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In the 1960s, conservative Turkish politicians often promised to transform Turkey into a “small America.” That pledge was premised on a hopeful vision of the United States, a country that many Turks wanted to emulate. But a half century later, it is the United States that finds itself well on the way to becoming a bigger version of Turkey and not the other way around.
If they were not clear already, the darker strains of Donald Trump’s presidency have been revealed in recent months. He has turned the coronavirus pandemic—mishandled spectacularly by his administration—into another front in an unending culture war against his political rivals and the media. The uprising that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd, meanwhile, did not prompt the president to reflect on the inequities of American society or to try to soothe the raw emotions of the street. Instead, he portrayed the largely peaceful protests as anarchic riots, used brute force to disperse demonstrators near the White House exercising their right to free speech, and further polarized the country. Like other authoritarians, Trump thrives on that polarization. He styles himself in both rhetoric and action as the defender of a besieged United States, inveighing against “leftists” and cosmopolitan elites and describing his critics as inherently anti-American. In chilling scenes this past week, the Trump administration sent federal agents—against the wishes of local governments—into cities such as Portland to quash protests.
The Trump era reverberates with the echoes of Turkey’s own slide into autocracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The parallels are legion: the talk about true national identity, pitting “real” Americans or “real” Turks against those deemed less authentic; the dithering of the political establishment, which naively imagined that it could tame an unfamiliar, upstart political force; and the new president trampling over the respected institutions of the country.
For over two years, I have been trying to convince audiences in the United Kingdom and the United States that the lessons of Turkey’s plight are relevant to them. The global authoritarian turn—whether you call it right-wing populism or fascism—has common patterns that repeat in every country in its grip. I feel as if I’m watching a B horror movie when following U.S. politics; I want to shout at the screen: “Don’t turn down that road, you fools!” After all that’s happened in recent months—on top of the impeachment saga and Trump’s various assaults on American democratic norms—I want to yell at some of the main actors, including the media and the Democrats: “Take the next turn before it is too late!”
In 2002, Erdogan’s newly formed Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept national elections and came to power. Its electoral success rested in large part on the claim that the AKP embodied the authentic will of the nation; the party tarred its opponents as corrupt, cosmopolitan elites. In the past 18 years, Erdogan and his allies have expanded the remit of the executive, co-opted important institutions, and clamped down on dissent. The polarized vision of the country that powered the AKP to triumph in 2002 remains the animating force of Erdogan’s rule. The president’s opponents still struggle with his brand of politics. After the AKP’s initial triumph, Turkish social democrats and the mainstream media tried to rally to the defense of the political establishment, a gambit that only allowed Erdogan to style himself as an underdog and a victim of the powers that be. Democrats in the United States and the mainstream media have likewise allowed Trump to cast himself in this light, to present himself as an insurgent even when he is in power.
The mainstream media spent a lot of time and energy after Trump came to power issuing mea culpas. The New York Times and other prominent outlets repented for the sin of “not seeing it coming” by giving an enormous platform to proponents of right-wing populism, which inevitably translated to accepting Trump’s and his supporters’ notion of themselves as political underdogs. During the first years of Erdogan’s presidency, the mainstream media attempted to accommodate more voices politically and culturally aligned with Erdogan and his party. That right-wing populist narrative paralyzed and then took over the political center, eventually elbowing out all other voices.
Like Erdogan, Trump has cast himself as an insurgent even when he is in power.
Trying to make sense of the rhetoric and politics of Trump and his supporters had the effect of tying U.S. journalists in knots. It took them two years to finally understand that Trump’s political movement presented an existential threat to journalistic ethics. The vaunted goal of objectivity is in fact a kind of neutrality—a willingness to minimize both falsehoods and excesses—that constitutes a political choice, especially in these times when hateful and authoritarian ideologies are growing in strength.
These warnings might sound too pessimistic to many Americans—as they did when I first sounded the same alarm in Turkey a decade ago. The Turkish media were like the U.S. media, hewing to Cold War–era practices, even in the first decade of the twenty-first century, of giving space to right-wing populist voices, insisting that socialism posed a threat to democracy, and dismissing voices calling for social justice. Those in the U.S. media who are today more afraid of the word “socialism” than they are of Trump should know that punching left does not protect the establishment at the center but instead makes it more vulnerable to attacks from the right. And it does no good to call the shameless shameful. In the age of shamelessness, which began years before Trump came to power, fact-checking him and proving that he is lying does not help. Once people choose credulity over skepticism, reason goes out the window.
There are signs that parts of the U.S. media are mending their ways. The Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, have sparked a conversation about what it means for journalists to be objective: journalists have an innate responsibility to defend human rights. The recent uproar at The New York Times—after the publication of an op-ed by a Republican senator calling for the armed forces to be used against protesters—forced the resignation of a top editor at the newspaper and stressed that some ideas are too reprehensible to be afforded such a prominent platform.
The senator’s op-ed is a reminder that the current moment of political and moral upheaval is far bigger than Trump. The maddening political developments in the United States and in other countries ruled by right-wing populists are in fact the symptoms of a crumbling system. The post–Cold War liberal order made it seem as though capitalism were a natural state, unquestionable, like the weather. But with growing economic inequality within countries—exacerbated now by the coronavirus pandemic—more and more people are realizing that it cannot go on like this. The economic fallout of the pandemic has not hurt Erdogan as much as it has damaged Trump; the AKP’s nearly two decades at the helm of the country has allowed it to build a sophisticated economic infrastructure of nepotism and cronyism that has often benefited areas of the country where the party enjoys tremendous support. But Erdogan’s endless culture war will not save Turkey from the pandemic’s economic consequences: the International Monetary Fund forecast in May that Turkey’s economy would shrink by five percent this year and that unemployment would reach 17.2 percent.
The opposition in Turkey has generally struggled to attack Erdogan and the AKP on substantive social and economic issues. The Democrats in the United States must be able to advance economic ideas that in the past fell afoul of capitalist orthodoxy, or else they risk future disappointment. Young Americans have not inherited the Cold War biases of previous generations and are more skeptical of the current system—indeed, they are also materially less well-off than their predecessors. The Democrats should channel that discontent in the direction of social justice and not leave it to fester and fuel right-wing populism. I have seen in Turkey and in several other countries how the hesitant opposition squanders the potential of energized mass support. In Turkey, social democrats failed to harness the energy of the unions and working-class Turks in periods of unrest. They feared appearing too radical and being labeled a threat to national security. That timidity allowed Erdogan to fill the vacuum and assert himself as a figurehead of national unity.
Finally, the American public needs to get ahold of its emotions. Thanks to social media, political developments stir a constant churn of public emotions. The expression of rage, shock, and desperation is no substitute for actual political engagement and activity. Delighting in the absurdity of Trump or his supporters or signaling indignation and shock at some outrage is politically inconsequential. What matters is uninterrupted attention and an unshakable commitment to the goal of protecting the fundamentals of democracy—free speech, strong and independent institutions, and an inclusive polity—which should not be confused with the defense of the political establishment. Many Turks watched the rise and hardening of Erdogan’s power with disbelief. But incredulity won’t help arrest the ascendance of right-wing populism. Americans and others now ruled by right-wing populists shouldn’t let themselves fixate on the spectacle of their leaders to the detriment of more concerted and productive action.
Turkey was not always the arena of authoritarian, right-wing politics. In response to my Cassandra-like warnings to Americans and Britons, some prominent intellectuals told me that it’s not right to compare their countries with Turkey. After further conversation, they eventually admitted that the similarities were impossible to dismiss. Global solidarity against neofascism requires joining forces and less hubris among the intellectuals and opinion leaders. Believe it or not, you, too, can be like us. However different our countries, we can lose our democracies in exactly the same way.