On Monday, Turkish journalist Ece Temulkuran wrote a dire warning to the United States in the Washington Post, imploring the American people to resist creeping autocracy and that “conventional political tools” will not “stop this new kind of insanity.”
And she would know. Her country has lived for years under the oppressive regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has served in multiple offices but has ruled Turkey in some form for 17 years.
Turkey and the United States have a lot of fundamental differences in their basic institutions and system of government that make an exact comparison difficult. For instance, Erdoğan was able to call a referendum in 2017 that effectively rewrote the government with him as the supreme leader, something Trump lacks any sort of power to do.
Nonetheless, wrote Temulkuran, Erdoğan and Trump share key similarities in the way they rose to power, and the way they weaponize political discourse to divide their opponents and attack institutions and figures who oppose them.
These painful years started with a movement of real people, creating automatic polarization and excluding anyone who didn’t support the movement by labeling them the corrupt elite,” wrote Temulkuran. “What came next was a massive operation to disrupt rationality and distort language. It took the people of Turkey some time to realize that it is impossible to speak with populist spin doctors — not because they have brilliant debating skills but because they use a certain schizophrenic logic that paralyzes human reason. While this was going on, we perfected our political humor skills to calm our anxieties by making fun of the leader, just as the Americans have been doing for the past two and a half years.”
“Meanwhile the anger and fear generated by the leader’s absurd statements invaded not only the political sphere but also our most intimate relations,” said Temulkuran. “That’s when the most maddening part began: The minions of the leader started to multiply and haunt us in our daily lives. Imagine little Trumps proliferating in your workplace, saying things such as, ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’ or ‘The world is flat’ — and then finding yourself trying to explain why science matters without being condescending toward real people.”
“In the course of those 17 years, all the old political and judicial mechanisms were steadily taken apart by a ruthless government and party machine, leaving the people of Turkey to struggle to keep what is left of their democracy,” Temulkuran continued. “The entire nation began studying our extremely complicated election law. Today you can ask any opposition member in Turkey and even the least educated will be able to recite the election laws by heart. Losing democracy has reminded us all how much blood, sweat and tears are needed to rebuild it. Now we know that no abstract institution, no legal investigation and certainly no call for shame can bring down right-wing populism once it seizes power.”
The upshot, said Temulkuran, is that Americans should not be so arrogant as to think that their democracy is forever — or that Trump will even agree to leave office when his prescribed term is up.
Fighting autocracy requires “a global conversation and a network of solidarity,” he said. “We have to see through the noisy insanity and figure out how this political malady works — with patterns strikingly similar in each country regardless of the maturity of democracy, the strength of state institutions or the stamina of conventional political parties.”