Turks for Trump
A surprising number of pro-Erdogan commentators are looking to "Make America Great Again."
If you asked the average Turk how they would vote in the U.S. election, Hillary Clinton would probably win in a landslide. “Make America Great Again” isn’t the most appealing slogan to non-Americans.
But the same isn’t necessarily true for Turkey’s opinion-makers. Flip through the newspapers, and you’d be surprised at the level of support for Donald Trump. Yes, the anti-government media are mostly liberals who are appalled by him. A part of the pro-government media, however, seems to have taken a liking to the Republican nominee. They share his statements, attack U.S. media for a perceived bias for Clinton, and jump on any polling that indicates a Trump win.
Melih Altinok, a columnist for the pro-government daily Sabah, recently wrote a column titled “What has Trump ever done to you?” in which he argued that the Republican candidate was “certainly better” than Clinton.
These are strange bedfellows, as Erdogan’s government sees itself as Islamist. Pro-government ideologues criticize what they see as the West’s Islamophobia and point to its history of slavery and social injustice almost on a daily basis. Figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who have delivered incisive criticisms of the American system, are revered by these same commentators.
Trump, in contrast, has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and received official endorsements from openly racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan. He is the face of America that Islamists in Turkey love to hate. So why are pro-government outlets supporting him?
The first and most practical reason is that Erdogan supporters believe Clinton has strong ties to the Gulen network, a shadow organization Erdogan has blamed, with good reason, for this summer’s attempted coup. During the decades of activity in the United States, the Gulenists have built a state-of-the-art lobbying machine and have been supporting Clinton at least since the Democratic primaries in 2008, which she lost to Barack Obama. They have donated heavily to the Clinton campaign during this election; Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, both have ties to the movement. Clinton herself reportedly met Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the movement, on at least one occasion.
Erdogan supporters have noticed. Mahmut Ovur, also a columnist for the pro-Erdogan Sabah, wrote: “This is not limited to monetary support. Just like with us [in Turkey], we are talking about a network that has gotten into the arteries of Clinton [and her campaign].”
A well-connected Turkish official confirmed to me that the Gulenist link is seen as a threat, especially after the July coup. “Nobody cared much before the coup happened,” he said, “but now, if you ask who’s better for Turkey, it’s Trump, Trump all the way. And that’s how the guys upstairs feel, too.”
The Erdogan government’s public stance has been more reserved. During a recent visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed the Gulen-Clinton issue, saying, “A few people donating money to campaigns, these things don’t determine relations.” He added a Turkish saying — “The crowned head turns wise” — meaning essentially that even if Clinton wins, conditions will force her to work with the Erdogan government over the Gulen network’s objections.
But some Erdogan supporters are legitimately excited by Trump’s isolationist worldview. The Republican nominee has described NATO as “obsolete” and struck a positive tone toward strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, calling into question the U.S. foreign-policy tradition of democracy promotion. Although Turkey is a longtime NATO ally, many in the pro-Erdogan camp see the alliance as a Christian club that works against Turkey’s interests. They prefer bilateral relations with countries like Russia, which are based on limited common interests rather than shared values.
The Sabah columnist Fahrettin Altun touched on these sentiments when he wrote that Trump appeals to the segment of the U.S. electorate “preparing to withdraw their country’s expansionist policy.” He added that what would be best for Turkey would be “creating a basis on which countries can help themselves” — implying that U.S. involvement, which many see as meddling, is no longer welcome.
That is why images of a Trump tweet stating, “13 CIA senior officers helped in Turkey Failed Coup,” were embraced by Erdogan supporters, despite later being revealed to be fake. “Do you know how we sent boxes of documents to the United States?” wrote Salih Tuna from Yeni Safak, a pro-government paper, in reference to the files related to Gulen’s extradition process (he lives in the United States). “Should we send a box to Trump as well?”
Some Erdogan supporters see Clinton, by contrast, as a continuation of a neo-imperialistic U.S. foreign policy. Her statement that she would continue U.S. support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), only confirmed that belief. Her words were splashed across Turkish newspapers and prompted Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to ask: “Isn’t America our ally?”
But there is also an aspect of this that goes beyond the distrust of Clinton or a belief that Turkey could exploit Trump’s policies for its own benefit. Trump’s public personality seems similar to that of Erdogan. On Twitter, one of the most popular pro-government trolls wrote: “I’m very clearly pro-Trump. At least he’s a delikanlı” — a term that means “young man,” but in this context implies a “straight shooter,” someone with principles.
Some Turks on social media have affectionately dubbed Trump as reis, meaning “chief,” a title they usually reserve for their own president. They have even created memes of Trump’s image appearing on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) posters. That’s telling, because although the two politicians are very different men, their brands feel similar. Here are part of the lyrics to a popular Erdogan song:
He is the deep voice of the oppressed,
He is the free voice of the silent,
The man who is as he appears, who takes his strength from the nation, Recep Tayyip Erdogan!
Like Erdogan, Trump also claims to appeal to the working-class silent majority and certainly “is as he appears,” in the sense that he is authentic in comparison to the robotic Clinton. And if Trump indeed is the “human Molotov cocktail” to legally “throw … into [the] political system,” as Michael Moore put it, Erdogan’s terms in office have been nothing short of revolutionary for Turkey. The man himself recently stated that he has “redefined democracy.”
Both Trump and Erdogan are nationalists in the sense of France’s Marine Le Pen, who speaks of a world of “frontiers.” There are important differences here, of course — Erdogan’s government has generously taken in refugees, for example, while Western nationalists want to keep them away. But they all favor a world in which nations are free to act within their own norms, rather than being shaped by an internationalist liberal understanding of behavior. Erdogan’s ultimate putdown to his political opponents is that they are not milli, a word often translated as “national” or “patriotic.” It’s the same line used by a man at a Trump rally, who approached a CNN reporter and, pointing at himself, yelled, “Patriot! American Patriot!” and then yelled, pointing at the reporter, “Your name is traitor!”
Nationalism has a bad name these days, because it heightens differences between groups. But these nationalist groups — despite their drastically different aims — also feel an affinity toward one another. Part of the reason for this paradox could be that these groups are better than liberals at distinguishing between what they want for themselves and what they want for others. As Le Pen said when asked about her preference in the U.S. elections, “I cannot put myself in an American’s shoes and determine whether the domestic policies proposed by one or another candidate suit me. What interests me are the consequences of the political choices made by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for France’s situation.”
Nationalist leaders, in other words, believe that because nations are unique, outsiders cannot make accurate value judgments about them. They believe that there are limits to empathy. “I don’t care if they call me a dictator or whatever else. It goes in one ear, out the other,” Erdogan recently said. “What matters is what my people call me.”
The liberal world order is stifling to nationalist leaders. Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan may not agree on much, but they agree that it’s time to start dismantling it.
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Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). Twitter: @SelimKoru