Is Trump the American Sadr?

Against the backdrop of Iraq’s liberation, Sadr attracted those who felt they had been left behind by the new order. Most elites eschewed him, but he encouraged his followers to plaster his name and visage everywhere they could. Even today, huge billboards bear Sadr’s image in the traffic circles of southern Iraqi towns and cities, regardless of the movement’s electoral success. Trump, of course, is famous for his self-promotion. He is no dummy, however, and has capitalized by successfully selling himself to those dissatisfied with the established order.

The two political movements have many other parallels. Sadr can spout the most illogical conspiracies in order to rally the public, and discount law, process, and reality to espouse solutions. Trump is no different, as he threatens mass deportations, embraces coarse nativism, and, in the case of President Obama’s birth certificate, has sought to leverage suspicions of foreign birth long since disproved. Pomposity in both cases became an asset, not a liability.

Both Sadr and Trump also gathered supporters based on what their voters opposed at any particular moment, rather than articulating any positive platform. Trump has not sought to tackle policy with any ideological consistency, as have opponents like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul; and Sadr, for his part, has not been true to the theological or political exegesis espoused by major Shiite thinkers in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, London, or, for that matter, Tehran. Because it was always so reactionary and built around a person more than a philosophy, the Sadrist movement has always been volatile. So too is Trump’s movement.

That said, some ambitious politicians were willing to ride Sadr’s coattails, just as some ambitious Washington types might for their own personal benefit join the Trump campaign should he become the Republican nominee. The loyalty of most Sadrists to their political scion has always been skin deep, however, and Trump likewise may attract the least party or personal loyalty of any potential president in history. Make a Sadrist a better offer, and it’s possible to peel him away. Indeed, this has always been the logic of those who argued that Sadr’s power might be diminished by co-opting his associates. Many in Trumpland will likely jump ship if it appears their leader is steering it to dangerous shoals.