eloquence had been expected. Both in construct and theme, in the promise to deliver the undeliverable, for inherent to the nature of winning is the notion of exclusivity, the necessary absence of collectivity, Trump’s voice had a familiar echo. 

Then a friend forwarded a clip of an archival link from February 1979. It was a short interview the late ABC News anchorman, Peter Jennings, had conducted with the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. They were aboard an Air France flight that was taking the leader to Tehran, where delirious millions had lined the streets to welcome him after 14 years in exile. 

The Ayatollah who had brought the pious and the secular together was billed as the ultimate trifecta—at once a Shiite saint (an imam, a position to which he was elevated upon landing), the local equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi for opposing the monarchy, and the most visible heir to the lyrical tradition which had produced Rumi and Omar Khayyam. 

Taking my lead from the nation, I was ripe to fall in love with the leader despite all that was unlovable about him—the dark robe, the unruly gray beard, the ascetic eyebrows that never parted. Still, glued to the television, I was yearning to hear what that homebound repository of public hope had to say.

“Please kindly tell us,” asked Peter Jennings, “how you feel about your return to Iran?”

“Nothing!” said our turbaned Odysseus.

The suave translator, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, hailed as “one of his own” by the very imam who ordered his execution a few years later, turned “nothing” into “no comment” for the camera. 

Jennings persisted: “Is he sad, happy?” 

Again, no comment!

“Nothing!” should have alarmed everyone. That unfeeling answer foretold the unfeeling man who thereafter proved capable of carrying out some of the most heartless acts in modern Iran. The Ayatollah could not have been more forthcoming. The trouble was that we, Iranians, were in a national stupor, drunk on anger, deaf and blind to the truth even as it marched across our television screens and brazenly spoke to us. That anger led to a collective ecstasy whose tide Iranians rode into a historic deception. 

Hours after landing, the Ayatollah gave his first speech in Tehran’s major cemetery, of all places. His choice of a venue also foreshadowed the decimation that would follow. But our intoxication would not yield to thinking, nor lift by reason. 

There was no trace of Rumi in that speech. If anything, Rumi was turning in his grave hearing the Persian syntax so wildly violated. That day, the Ayatollah promised: “We will build homes. But don’t be satisfied with just that. We will make water and electricity free for the poor. We will make public transportation free for the poor. But don’t be satisfied with just that. … We will build this world, and the after-life.”

He also promised to (38 years later I still cringe) “whack the government in the mouth.” In subsequent speeches, he dubbed the United States the Great Satan and put forth his foreign policy agenda for dealing with the world’s greatest power: “It [America] can’t do a damn thing!” That belligerent gesture brought Iran to a nadir in its diplomatic history, to the notorious hostage crisis of 1979. 

The heedless students who scaled the walls of the U.S. compound that November have since regretted their act, for they learned that wrecking relations takes only hours, while building them takes decades. 

The protesters who chant “build that wall” at rallies throughout America are bound for a similar lesson. 

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For the same reasons the Ayatollah openly detested the educated, Mr. Trump loves the uneducated. Needless to say that neither public transportation, nor water and electricity ever became free for any Iranian, just in the same way that all Americans are unlikely to turn into winners. Americans often ask why Iranians, who seem to be so far above their regime, do not revolt to overthrow that regime. The answer, in great part, is that the hangover from the previous one gone so awry still lingers.

A few years ago, I swore allegiance to the flag of the United States and promised to protect it against any threats. I see one now. Therefore, this essay.

Roya Hakakian arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 1985. She is the author of, most recently, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.