Is Trump Our Erdoğan?


My wife and I recently took a short trip to Europe. With travel vouchers that had to be used by a certain date, why not go to Europe in March? We were trying to escape the weather here, but somehow couldn’t. Weather aside, one of the things we were looking forward to was a black out period away from the daily travails of American politics. Today, though, doing that is impossible even if you don’t watch television or stay away from newsfeeds on the phones. The most jarring event took place in a small restaurant. We were seated next to a good-looking young couple whose language bounced from English to Spanish to one I did not recognize. So when dessert was up, and the young man was contemplating whether to buy a bottle of Port wine, we encouraged him, and the conversation started.

It turns out that the language we did not understand was Turkish. And the reason they decided to buy a nicer Port was that it was a bit of celebration for them to be away from Turkey. They were both young professionals who were very open about their dislike of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and what he was doing to their country. And when we told them we were from Pennsylvania, they knew it was the home of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric neither of them ever thought they could stomach, but who is now viewed as the only person who could return normalcy to Turkey.

Like so many conversations these days, ours got to Donald Trump. They did not have much hope Trump would apply any pressure to Erdoğan. They felt that Obama was their opportunity for salvation, but were disappointed that he whiffed on reigning in Turkey’s increasingly powerful “president”. In our talk, they were most disturbed by the fact that the Turkish dictator continues to attack institutions and is successfully undermining them. Sound familiar?

It was apparent to them that Erdoğan’s dismantling of the secular military and his mass firings of professionals from teachers to judges were responsible for the country sinking into an Islamic Republic, which was not what the citizenry voted for. Watching what has happened in Turkey made them ask us: Could Donald Trump do the same thing to our institutions? Perhaps naively, I assured them that our Constitution and institutions have withstood more than Trump, and we would not go the way of Turkey.

The couple felt very relieved because they envisioned a day they might have to leave their homeland to protect their family and give their children a brighter future. America was really the only place they felt they could go, but the specter of Trump and the following he commands are frightening to them. They told me they thought it could never happen in Turkey because of their rich history of secular government and the fact that the military has always stepped in when things got out of hand but then stepping out when it was safe for democracy. But those bulwarks are no more.

So for the rest of the vacation, I thought about that conversation and whether Trump and his band of merry pranksters and thieves could bring down our institutions and how could they do it. The last several days since I’ve returned home have tested my promise to the Turkish couple that America will never have an Erdoğan situation. The unprecedented attacks on the FBI, the whole intelligence community, and the media create a scenario where Washington could become Istanbul on the Potomac.

In my mind, the changes in media coverage are the greatest concern for me after Trump himself. News outlets are not what they were during the times of Nixon, Harding, and the other who were corrupt. Fox News as well as its imitators have delivered the Trump message unfiltered and in all its glory to a base that wants to believe. But it’d be one thing for them to just tout Trump’s agenda. Even more importantly, they dismiss any criticism of Trump and the parts of the GOP that do not agree with the White House. To see and hear elected officials and paid pundits attack institutions and downplay the Putin threat is very hard to endure. What is most difficult to accept is that if Hillary Clinton or any Democrat was involved in any like behavior, these same people would reverse position in a second.

I hate to think that Turkey is the canary in the coal mine for the United States, but after sharing a nice glass of Port and just adding it all up, I realized how fragile our democracy can be if there are not credible people and trusted institutions to push back. That is what Trump is counting on. That is what Putin made his bet on. And that is what enables Erdoğan to rule. Let’s hope Turkey can somehow return to its democratic way of life and thus show America the way.