Lessons from Erdoğan’s Victory

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The mighty Turkish army foiled by the cast of Les Miz? That seems one likely takeaway from the military coup attempt that crashed and burned last Friday. After troops seized key locations in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a personal appeal to his countrymen via Facetime, ordering them to “take to the streets,” in the name of democracy. And they did. Footage shows crowds trapped by the army in Istanbul Atatürk Airport marching out to face tanks with Erdoğan’s name, along with “Allahu akbar,” on their lips.

Granted, the coup seems to have been clumsily executed, involving only a small segment of the armed forces. Putschists directed their tanks to fire on the parliament building in Ankara, which can’t have enhanced their popular appeal. The coup was condemned early on by the head of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. So far, in his countrymen’s eyes, Erdoğan has succeeded in blaming the revolt on the influence of Fethullah Gülen, an eccentric cleric exiled to Pennsylvania, which taints the whole affair with foreign agitation.

Still, you’d expect the response to Erdoğan’s appeal to be tempered by awareness of the man’s own autocratic style. He has made a hobby of jailing critics for defamation and gone on record comparing democracy to a streetcar: “Once you reach your stop, you get off.” Normally he responds to those who march in its name by splitting their skulls. Within two days of his return to Istanbul, Erdoğan has imprisoned more than 6,000 alleged coup supporters and deposed nearly 3,000 judges. If he was a strongman before, he’ll be an even stronger one going forward.

But Erdoğan’s position is democratic in the most direct sense: he did win Turkey’s presidency with 52% of the vote – about the same percentage of the British public that elected to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. Britons – at least non-Muslim Britons – share with Turks a fear of looming demographic insignificance. Whereas the fertility rate in the provinces dominated by ethnic Turks has fallen to 1.5 children per female, it’s riding between 3.2 and 4.2 in the provinces dominated by Kurds. By the early 2040s, a majority of children in the Turkish Republic will come from Kurdish-speaking households. “Turkey,” predicts David Goldman, “could not hope to maintain its present borders for very long.”

Far from ignoring this upcoming crisis, Erdoğan has made repeated attempts to tackle it head on – normally in ways that would stun, if not disgust, any liberal Western observer. He’s exhorted Turkish families, variously, to have at least three children apiece and to renounce contraception altogether. To check the Kurdish militia groups straddling Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, he has offered logistical support to ISIS. Though this tactic has, almost literally, blown up in his face, with ISIS agents bombing and shooting up targets inside Turkey itself – including Istanbul Atatürk Airport just last month – memories of these attacks on sacred native soil seem not to have dampened the spirit of the anti-coup mobs.

This isn’t to say that Erdoğan’s anything so crude as an ethno-nationalist. Quite the contrary: he’s an Islamist who has at every turn evoked memories of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. From draping his palace guard in 19th-century uniforms to naming the new Bosphorus Bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim – the first Ottoman ruler to claim the title of caliph – Erdoğan’s stoked nostalgia for a state where everyone could live in peace, provided they knew who was boss.

Since Brexit, and since Donald Trump claimed the Republican presidential nomination, direct appeals to the populace in the name of past national glory and at the expense of diversity have many people worried. Mainly because they seem to be working. “To call [Trump] a fascist,” writes Adam Gopnik, “is simply to use a historical label that fits.”

Erdoğan, who has punched a demonstrator and constructed a palace several times the size of Versailles, could give Trump lessons in vainglory and vulgarity. That ordinary citizens were willing to risk their necks for him should server as another reminder that stability, continuity with the past, and hopes for national grandeur have a much profounder appeal than many of us would like to admit.

Since Trump’s rise, Times columnist Ross Douthat has been making the case for rescuing the concept of national interest and a national community from demagogues and outright race-baiters. He writes:

A more nationalist politics is in one sense, a more exclusive politics, as it is based on the premise that there is such a thing as an American national community, and that this community’s interests at times must be placed ahead of humanity as a whole. But nationalism can also be inclusive, insofar as it emphasizes the interests that Americans of all classes and ethnic backgrounds share.

Luther once asked why the Devil should get all the good tunes. Why indeed should devils get all the good ideas?

[Image credit: Wikipedia.]

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