In his native Egypt, Bassem Youssef weathered cardiac surgery, the Arab Spring, and government-ordered arrest. Little did he know it was all survival training for the deluge of lunacy that awaited him in America. I’m talking, of course, about the rise of an aggrieved draft-dodging, Oompa Loompa-handed brat from Queens: Donald J. Trump.
As the world witnessed this past week at the Republican National Convention, Trump sees America as a nation on the brink of collapse; a hellscape where ISIS, back-alley abortionists, El-Gee-Bee-Tee-Cues, and/or hatchet-wielding Mexican assassins lurk behind every corner—or, to quote Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon: “Basically the worst parts of the Bible.”
Youssef is hosting the Fusion show Democracy Handbook—a web series that sees the droll host with the striking blue eyes tackle everything from America’s gun obsession to The Great Trumpster Fire of 2016. “The people at Fusion approached me and asked me to do this show,” he tells The Daily Beast. “They had an idea of how an outside perspective would view all the calamities that are happening in the American election. I come from a place where we have our own turmoil and revolution, too.”
Indeed he does. Youssef, 42, was working as a cardiac surgeon in Cairo when, in the midst of the Egyptian Revolution, he was inspired by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to start a guerrilla-style YouTube series called The B+ Show, with the newly-minted comedian broadcasting live from his laundry room. It began garnering millions of views, and Youssef was soon given his own satirical TV show on the Egyptian channel ONTV called Al Bernameg (or “The Program”). His was the first program to migrate from the internet to television in Egyptian history.Waves were made when Youssef was a guest on The Daily Show in 2012, meeting his idol, Jon Stewart—who would return the favor, being a guest on Al Bernameg the next year. However, the comedian came under fire first for his unbridled criticism of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and again when he repeatedly criticized the coup executed by Egyptian Defense Minister turned President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. An arrest warrant was filed against him, followed shortly thereafter by a £15 million judgment in arbitration. So he fled to Dubai and, for the last six months, “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” has been living in Oakland, California, with his wife and daughter.
“I live in California, I’m driving a Toyota Prius, and I’m already a vegan, so it’s great,” jokes Youssef. “It’s really the best time to be in the States. Trump is offering us an incredible amount of material. I think eight years of George W. Bush singlehandedly revived American comedy shows, and Donald Trump has done the same. It’s the silver lining in a very horrible situation.”
Episode 3 of Democracy Handbook is titled “One Trump to Rule Them All,” and went online on July 22. “It’s so great to see that America is finally warming up to the idea of being ruled by the biggest bully with the most gold,” says Youssef in voiceover. “That’s how we do it in the Middle East!”
In “One Trump to Rule Them All,” Youssef visits a Donald Trump rally where he speaks with the real estate tycoon’s feverish acolytes who… don’t seem to have all that much to say. When Youssef asks one young man in a starry shirt why he supports Trump, the man simply replies, “He’s going to Make America Great Again.”
“I found myself in the thin echo chamber,” recalls Youssef. “People are saying things that are totally revolting and contradicting, and it seems like as long as they end it with ‘Make America Great Again!’ it’s OK. It’s empty rhetoric that doesn’t make sense, and is fueled by hate, racism, and a lot of fear.”
When I ask him whether there were any racial epithets directed at him during the rally coverage, being that rare Middle Eastern man at a Trump rally, he pauses.
“In all honesty, I myself didn’t come across it,” he says, “but I have witnessed that while doing the show. One of my interviews was with a guy in Orlando who owns a gun shop and he was extremely racist—but he was racist before Trump even came into the picture. I think the rise of Trump gave voice to a lot of people, and now people are more proud of being racist instead of just being racist on the down-low, which is interesting.”
Now that he’s settling into American life, one thing that concerns Youssef is the rising level of Islamophobia stateside—much of it fueled by the right-wing, and Trump. He fears for his young daughter, in particular, who will grow up within this hotbed of xenophobia.
“My daughter is not exactly white—she’s not blond—and you wonder if she will be subjected to some sort of segregation, discrimination, racial profiling,” he laments. “This is not the kind of atmosphere that you want her to grow up into. This is why it’s important to fight against this kind of hate, this kind of discrimination that’s been rising big-time in America. If I want this to be her home, it’s very important for me to raise her in a place where she feels the same as everybody else; not higher or lower than anybody else.”
For now, however, he’s hoping that Democracy Handbook finds an audience online and, like The B+ Show before it, leads to bigger opportunities.
“I’m hoping that after the show debuts, I’ll get offers!” exclaims Youssef. “I’d like to have a show of my own. Maybe Hollywood will discover me and I’ll have a movie with Scarlett Johansson.”
I mention that, since Stewart left the air, most of the top political satirists in America—with the notable exception of Bill Maher—are foreigners, from The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee to Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver. This gives Youssef a chuckle. “Samantha Bee is Canadian, which is basically an extension of the U.S.—nobody hates Canadians!—and John Oliver is from a rich, colonial empire that colonized you, and has built up a lot of credit on The Daily Show,” he says. “I’m the new kid, I’m a foreigner, and I don’t speak with a British accent, so I think it’s definitely different for me.”
“I have a big target on my back,” he adds. “As a Muslim, as an Arab, I’m targeted. So I’m going to have a field day with this.”