Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says President Trump has long admired authoritarian leaders
His quick call congratulating the Turkish leader on a referendum that curbs democracy is disturbing, she says
It’s a haunting image. A basement space with blacked-out windows, crowded with camera equipment and journalists who were assigned to cover the Leader during the state visit of a foreign dignitary but were not allowed to look outside.
Was this Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or perhaps the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan? No, it was the Trump National Jupiter Golf Club in Florida, three weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, as depicted by White House pool reporters Jennifer Jacobs and others on Twitter. (Jacobs tweeted during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit, “Trump’s press corps has been placed in a basement suite at Jupiter golf club. Black plastic over windows to give Trump privacy as he golfs.”
Trump and Erdogan
In this case, the blacked-out windows merely hid a golf game. Yet the model of media-government relations they conjure – a press that’s blinded, and cut off from knowledge of what’s going on and who’s doing it – is not so dissimilar to those put in practice by both those other countries.
Those pictures returned to mind when I heard that President Trump had called President Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory in Sunday’s referendum, which has been widely interpreted as clearing the way for an expansion of his personal powers. We can learn a lot from Turkey’s journey to repression under Erdogan, not least what could be in store for America if Trump decides to go down a similar path, even in a very mild fashion.
While international observers sharply questioned the fairness of the vote in Turkey, claiming the opposition had been muzzled, Trump became the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan. And he took this step even though his own government, in the form of the US State Department, issued this comment: “We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens – regardless of their vote on April 16 – as guaranteed by the Turkish constitution and in accordance with Turkey’s international commitments.”
Trump has never hidden his love of strongmen. Moammar Gadhafi, Vladimir Putin, and even Saddam Hussein have all come in for praise by him for their decisiveness and take no prisoners attitude toward their enemies.
Erdogan certainly fits the bill. He’s been in the news for some time as a prime example of the new wave of strongmen who operate in a context of nominal democracy but engage in authoritarian tactics to consolidate their power. His defeat of a coup attempt in July 2016 (which some believed Erdogan staged) allowed him to further accentuate his crackdown on the usual targets of such leaders: the media, the judiciary, immigrants and political opponents.
Trump has acted according to type in singling out these categories, too, for his hostility, to the point of calling the press “enemies of the people” and calling for the imprisonment of his political rival, Hillary Clinton, an idea he has returned to from time to time.
Turkey shows us what can happen when rhetoric passes to action. Let’s take the example of the media and higher education. Over 100 news sites have been closed, and over 100 journalists have been imprisoned; Turkey is now the country with the highest number of confined journalists in the world. Many university professors, accused of anti-government sentiments or insulting the leader, have been escorted out of their homes and workplaces in handcuffs, as though they are criminals – which, for Erdogan, they now are.
Add to that a thin-skinned personality who bears a grudge – a former Miss Turkey endured an “insult trial” for posting a satirical poem about Erdogan on Instagram (she received a 14-month suspended sentence) – and you have a society that lives in fear, never knowing who will be his next target.
It’s rarely a good sign when an authoritarian leader calls for a referendum. Such popular votes are invariably used to justify a new round of repressive measures, since the ruler can now claim he’s acting according to the will of the people. In this case, Erdogan was seeking support for a new constitution that, over time, will considerably weaken the power of the legislature at the expense of the executive.
Erdogan will never do away altogether with democracy: It’s not in his interest. Keeping a semblance of democratic norms can be useful to the ruler; it allows him to refute any charges that he’s a dictator. “Here we have a ballot box,” he told CNN’s Becky Anderson and James Masters. “It’s what we call national will.” His opponents, who have called the results fraudulent, beg to differ. We can expect that some of them will soon be deprived of their right to free speech.
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Some readers may think that speaking of Trump in the same breath as Erdogan is ridiculous. Trump likes winners, so what if he called the Turkish leader to congratulate him on this victory?
Yet Trump’s public support for Erdogan is a serious thing: It’s another nail in the coffin of America’s prestige in the world as a beacon (no matter if flawed) of freedom. Trump’s seeking out the favor of Erdogan, like his shameless courting of Putin, should startle Republicans out of their favorite recurring fantasy: that Trump will go “mainstream” and support democratic norms in America and elsewhere.
It’s doubtful that Trump will engage in mass imprisonments of journalists, judges and professors. Even Putin doesn’t do that; the Russian leader prefers to make an example of certain people.
Yet Trump has been inciting hatred against the press (to continue with that example) since the inception of his candidacy, singling out individuals like NBC’s Katy Tur for heckling; confining the press to pens, like caged animals, and inciting enough hatred that double layers of security were required for pool reporters by the end of the campaign.
Trump went out of his way to build a bridge with a repressive leader who deals with opposition and criticism by silencing it and putting it in prison. It’s the spirit of someone who designs a blacked-out room for the press on a Trump property. Are there other such rooms in our future?