For US composer, understanding Trump through optics

Shaun TANDON
Composer Mohammed Fairouz said experts don't understand US President Donald Trump, but "people who come out of the entertainment industry do"

To Mohammed Fairouz, a leading US composer whose work seeks the universal in the present day, policy experts have it wrong when it comes to President Donald Trump.

The artist, who has brought both poetry and politics alive through his music, finds it telling that Trump is so visibly enraged by Alec Baldwin, the actor who impersonates him on the comedy show Saturday Night Live.

"I'm a composer; Alec is an actor. We know Donald Trump much better than the other side of me," said Fairouz, a frequent author of political essays.

"The policy wonks don't really understand Donald Trump. People who come out of the entertainment industry do," Fairouz told AFP over an evening of contemplative conversation at his home studio in New York.

With his background in reality television, Trump, to Fairouz, is "all about optics" -- even when the new president takes actions that are highly controversial.

"If it can be engineered so a woman who just got court protection for domestic abuse is then deported, it looks awful -- but he knows his base," Fairouz, who speaks with precision but passion, said of a recent case against an undocumented immigrant.

Fairouz's latest work premieres this month at the Dutch National Opera -- "The New Prince," a futuristic reimagining of Machiavelli and his "end justifies the means" philosophy.

The opera, with a libretto by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius, casts a reborn Machiavelli in a world of contemporary figures including apostle of realpolitik Henry Kissinger.

- Trump as opera? -

Asked if Trump could be the subject of a future opera, Fairouz responded without hesitation: No.

Opera is "a way to reach beyond the muddled present to touch things that are timeless and eternal, and that is different from the ephemera of daily op-ed pieces and breaking news," Fairouz said.

"I think that Donald Trump lives in that ephemera. When Donald Trump dies and is no longer able to generate breaking news stories, his power fails."

Fairouz sees as misplaced the depictions by some on the left who see Trump as Hitler.

Better comparisons, Fairouz said, may include more insular-minded masters of image such as Argentina's Eva Peron and Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

Yet Zia knew not to ruffle the feathers of the powerful military and intelligence services from which he emerged, said Fairouz, whose upcoming projects include an opera on the lives and violent deaths of Pakistan's Bhuttos.

"Zia was able to pull off a certain level of looking like a fool, clinging onto power by being self-effacing -- 'I am your humble servant.' I don't think Trump can do that," Fairouz said.

Fairouz saw the US national security establishment -- "ossified and in many ways dysfunctional" -- as a key factor in restraining Trump.

- Symptom, not disease -

Fairouz, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, has stayed on the frontline. An Arab-American, Fairouz helped translate for travelers held up by Trump's initial ban on entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries. He also composed a song for a recent night of activist solidarity at Lincoln Center.

Fairouz sees Trump, who enhanced his political career with false claims that then-president Barack Obama was not born in the United States, as part of a deeper strain of anti-intellectualism on the US right.

"He's not the disease; he's rather the symptom," Fairouz said.

Fairouz said that the United States to some extent was fertile ground for Trump's struggles with the truth as the country was "built on the erasure of the past."

"When people came they said, 'We don't belong here, we don't belong there, and we're just going to scorch the earth,' and for better or worse that's part of the identity of the country."

For all of his criticism of Trump, Fairouz said he held no grudge -- and believed there was still a way the optic-minded president could triumph.

"The only thing he could do now to shock us is if he took the office of the presidency seriously."