Trump and Tayyip: The new revolutionaries

Want to know what Trump’s America will look like? Look no further than Turkey.

It has, as I’m sure most of you will agree, been a long year. With consecutive horrors from the blood baths in Syria and Yemen, Turkey’s seemingly endless self-immolation, the Brexit debacle and now the U.S. election (possibly) to end all elections. Trumps victory in the American presidential elections marking the arrival of the fourth and final horseman of the Apocalypse and the presumably now welcomed end of the world.

Populist leaders around the world have welcomed Trump’s victory with characteristic flare. Greece’s Golden Dawn has declared it a victory for ethnically “clean” nations. Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders said: “The people are taking their country back,” and “So will we.” French far-right Front National’s most senior strategist, Florian Philippot, tweeted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” Never have truer words been spoken. And what a world it will be with Trump at the helm of the greatest – and by greatest, I mean most invasive – surveillance technologies in the world. The silver-lining being that Charlie Brooker will never again be want for Black Mirror material.

Trump’s election into arguably the highest office of power in the world, the authority given to him over the earth, seems like the inevitable result and likely further catalyst of a rising tide of nationalism, populism and discord. This tide has swept across the globe since the heady and hedonistic days of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when the fall of communism was seen to harken a new era of global prosperity under the liberal economic system. Yet the new world order produced its malcontents, from the left and right alike. So why is it predominantly the right, the strongmen and the new dictators that seem to be leading the revolutions.

What makes these strong men so appealing? The divisive message they propound is one as old as time, our innate human psychology bends to its will. Us and Them. As basic as it is destructive, our norm is one of aggression, alienation and distrust. And yet to belittle the power of this message, in the unity it offers against the known and unknown forces plaguing our societies is to continue on with the kind of echo-chamber elitism that may well have got us here in the first place. The core message, that the establishment is rigged, that the traditional parties don’t care about the people, is a salient one and speaks to the disenfranchised from across the political spectrum. So the question then is not how did this happen, but rather why is there not an equally strong message coming from leftist leaders?

The triumph of Trump shows us all too well that the simmering progressive revolutions from Occupy and Gezi failed to appeal to the masses, or else to failed to translate politically due to their networked and leaderless composition. More institutionalized progressive movements or leaders such as Syriza, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have equally failed to balance negotiating with traditional elites and garnering mass support from liberal anti-establishment masses however. Both seemingly unable to compete with the new right’s ability to never let a good crisis go to waste.

Trump is the embodiment of this shift from progressive to regressive anti-establishmentarianism, a product of a hollowed out political system and a schizophrenic society swinging alternatively between militaristic and disaffected. The ignorance and conflict this shift will breed knows no bounds. But for those wondering where a populist leader with the national will behind them might lead a country, look no further than Turkey.

Turkey, although facing if not entirely different, then entirely more pressing political problems, looks to be an unlikely prophesy of America’s future. And yet in Erdoğan’s presidential war path we may divine the future. Both became president at a time of chaotic political uncertainty, plagued by, but also producing the dual spectres of terrorism and conspiracy. Both the nationalist underdog, or so we should believe, struggling against the establishment, presumably by becoming it.

Erdoğan’s rise to power is well documented now, as Trump’s will surely be. The use of populist electoral tools: the polarizing discourse, the tide of anti-intellectualism, the disregard for democratic institutions – from the judiciary to a free media – and the demonization and xenophobia has placed the U.S. on a fast track to politics alla Turka.

Trump, like Erdoğan and Putin, is highly averse to criticism. Although unlikely to be able to compete on the same level, with thousands of academics and teachers fired and hundreds of journalists imprisoned in Turkey, or else Russian dissidents rotting away in gulags, Trump is still evidently cut from the same cloth. Turkey’s highly controversial arrest of the leadership of the People’s Democrat Party (HDP) can also be likened to Trump’s wild (and thankfully still preposterous) provocations that he would arrest Hillary Clinton should he ascend to power.

As with the success of Brexit, and the conservative Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) continued electoral majority, there are reasons for Trump’s mass appeal. They all targeted their message at previously disenfranchised masses. For Brexit, that was the white working class, apparently left afloat by the technological and civilizational advancements brought about by globalization. In Turkey, it is the Sunni Muslim from Anatolia who had been oppressed by Kemalist and communist alike. And it was those people, as well as the Trumpeters and Brexiteers who would be re-enfranchised at the behest of the new revolutionaries.

And for Trump? Like Tayyip, he has managed to (re)present the proper populace: “real Americans”, white, religious, conservative and nationalist. Brexit sang the same tune, with “real people” triumphing in extracting the UK from the apparently dirty mess of diplomacy and human rights laws that is the EU. Further, Trump, a privately educated billionaire, (almost unbelievably if Britain hadn’t just experienced it with Farage) managed to tap into the anti-establishment tide sweeping both nations, born of austerity and the immigration crises apparently sinking nations from across the Atlantic. Similar to Turkey, Brexit and Trump managed to propagate a message so riddled with holes that no fact-checker would know where to begin, using the clever web of propaganda and half-truths spun through social media, self-congratulatory us-versus-them rhetoric and self-contradictory conspiracy theories.

Populist leaders maintain a certain moral authority as the embodiment of “the people”, creating a homogenous group in their own image. Erdoğan’s famous address to his critics: “We are the people. Who are you?” is but one example. Inside insidious statements such as these is a claim. A claim to exclusive authentic representation and a monopoly on the national will. Never mind that this same ‘will’ is not only shaped, but in more authoritarian contexts, explicitly dictated and voiced by the political leaders of the day. Erdoğan, Putin, Trump: charismatic leaders using fear, passion and shadowy conspiracies to unite the populace around their cult of personality. Trump’s ‘make America great again’ slogan, much like the AKP’s ‘new Turkey’ speaks of an old regime in new clothing. And yet the emperor has no clothes.

Populism has emerged as the buzzword of this decade. But we have seen these false prophets of the people before, in Germany. And it ended rather badly. The comparison is clichéd yet pertinent. The far right has risen in Europe, fracturing the fragile peace of the post-WWII order. The world over, strongmen are consolidating and conquering, from Turkey’s entrance into Iraq and Syria to Russia’s growing playground in the Ukraine and Crimea as Trump send strong signals to his idol Putin that Nato principles of mutual protection will not be honoured. All signifiers that we are entering another period of mass destruction and destabilization.

And so what next for our new revolutionaries, apparently the (anti) establishment. Visions of new alliances between Trump, Erdoğan and Putin – strange bedfellows as they are –  replacing the apparently defunct European ‘special relationship’ spring to mind. Government dailies in Turkey are making the same predictions, albeit with a drastically different view on the consequences of what Daily Sabah columnist İlnur Çevik refers to as the “silent revolutions”, and the never ending carousel of enemies, frenemies and allies.

In these slow, rather than silent revolutions, the battles progressives once thought won will reopen as deep wounds. And as always, it will be the minorities who bear the brunt of a conservative take-over. Turkey has witnessed attacks on women’s rights from across the board in recent years. Abortion is now in open season, and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ groups continue to struggle to ensure basic rights to employment, healthcare and housing. As easy targets in a populist campaign, this battle has found equally fertile ground in the run up to the U.S. elections, with Trump threatening “some form of punishment” for women seeking abortions. As the Republicans now control the White House, the House of Representatives and most of the senate – a level of power not experienced by any single party for nearly a century – and with the AKP in full control using emergency laws, culture is looking to be the first global casualty in the coming revolution.

The next casualty? The world presumably, to which Trump now holds the keys to unmitigated disaster, not to mention the nuclear “red button”. In electing what can conservatively be called a feckless egomaniac, the U.S has triggered an ever more uncertain and dangerous period in world history. To leave aside the climate change issue, which Trump apparently views as a Chinese hoax, we have seen what populism leads to globally.

This rise of the strongman persona has legitimized and popularized unconscionable crimes against humanity. Like in Turkey, where the death penalty has been embraced with renewed vigour, with widespread and increasingly popular instances of torture and inhumane treatment – of Kurds and soldiers embroiled in the disastrous coup – Trump has propagated a message that is tantamount to war crimes. Bragging he will reinstate torture, “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and steal the oil, as well as murdering the family members of terrorists and expanding the remit of Guantanamo to include US citizens. The apocalyptic gates opened by the emboldening of such archaic views will be extremely difficult to close.

Strongmen are conquerors, sated only by infinite power which demands a militaristic and interventionist foreign policy as much as it does domestic control. Turkey is, as we speak, playing with fire in Iraq. As with Washington’s endless and apparently immutable involvement in the Middle East, Turkey’s amassing of troops for what are shaping up to be massive operations in Iraq and Syria is legitimized to a restless public through the usual discourse of national security (albeit far more legitimate for Turkey as opposed to the U.S).

Trump, with less recourse and fewer constraints due to the fact that much of his foreign policy will be enacted thousands of miles away, poses an even greater threat. With few checks and balances and worm holes woven through the constitution already due to the infamous Patriot Act, Trump could spell WWIII for the Middle East.

As we shuffle blindly into this political abyss of racism, bigotry and lies, the power of this message of fear and hatred will permeate all aspects of our global society. A domino effect as it were, and strongmen the world over will celebrate the apparent ease in which Putin, Erdoğan and now Trump can take and maintain power from the people and over the people. The paradox being that they are doomed to commit the sins of their fathers, to disenfranchise the citizens and take over the political establishment. And yet despite this dismal picture, to end with Chaplain:

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…”

Harriet Fildes

Harriet Fildes, “Trump and Tayyip: The new revolutionaries”, Independent Turkey, 10 November 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=13051

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