DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS: Trump, Erdoğan, and Oppression

By on May 24, 2017

Lessons from Turkey’s populist regime.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I fucked up on Twitter last week when sending out a story I wrote about Kurds and other activists who were attacked by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security forces outside of the Turkish ambassador’s Washington, D.C. residence. Instead of typing “Turkish security forces,” I inadvertently wrote, “Trump security forces.” I deleted the tweet and regretted the error—but the mistake was telling.

Despite the differences between Trump and Erdoğan, the physical attack on Americans by foreign security personnel should serve as a stark warning to us.

The videos of the attack are striking in the precise determination of the violence. Against the Turkish security forces, the D.C. police seemed helpless to defend the Kurds and other protesters being attacked. It made the recent skirmishes between homegrown fascists and Antifa in Berkeley and elsewhere seem like schoolyard scuffles.

Heewa Arya, a Kurdish-American who was there to protest Erdoğan’s invitation to the U.S., was among those beaten by armed Turkish security forces as they ran past police and began punching, kicking, and choking protesters. It looked like nothing so much as some crazy, apocalyptic version of a fight in The Sopranos—fat dudes adept at violence going wild.

“I was attacked by many people. I don’t remember how many, but I remember at first I got a kick to my chest, and then I think another guy from behind put me down. And then I just remember there were kicks all over—kicks and punches, punches in my head, in my neck, in my back body,” Arya said. “I just tried to cover as much as I can my front face. My head was down. I don’t remember anything else. I was maybe unconscious for a second from the punches.”

I talked to several of those who were attacked and they all asked, in one way or another: If Erdoğan feels empowered to do this in Washington, D.C., what do you think he does in Turkey?

Kurds have long been persecuted in Turkey, but things have been getting worse—especially after last year’s failed coup, which prompted Erdoğan’s harsh crackdown on anyone perceived as potential opposition.

Rather than condemning Erdoğan’s dismantling of democracy, Trump was the first Western leader to call and congratulate the Turkish president after an April referendum that would deconstruct the constitution and pave the way for Erdoğan (like Putin) to remain in power indefinitely.

Like Erdoğan, Trump has encouraged violence from his supporters; he is being sued by three protesters who were allegedly assaulted after Trump yelled “Get ’em outta here!” at a Kentucky campaign rally in March 2016. In allowing the case to go forward, a judge cited numerous instances of such rhetoric at Trump’s rallies.

“Don’t hurt ’em. If I say, ‘go get ’em,’ I get in trouble with the press,” Trump said as the plaintiffs were being shoved. A week later, then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski allegedly assaulted a reporter and was later charged.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called Turkey “The world’s biggest jailer of journalists.” On the same day that Erdoğan visited the White House, news broke that Trump had asked former FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists who publish classified material. Trump has also publicly called journalists the “enemy of the people.”

“We are the people. Who are you?” Erdoğan famously asked his opponents. The appeal to “the people” is the central feature of both Trump’s and Erdoğan’s rhetoric. It is also key to their appeal, allowing them and their followers the ability to purge anyone not deemed a “real American” or an authentic Turk. The populist impulse simultaneously attacks so-called elites and the most vulnerable people, like the Kurds in Turkey.

Jan-Werner Müller’s book What is Populism? argues that populism is defined not only by this anti-elitism but also by anti-pluralism. It is “an exclusionary form of identity politics.”

Once in power, populism, according to Müller, is characterized by “attempts to highjack the state apparatus, corruption,” and efforts to “systematically repress civil society.”

For all their intense nationalism, these populist movements are going global, spurring sometimes strange alliances, such as that between Erdoğan, an Islamic nationalist, and Trump, an Islamophobic nationalist.

But perhaps Trump’s connection with Erdoğan—like his connection with Putin—is deeper than a shared hatred of elites and the institutions that would constrain their power.

On the day after Erdoğan visited the White House, a slew of stories brought light to connections between Turkey and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

First, we learned that Flynn informed the Trump transition team that he had secretly been working as a lobbyist for Turkey—he had been paid $500,000—and was under investigation for not disclosing his status as a foreign agent. The Trump transition team still hired him as national security advisor and gave him access to the most sensitive intelligence. Flynn, who was later fired, is also under suspicion for his ties to Russia.

A grand jury has subpoenaed Flynn’s financial records. According to The New York Times, the “subpoena also asks for similar records about Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman who is close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and is chairman of the Turkish-American Business Council. There is no indication that Mr. Alptekin is under investigation.”

Then McClatchy reported that during his short stint in office, Flynn scuttled “the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners.”

The decision was pleasing to the Turkish government. But even after all that, Trump asked then-FBI director James Comey to “let this go.”

These business connections combine with the ideological similarities to make Erdoğan’s Turkey a stark warning of what Trump’s vision would look like in action.

When the Turkish Embassy responded to reports of the brutal attack by their security personnel, they blamed the activists, who, the Embassy claimed, were “affiliated with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], which the U.S. and Turkey have designated as a terrorist organization.”

How long until Trump uses a similar line? PJH

Baynard Woods is editor at large for Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in publications from The Guardian to The New York Times. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on ethics and tyranny, and became a reporter in an attempt to live like Socrates. Email

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