Turkey is a long way from the Republican convention in Cleveland. But I’d urge you to study the recent failed military coup against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. America is not Turkey – but in terms of personality and political strategy, Erdogan and Donald Trump were separated at birth.
The drama occuring in Turkey is the story of how off track a once successful country can get when a leader who demonizes his rivals and dabbles in conspiracy theories comes to believe he is the only one who can make his country great again and ensconces himself in power.
Let’s start with Erdogan, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2014, but then got himself into the previously symbolic job of president and got all key powers shifted to that role. I confess that when I first heard news of the July 15 coup attempt, my first instinct was to consult Miss Manners, The Washington Post’s etiquette columnist, because I was asking myself, “What is the right response when bad things happen to bad people?”
Anyone who has followed Turkey closely knows Erdogan has been mounting a slow, silent coup of Turkish democracy for years.
But I’m glad the coup failed, especially the way it did – with secular Turks who opposed Erdogan’s autocratic rule, and had been abused by it, coming out against the plotters on the principle that democracy must be upheld.
The Turkish people’s maturity gave Erdogan a do-over to demonstrate he is committed to democracy’s universal precepts. But will Erdogan go back to his preferred means of keeping power: dividing Turks into supporters and enemies of the state, weaving conspiracy theories and using the failed coup as license for a witch hunt?
The early signs are bad. A day after the failed coup, Erdogan dismissed 2,745 judges and prosecutors. How did he know who to fire in one day? Did he have an enemies list? To date, he has reportedly purged 1,500 university deans, revoked 21,000 teachers’ licenses and purged or detained nearly 35,000 members of the military, security forces and judiciary during his “cleansing” of coup supporters.
Here’s the real tragedy: Erdogan was a great leader his first five years. Since then, he has gotten away with increasingly bad behavior by creating a divide between his more religious followers, and Turkey’s more secular communities.
Because his followers see their dignity wrapped up in his remaining in power, he can say and do anything and never pay a political price. Sound familiar?
Trump uses the same tactics: He constantly fabricates facts and figures. He regularly puts out conspiracy theories.
Trump also relies on the us-versus-them bond with his followers to avoid punishment for misbehavior. He, too, is obsessed with his prowess, and he uses Twitter to get around traditional media gatekeepers – and fact-checkers – to inject anything he wants into the nation’s media bloodstream. (Erdogan uses his own friendly media.) Most of the people Trump has surrounded himself with are family or second-raters looking for a star turn.
If Trump is elected, I don’t think there will be a military coup, but Jeb Bush’s prediction will be proved true, that he'll be “a chaos president” just as he’s been a “chaos candidate.” Americans will regularly be in the streets, because they will not follow on any big issue a man who lies, who has not done any homework to prepare for the job and who generates support by conspiracy theories and making people afraid of the future and one another.
If you like what’s going on in Turkey today, you'll love Trump’s America.