In Michigan, some Bernie-supporting Arab Americans are bypassing Biden for Trump. Here's why

In Michigan, some Bernie-supporting Arab Americans are bypassing Biden for Trump. Here's why
Comment: From factory workers to Gen-Zers, a range of Arab Americans rooting for Trump show their communities aren't monoliths, and Biden cannot take their votes for granted, writes Khaled Beydoun.
6 min read
15 Oct, 2020
Joe Biden risks taking Michigan's Arab and Muslim votes for granted [Getty]
"He just tells it how it is."

Six months ago, Mohammed A. of Detroit, Michigan issued that very judgment of Bernie Sanders. Two weeks before election day, and the 37-year-old warehouse operator and recent father switched, and sang those praises for one Donald Trump.

His story is far from fringe. He has an ear to the ground on the streets of Arab America's symbolic capital, and his words echo among the disparate voices lining up to vote for Trump. Coastal pollsters who classify Arab Americans as Democrats, or pundits who paint the "Muslim vote" as firmly Joe Biden's, are often deaf to these voices.

These are the views of real people who exist between the poles of popular discourse - off the white-collar grid and away from the curated Twitter timelines of the Washington Beltway. Alien perspectives of the "Arab street", or the Muslim political lay of the land are too often dispensed by experts who seldom frequent Michigan, or make a stop in a spot of "flyover country" where presidential elections are won and lost.

Washington may be in the same time zone as Michigan, but politicos in the capital often don't know what time it is in the swing state. A state where in 2016, the robust populations of Arab and Muslim voters buoyed Bernie Sanders towards a historic electoral victory that the leading pollsters had giftwrapped for Hillary Clinton. It was a prediction that unravelled quickly in the weeks leading up to the primary, undone by a Sanders campaign that embraced the core of Arab and Muslim American life.

Four years later, some segments that flanked behind 'Uncle Bernie' now side with Trump

Four years later, and some segments that flanked behind "Uncle Bernie" now side with Trump. Inside cafes and on social media many Arab and Muslim Americans moving from the centre to the right lobby for "four more years".

Arab and Muslim Americans, routinely conflated as a monolith in the mainstream imagination, are a remarkably diverse people reduced to interchangeable pieces. This longstanding orientation of the two as one and the same, although convenient in war or the world of polls, glosses over the complex and layered reality that lies between simplistic poles.

This landscape, when examined in the heart of Arab and Muslim communities like Dearborn, is especially staggering within the frame of electoral politics, and particularly in a presidential election of unprecedented stakes. This election season, the Biden campaign cannot afford to drop a pivotal swing state on the grounds of careless stereotypes.

Indeed, slipping in Michigan could be costly, not only for Biden, but for an entire nation on the cliff.

Poll after poll report falling numbers for Trump. Yet the path toward unseating the president, much like Detroit's infamous roads, is riddled with potholes. Some visible, others concealed and silent.

"I am voting for Trump," says Deana H, a college student of Lebanese origin, "But I haven't told my family."

With hijab wrapped around her head and a mind fixated on her country of origin, Zeinab continued, "He got rid of ISIS [the Islamic State]. They killed so many Shia people from our village [in Lebanon]. And that matters a lot to me."

For the remainder of the country, it's unthinkable, perhaps, that a young woman who wears her religion very publicly, might vote for the Muslim ban's sponsor, let alone push friends at her mosque to support the mascot of global Islamophobia.

Even more surprising, is that a second-generation American, who has never set foot beyond the Midwest, might rank "foreign policy in the Middle East" as her principal concern. Her stance separates her from millennials and fellow Gen-Zers whose civic perspectives generally stop at the border.

But political realities in this artery of Arab America, don't always map with general trends. Rather, they are intersections of unseen clashes - sites of violent collisions along lines of class, spirituality, and often sect. In these spaces, voters veer along lines of educational level, nationality, race, and elements that range from the pointedly personal to partisan.

From afar, this political traffic may appear to be a singular heap. Yet, when driving slowly alongside, or stuck inside, the colours of cars and faces behind the wheels are unmistakably diverse. Distinct. Divided by spaces in between and destined for different exits.

This is Arab and Muslim America. Populations have long been rolled into one by the War on Terror and campaigns before it. They all converge in Detroit - the Motor City, no less - home to the largest metropolis in a state that could determine the fate of this nation.

Democrats must finally appreciate the political multiplicities that belie the myth of an 'Arab' or 'Muslim American' monolith

These places have been squandered by overconfident campaigns that neglect the might of voters at the margins. Like a broken record, they too often ignore the distinct and duelling voices that - from the elevated stage of Washington - are presumed a unified chorus.

Meanwhile, solos on the ground in Dearborn hum: "His foreign policy is better for the region [Middle East]." Or, "I worry about falling morals in this country." And, "he understands small businesses - and that's what made this community."

These sentiments, echoed by many I speak to, are not dedicated to Biden. Rather, they trumpet a president who has infected these very communities in Michigan, and many beyond and in between, with feverish scapegoating and scorn.

Yet, a seemingly swelling number of Arab and Muslim voters will put their faith in the source of this violence.

Read more: Would Biden really put a stop to blank cheques for Egypt's Sisi?

If a blue-collar Arab enclave in the Midwest sitting alongside the "Blackest city in the country" and surrounded by white supremacists that menace mosques and kidnap governors is this nuanced, then the political identities of Arab and Muslim communities across the country must be just as colourful.

With the darkness of four more years hanging in the distance, viewing Arab and Muslim Americans with that same old monochrome lens could prove disastrous for the Biden campaign. And in order to avert disaster in a neck of the nation that knows its ugly head too well, the Democrats must finally appreciate the political multiplicities that belie the myth of an "Arab" or "Muslim American" monolith. They must do so with care, and understanding unprecedented for the old guard of the Party, as they steer toward the November 3 reckoning.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.  He is a native of Detroit, and sits on the US Commission for Civil Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.