U.S. President Donald Trump has rightly had his rhetoric and governing style compared to authoritarian leaders around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. But it is Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who offers the best model for predicting how Trump will counter any damaging or incriminating revelations that surface as a result of the plea deal entered into by his former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, which was publicly announced on Friday, December 1.
Having been at the center of several major scandals within the last four years, Erdogan models how a populist authoritarian leader might go about deflecting, redirecting, and burying revelations of criminal activity and threats to their power. Indeed, only hours after news breaking that Flynn had pled guilty to lying to the FBI and was cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating ties between the Trump administration and Russia, the president and his supporters began countering the fallout by following the Erdogan playbook.
Time and time again, when criminal investigation or other developments have threatened Erdogan’s power, he has exploited significant political polarization to rally his base and scapegoat enemies, in order to deflect blame. These enemies have included social and political elites, domestic extremists, terrorists, international powers, opposition politicians, ethnic minorities, “the deep state,” and the media. At one time or another, all these groups have also been targeted by Trump and his supporters. Some are already being blamed for conspiring against the president, in the Russia investigation. Indeed, right after Flynn’s plea deal was announced, Trump called his former adviser, the man he once described as a “good guy,” as an “Obama administration official.”
When you are the authoritarian, populist leader of a country, enemies who “conspire” against you must be trying to kill or overthrow you, or so the argument goes. During the 2013 Gezi protests in Turkey, for example, a prominent Erdogan supporter claimed that “foreign powers” were trying to kill Erdogan by using telekinesis. A threat to the leader is also a threat to democracy and, so, Erdogan has frequently invoked the “will of the people,” to stop the prosecution of members of his government and consolidate his power. On Friday, in an uncanny parallel, right wing radio personality Alex Jones warned that the “globalists” were going to try and remove or kill Trump and start a civil war, while “all the thinking, hard-working, focused, dedicated people are on the side of Trump.”
If Trump continues to follow the “Turkish model” of dealing with threats to his power, he will likely make more efforts to energize his base through campaign-style rallies, telling them that a threat to him is really an attack on them, and demonizing the Russia investigation for its so-called connection to his “enemies” (think Black Lives Matter, “radical Islamic terrorism,” liberal elites, etc.), all while undermining the work of journalists and the credibility of the press. Trump will also continue to protest his innocence, while simultaneously calling those who cooperate with investigators “traitors,” and do everything in his power to continue to sideline the investigation. And, of course, his prominent supporters will echo his claims to a more extreme degree. All of this could have the result of stirring up more hate crimes and violent white nationalist protests in the country.
The bit of good news is that American democracy and democratic institutions are much more firmly established than Turkey’s ever were. For this reasons, Trump’s Erdogan-esque tactics may not work as well in the American context. But only time will tell.