I Thought Turkey's President Was Bad — And Then I Heard Donald Trump
When you pay your rent by covering the news, you know election season is going to be a rough couple of months long before candidates declare their intention to run. You prepare to put in long nights and extra hours when scandals erupt. You plan to be practically drowning in poll data and policy proposals. But what you don't expect is to see the crackdown on free speech and the media currently unfolding in Turkey reflected so clearly in a U.S. presidential candidate. And yet that is exactly what this election has been for me, as Donald Trump's descent into demagoguery invokes chilling reminders of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's turn toward autocracy in Turkey.
I first came to Turkey in 2011 as part of a summer internship at a digital nonpartisan magazine focused on international news. The experience left me wanting more, and eight months after my internship ended, I'd found a job and moved to Turkey. In the more than three years I spent living in Istanbul, I watched one leader's ego engulf a nation in conspiracy theories and tantrums against dissenters and political critics. Although I'm back in the States now, Trump's presidential campaign has given me a bad case of déjà vu.
Unless you follow Turkish news, you've likely missed the campaign Erdogan has been mounting over the years against Turkish democracy. While the crackdown on dissent and free expression Erdogan unleashed in the aftermath of a failed July coup has certainly been a massive blow to the nation’s democracy, it's not the first.
In the last four years, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been slowly chipping away at Turkish democracy. Journalists are routinely arrested, and Erdogan's government repeatedly bans news outlets from reporting on major events like corruption scandals and terror bombings. Academics have been jailed for signing a peace petition. Snap parliamentary elections were organized at Erdogan's demand when his party lost their parliamentary majority. Social media users have been sued and sentenced to jail time for "insulting" Erdogan.
While some initially characterize the Turkish government's defeat of a coup attempt carried out by a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces on July 15 as a "win" for democracy, it has actually enabled Erdogan to solidify his authoritarian grip on the country through a far-reaching crackdown on critics and the media. Under a three-month state of emergency put in place following the attempted coup, 108 media outlets have been ordered to close on suspicion of supporting the coup or having ties to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric accused by of organizing the coup attempt. Since the coup, more than 35,000 people have been arrested. Most recently, 10,131 civil servants were fired and 15 pro-Kurdish media outlets were forcibly closed Oct. 29. Eleven members of Turkey's parliament, including the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), were detained Nov. 3 for refusing to meet with prosecutors that had claimed the MPs supported the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) as part of Erdogan's post-coup crackdown. Their detention comes six months after Erdogan signed a bill amending the country's constitution to lift parliament member's immunity, a move critics claimed would allow Erdogan to strengthen his AK Party and push the HDP out of parliament.
Are you seeing the connection yet? Because I can't help but think Trump has been taking notes while watching Erdogan's attack on Turkey's once free press. While Erdogan issues media gag orders and commands the closure of various news outlets, Trump has banned multiple media outlets (such as the Washington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed, the Des Moines Register, and the Daily Beast), though the scope of his authority is, at the moment, limited to his campaign events.
While Erdogan made it a crime to run insults about him in print or on social media, Trump has threatened to sue journalists and newspapers that depict him unfavorably. He's gone so far as to vow to "open up our libel laws" if elected "so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money." When Saturday Night Live poked fun at him (as they do all major politicians), he called for the sketch comedy show to be canceled.
In the last few weeks, Trump has moved from whining about headlines to characterizing the media as an arm of the Clinton campaign to his supporters. Latching on to his often-used tactic of fearmongering, Trump repeatedly warns his supporters that "this is a conspiracy against you." Trump's regular attacks on the press have caused the Committee to Protect Journalists' board of directors to issue an unprecedented resolution declaring Trump a threat not only to the rights of U.S. journalists but to America's ability to defend and promote press freedom around the world.
"Donald Trump, through his words and actions as a candidate for president of the United States, has consistently betrayed First Amendment values," Sandra Mims Rowe, CPJ board chairwoman, said in a statement released Oct. 13. "Through his words and actions, Trump has consistently demonstrated a contempt for the role of the press beyond offering publicity to him and advancing his interests. ... This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history."
When Trump rails at journalists to "tell the truth," he's not urging them to report the facts; instead, he — like Erdogan continues to do in Turkey — is warning them to tell his version of the truth, or face the consequences. It's not hard to imagine what a President Trump might do to media outlets he feels aren't toeing the party line correctly, as he's made no secret of his desire to sue, ban, or shut down a few outright.
Chillingly, the similarities between Trump and Erdogan extend beyond both men's obvious disdain for an independent press. Both are largely motivated by their oversized ego. Trump, like Erdogan, has a habit of pushing conspiracy theories, of regularly relying on false facts and misinformation to win over supporters. He's fueled his campaign with statements that provoke fear, incite violence, and polarize the public — an Erdogan trademark.
Most recently, Trump has begun to question the legitimacy of the American election system, riling up his supporters to potentially reject a peaceful transition of power should Trump lose at the polls on Nov. 8. It's a dangerous move toward some potentially dark days.
I'm not the only one to notice Trump's affinity for mimicking the rhetoric and style of authoritarian leaders. Mikhail Baryshnikov compared him to dictators of the Soviet Union. He's been compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the demagogues of the Holocaust.
In Erdogan — a man who first rose to power in 2003 — Turkey has witnessed how easy it is for an authoritarian ruler to rise from within a democracy. Anyone interested in seeing what a Trump presidency might look like should take a good hard look at Erdogan.
From his attacks on the press to his baseless conspiracy theories and cries that outside forces are conspiring against him and his supporters, Trump's rhetoric already has more in common with autocratic Erdogan than U.S. presidents. With Election Day moving closer, the possibility of a Trump victory unnerves me exactly because I have seen how swiftly a demagogue can drive a democracy into the ground.