Why you should care
Before the modern wave of populism, someone else was zooming to power using similar tactics.
He had been holding rallies for months, with those unable to attend still following them via endless television and radio coverage. It was impossible to unplug and escape his message, and his words often polarized the public. To his detractors, he was an upstart with no respect for the well-established traditions of rule — an outsider unfit to lead. But, they thought, surely his prominence would come to an end once his lack of experience and incompetence was revealed for all to see? To his followers, he was a messianic figure, sent to deliver the country from the rule of a wildly out-of-touch urban cosmopolitan elite and to purge the nation of corrosive outside influences. He was their man, speaking their language, and he talked straight. He would drain the swamp.
We’re not talking about Donald Trump, or any other populist leader of recent years. This is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who thrust himself into the role of supreme leader in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, which marks its 40th anniversary this month. Although on the surface their worlds and sentiments could not appear further apart — after all, Trump is the most vocally anti-Iranian president in American history, and Ayatollah Khomeini branded the United States “the Great Satan” — the two rulers share an essential feature: their ability to appear authentic and to mobilize right-wing populism and resentment of the ruling class, an ability that catapulted both leaders into power.
“In populist movements in general, you need to have economic grievances and an overriding theme,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a primary witness of Iran under the shah. “For Khomeini that theme was to bring back true Islam. In the United States, that theme would be to restore America’s greatness.”
It was the Ayatollah who emerged as the shah’s most significant opponent, and therefore a focus point for dissatisfied people, even those who didn’t agree with his ideas.
The Iranian Revolution encompassed a huge array of dissident groups with myriad visions for the country, from Communists who wanted radical land redistribution to Islamists and disaffected Kurds and Azeris clamoring for minority rights after decades of forced Persianization from the state. But they all agreed on one point: The shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had to go. According to Ahmad Majidyar, senior fellow and director of the Iran Observed Project at the Middle East Institute, it was the Ayatollah who emerged as the shah’s most significant opponent, and therefore a focus point for dissatisfied people, even those who didn’t agree with his ideas, who would later be violently sidelined.
Khomeini connected to ordinary people in a way that more intellectual and experienced politicians had been unable to. As Ryszard Kapuscinski illustrates in Shah of Shahs, his account of the revolution: “We were criticizing the monarch, saying things were bad, demanding changes, reform, democratization and justice. It never entered anyone’s head to come out the way Khomeini did — to reject all that scribbling, all those petitions, resolutions, proposals. To stand before the people, and cry, ‘The shah must go!’ It was the simplest thing, and everyone could remember it.”
The urban elite who had backed the shah throughout his decades of rule didn’t understand his critics. To them, the shah had overseen a newly modern, self-governed Iran that had control of its own seemingly unlimited oil potential. According to Weinbaum, the educated elite of Iran in the 1970s dismissed the lower classes as hopeless religious peasants. In Tehran, the shah, his wealthy supporters and his thousands of foreign advisers lived in the upper districts of the city, where — due to a lack of municipal plumbing — all of their waste would make its way down, via deep ditches on the sides of the streets, to the areas occupied by the lower classes.
As was the case with Trump, the Shiite cleric’s rise came in part by his seizing upon an anti-foreign movement: the sentiment of Gharbzadegi, a Persian pejorative that roughly translates to “Westoxification.” The Ayatollah and his believers declared that the shah had sold the country out to the West, obsessing over emulating it in every way possible at the expense of Iran’s own needs. According to Weinbaum, the Ayatollah’s supporters demanded that Iran follow “neither East nor West,” but an authentically Iranian path.
They had a point. Many of Iran’s most iconic 20th-century cultural institutions and structures were produced by Western architects and academics. The National Museum of Iran, which plays up Iran’s near-mythical ancient Persian heritage with scant mention of centuries of Islamic history, was designed by French architects. The tombs of Hafiz and Saadi in Shiraz were designed by French “Orientalist” architect André Godard, director of Iran’s Archaeological Service under the shah. Western-style music, Western dress and Western manners were imposed on Iran, often through violent means.
By mobilizing an entire class of people who had been socially and economically left behind, both the Ayatollah and Trump were to attain positions of power that their critics had never imagined. To be sure, the Ayatollah’s rise and Trump’s are significantly different, most notably because the former led to the complete rewriting of his country’s constitution — from a monarchy to a republic, albeit a deeply flawed one. While Trump has rewritten American discourse, he has yet to completely reshape the U.S. in a similar fashion. And yet, populism is populism. While one can hardly argue that Trump or European populists are inspired by Khomeini, their ability to mobilize people based on anti-elite, anti-establishment sentiments is eerily similar to the Ayatollah’s four-decade-old playbook.