IF only Hillary had thought about the Arabs. They might have brought her a lot closer to the presidency if she’d taken the trouble of going to the largest Arab community in America, the predominantly Lebanese-Iraqi city of Dearborn, Michigan. Its streets are lined with Lebanese restaurants and cedar tree flags and they are proud Americans but — against the best advice of her own regional organising director in the city — Hillary Clinton didn’t bother with them.
Nicholas Noe was Hillary’s senior man in Michigan, the beating heart of 186,000 residents who claim Arab ancestry. Noe also lives in Beirut where he runs Middle East Wire, which translates the Arab media, and writes long — sometimes over-wordy but often all too accurate — analyses of the Arab world.
“We lost Michigan with its 16 electoral votes — and we lost it by a little more than 10,000 votes,” Noe says. “We were never able to get Hillary herself in front of the Arab community to listen to them. She went to Detroit but she never came to see this community — even though she was nearby”.
It’s easy to think that Hillary, whose sense of entitlement never stopped her currying up to the wealthiest or most powerful lobby groups in Washington and New York, was frightened of offending the pro-Israeli lobby and thus avoided Dearborn and its residents’ questions on “Palestine” and Israel. But so far as Noe is concerned, “most pundits believed that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric would be sufficient to give the Arab-American vote to Hillary — but they needed to hear from the candidate herself.”
The would-be US president made similar mistakes in the other swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where she failed to address white working class or African-American voters. Even Bill Clinton was urging her to speak to the communities there that had serious social problems. Some of Clinton’s campaign workers — including Noe and his colleagues — partly blame a computer algorithm called ADA (of which more later, readers!) which supposedly knew how to parse opinions, guess voting patterns, deploy the candidate and run 400,000 electoral race simulations a day — according to The Washington Post — but which wasn’t very good at working out how poor people feared for their future or what Arab-Americans thought about their country’s role in the Middle East.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters in Michigan knew they had a problem when Bernie Sanders pulled off the electoral primary and beat Clinton by 17,000 votes in March 2016. More important still, Bernie won the Arab-American majority districts by two-to-one.
“That was a huge turnout in Bernie’s favour,” Noe says. “So we knew we had a problem. In the months between then and the presidential, I led an effort to register new Arab-American votes in and around Dearborn. Our problem was that we registered a lot of voters who failed to turn out in the kind of numbers that would have put Clinton over the top.”
For the first time in its history, The Arab American News, the largest newspaper of its kind in the area, refused to endorse a presidential candidate. Noe’s interpretation was simple: “It wasn’t just the policies of Hillary Clinton they had a problem with. She never engaged with the community — she took the Arab-American vote for granted because of Trump. A whole lot of Arab-Americans were not convinced by this approach. When I tell people back in Lebanon now that we failed to get those 10,000 votes from the Lebanese and Iraqis in Dearborn, they laugh. Because if you listen to these people’s concerns, if you engage community leaders and then you mobilise a modest number of extended families, they will vote on election day.”
Not the least of their problems — real ones which I’ve witnessed for myself at American airports when they’ve joined the queues for boarding — is the treatment they receive from security staff when they’re flying, their origin immediately drawing suspicion — even though they are full American citizens.
“I worked for Hillary in 1999 and 2000 when she won the Senate race,” Noe remarks. “She spent a month on a ‘listening tour’, listening to residents. But when it came to the Arab-American vote in this election, there was no ‘listening tour’ on the cards. They didn’t hear from the candidate herself.”
Now to ADA.
Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, a 19th-century English mathematician and the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, is regarded as the first computer programmer. The Clinton campaign named their top-secret computer algorithm after Ada — which could have burnished Hillary’s feminist credentials among the few who knew about the wretched machine, but whose results may also have cost her the presidency. It picked up the importance of Pennsylvania, according to the Post, but missed out on Michigan until the end — when Clinton still didn’t visit Dearborn — and lost out on Wisconsin.
“It crunched the data about Arab Americans, blacks and working class people,” says Noe, “and told the Clinton campaigners where to put resources. Artificial intelligence was going to win a presidential campaign for the first time. It rejected advice from people like me to urge the candidate to devote resources to Dearborn.”
So Trump didn’t win in the heart of Arab America because its people voted for him. He won because they didn’t vote for Clinton. And that was her fault. Later, I suspect, the Middle East will reach out and grab Trump by his collar and shake him badly — it always does that to US presidents. Then he’ll wish he, too, had spent a bit of time in Dearborn.
—By arrangement with The Independent
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2017