Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 28 October 2020

The Arab Americans voting for Trump

While most Arab Americans are expected to vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden in November’s presidential election, a small but growing cohort could side with US President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March 2019. AP
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March 2019. AP

For John Akouri, US President Donald Trump is a hero.

His social media accounts are replete with photo ops of him alongside some of America’s top political brass: Mr Trump’s personal lawyer and former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani; Mr Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump; and with the president himself, at a Republican party dinner in Michigan in 2013.

Mr Akouri’s family emigrated from Tripoli in northern Lebanon in 1955 but that has not stopped him taking an active role in the re-election of a president responsible for an array of laws preventing immigrants and citizens of several Middle Eastern countries from entering the US.

As the co-chair of the Trump-Pence campaign in Michigan for the 2016 presidential election, Mr Akouri, a PR consultant, played an instrumental role in getting Mr Trump over the line – by less than 11,000 votes – in the key battleground state en route to a stunning victory over Hillary Clinton.

This campaign season, Mr Akouri, 55 is back in the same role, and is keen to draw similarities between Mr Trump and the Arab-American community.

“When you think of Arab Americans, we’re very family oriented, and Donald Trump is very close to his family. Arabs believe in life and Donald Trump is very pro-life,” Mr Akouri says.

“Most of the Arab Americans I know are independent businessmen and women. Our roots are embedded in entrepreneurship, which is clearly what Donald Trump is all about.”

John Akouri with US President Donald Trump. Courtesy John Akouri
John Akouri with US President Donald Trump. Courtesy John Akouri

With Michigan – a swing state – set to again play a major role in November’s presidential election, the votes of its Middle Eastern-heritage population, numbering an estimated quarter of a million people, could have a pivotal say in who wins the race for the White House.

In almost four years in the Oval Office, Mr Trump has introduced a series of anti-immigrant laws and executive orders detrimental to Arab Americans, while voicing implicit support for racist viewpoints through his Twitter account. He has mocked the wearing of the hijab and engaged in derogatory rhetoric towards people from the Middle East.

On the 2016 campaign trail he claimed: “Islam hates us,” but perhaps his most damaging move was the 2017 travel ban that placed major immigration and visa restrictions on citizens of Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan (since lifted in the latter two countries) and other Muslim-majority countries.

A Pew Research poll of US adults conducted last February found that nearly half of those surveyed felt the Trump administration has "hurt" American Muslims.

Like any immigrant community, however, Arab Americans are anything but a uniform political bloc. A 2016 survey by the Washington DC-based Arab American Institute, taken weeks before the presidential election that year, found that more than half of participants identified as Democrat and 26 per cent sided with the Republican party.

Seventy-seven per cent of those who identified as Republican said they would vote for Mr Trump in 2016.

Michigan, California and other states are home to established Iraqi and Syrian Chaldean (Assyrian) Catholics and Lebanese communities who moved to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work in automotive factories and open supermarket businesses. Many lean towards social conservatism and the emergence of the current administration’s radical nationalism resonates with them.

Then there are thousands of recent arrivals such as former refugees who have fled war in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. For them, any hope of reunification with family members still in the Middle East has been thwarted by the Trump administration’s travel ban, so many are expected to support Democratic party challenger Joe Biden on November 3.

Athough Chaldeans in America for the most part do not identify as Arab, the community makes up a crucial bloc among Middle Eastern-origin voters. An estimated half million are concentrated largely in and around Detroit, Chicago and southern California. Of the 160,000 Chaldeans living in Michigan, more than half are registered to vote.

Tellingly, through them Mr Trump may be lining up a way to win Michigan in November. In a speech to automotive factory workers last January, the president surprised many by speaking about the need to prevent Iraqi Christians in the country illegally from being deported back to the Middle East.

“That was great to hear,” says Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation.

John Akouri with Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and former mayor of New York City. Courtesy John Akouri
John Akouri with Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and former mayor of New York City. Courtesy John Akouri

Mr Manna says the Trump administration often consults the Chaldean community about Iraqi policy. Last March he had a private audience with Vice President Mike Pence. “We have provided direct memos about concerns for minority groups there, and asked they be raised with the Iraqi government, and they were. Religious freedom [in Iraq] is a priority for this administration,” he says. “It was not for the previous administration.”

“There was some frustration under President Obama that although [the population of] Syria was 10 per cent Christian, fewer than one per cent of refugees coming from Syria at that time were Christian. That caused a lot of concern within the Chaldean community.”

Mr Biden’s "Agenda for Muslim-American Communities" and "Plan for Partnership" with the Arab American community pronouncements have left some Arabs who are not Muslims feeling left out.

Mr Akouri, who also hosts a Detroit-based radio talk show and was rumoured in 2017 to be a candidate for the post of US ambassador to Lebanon, believes Mr Trump has done more for world peace and order than any other recent president, the Abraham Accord peace agreements being the latest example

“I applaud the president, [son-in-law and adviser to President Trump] Jared Kushner, and the leaders of Bahrain and the UAE,” he says. “They’ve made the decision; it’s in their national interest. I hope other [countries] join.”

For others, the pandemic and its effects on struggling businesses may still be the key issue come election day.

“Obviously Covid is playing into the election; many are frustrated with the current policies, whether it’s health or business,” says Mr Manna. “A huge number of businesses – cell phone stores, hotels and supermarkets – are owned by Chaldeans. Like so many other Americans, the economy is so very important to them.”

Mr Manna believes the result of the election will be close, but he expects Mr Trump to win.

Mr Akouri is hopeful of the same outcome.

“I can’t say what’s going to happen [but] we have a euphoric feeling. We’re working hard,” he says. “I’d love nothing more than to give Donald Trump Michigan again.”

Updated: September 22, 2020 06:49 PM

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