In May, the American public was treated to an extraordinary spectacle: a violent confrontation between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security detail and a crowd of predominantly Kurdish protesters.
Erdoğan’s bodyguards rushed on the demonstrators and began beating and kicking them — not in Istanbul or Diyarbakır (the spiritual capital of Turkish Kurdistan), but in Sheridan Circle, in the heart of Washington DC’s ambassadorial district. Images and videos depicting the brutality rocketed around the Internet.
While President Trump refrained from commenting on the incident, other Republican leaders were quick to condemn such blatant thuggery. Senator John McCain, clearly incensed by the whole affair, mustered a “hell” when calling for Turkey’s ambassador to be ejected from the country. Representative Paul Ryan — speaking on the heels of a 379-0 vote demanding that inciters of the violence be held to account — issued a statement blaming the incident on the Turkish government and insisting that “our resolve to defend the First Amendment and condemn suppression is stronger than ever.”
Yet despite the angry outcry from Republicans, the type of politics that Trump has cultivated in the US has more in common with Erdoğan than Ryan or McCain would like to admit.
We are not the first to make such a comparison. A number of writers and commentators have, for example, pointed out that the two heads of state share some unsettling personality traits and styles of leadership.
In drawing such parallels, we should be careful not to over-egg the pudding. Erdoğan, for all of his autocratic brutishness, has genuine ideological commitments and cultural and political ties with his base that Trump does not. Erdoğan grew up poor and even spend time in jail for his religious beliefs (a situation you could see befalling Trump, but not out of any political principle).
However, we shouldn’t let personality politics obscure the similar social and political forces driving the type of faux-populism that Trump and Erdoğan represent. They were not created in a vacuum, nor are they sustained by force of personality alone. We must also look to their enablers.
Powerful commercial interests back both Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) and Trump’s GOP. Capital likes deregulation and low taxes, and each party is happy to oblige.
In terms of their mass base, the two parties are similar in that they both draw substantial electoral support from non-elites in districts far from the centers of cultural, economic, and political power. In the US, it’s whites in rural and suburban areas, often religious and often skittish about the country’s demographic changes; in Turkey, it’s pious Muslim Turks of small town Anatolia, resentful of the Westernized cultural and political elite that historically dominated Turkish society as well as the Kurdish minority, who they deplore for supposedly destroying the unity of the Turkish republic.
Both parties mix conservative religious ethics — whether it’s “Judeo-Christian values” or “Muslim morals” — with elite-friendly economic policies. Both peddle xenophobic nationalism served with a hefty dose of conspiracy.
And both Trump and Erdoğan understand democracy in the crudest majoritarian sense of the word, holding liberal democratic rights in contempt and validating their authoritarian impulses by touting their electoral success.
Turkey’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism is not being replicated in its entirety in the United States. America, unlike Turkey, still possesses an independent media and a relatively open civil society.
However, at the same time their colleagues in Congress condemn Erdoğan’s assault on protesters and wax lyrical about the sanctity of the First Amendment, GOP lawmakers are busy trying to undermine people’s right to protest at the state level. Across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed imposing draconian fines on demonstrators, banning masks at protests, and even indemnifying drivers who drive into protesters. In Arizona, legislation introduced this past winter would allow protesters to be charged with racketeering.
Many of the state measures are clearly designed to put the kibosh on specific protest tactics that left movements have used in recent years. In Washington State, for instance, a Republican legislator introduced the “Preventing Economic Disruption Act,” which permits prosecutors to seek harsher sentences against individuals who engage in almost any act of protest targeting a business.
Or take North Dakota. Was the hostility of GOP officials toward the self-described “water protectors” at Standing Rock all that different from Erdoğan’s hostility toward the environmentalists who initiated the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul? North Dakota’s Republican governor and local officials oversaw the brutal repression of Standing Rock protesters, deploying the private security firm Tigerswan (which in internal documents compared the activists to ISIS) and violently removing the water protectors once Trump approved the pipeline. Riot police in Turkey fired on medics, arrested journalists, and brutally evicted protesters.
Over the last few years, Erdoğan and his backers have routinely denounced their opponents as envoys of the “ust akil” (the mastermind), a mysterious entity credited with orchestrating plots to undermine Turkey. Yiğit Bulut, an adviser to Erdoğan, blamed the Gezi Park protests on — wait for it — telekinesis attacks.
The AKP obsession with the person behind the curtain seems to reflect a belief that there are no real protest movements, only conspiracies spawned by their political opponents.
But is this so different from the general craziness emanating from the American political right, from the president on down?
They too lean heavily on conspiracy theories and make sweeping claims about the supposed sinister forces behind protest movements. “You now have a situation where you have full-time, quasi-professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” Arizona state senator John Kavanagh said in February, speaking in support of the state’s anti-protest bill. Glenn Beck, who had refrained from endorsing Donald Trump and called for common civic cause with centrists and liberals, returned to his old tricks after the election, suggesting that George Soros, the great villain of the right-wing hive mind (and, interestingly enough, also one of the dramatis personae in many a Turkish conspiracy theory) was behind the anti-Trump protests.
Erdoğan’s apparent willingness in May to order his goons to administer beatings in public was shocking for its flagrant violation of US sovereignty and diplomatic niceties.
But the sheer absurdity of Republicans posing as defenders of political freedom should not go unremarked. The GOP is a plutocratic, nationalistic cesspool masquerading as a populist party. The AKP is an increasingly authoritarian party that mixes elite-friendly economics with noxious nationalism and religious conservatism.
There are genuine differences between these two kindred spirits. But they’re more in degree than in kind.