For weeks, protesters from diverse segments of Turkish society gained control of downtown Istanbul under the slogan “resist.” Erdogan’s provocative statements did not help. Police violence against demonstrators, including the killing of 19-year-old Ali Ismail Korkmaz, triggered an even bigger avalanche across the country. It was a summer of protests, with singing, shouting, barricades and tear gas every day.
I don’t want to make facile comparisons here. Trump and Erdogan share many traits, but there are also major differences between the two men. Turkey has never been a strong or stable democracy, for starters.
But it’s impossible to ignore the similarities in Erdogan’s campaign to orchestrate a conservative backlash after Gezi and Trump’s attempt to start a culture war over the current unrest. Trump called protesters “THUGS"; Erdogan called Turkish demonstrators "capulcular,” which could be translated into "looters.” Trump held a Bible outside a church in Washington; Erdogan depicted demonstrators as marginals bent on destruction of property and religion. After clashes near a mosque, the Turkish leader accused protesters of drinking beer inside, which the imam denied, and tearing off the veil off a woman.
The Gezi demonstrations were largely peaceful, but government propaganda crafted the narrative of a foreign-backed plot to unleash street violence to weaken Turkey and topple the government. Conspiracy theories were promoted about Germany, Europe or George Soros as possible sponsors. (Similar misinformation is circulating about the protests in the United States.)
I bring up Gezi as a warning to my American friends: The tide of public opinion can turn fast. People should be protesting on the streets, but there will be other fronts in the battle for justice.
Erdogan, aided by a torrent of falsehoods and propaganda, eventually consolidated his base. As demonstrations stretched over weeks, the public started growing weary. Leaders stoked polarization, and it worked. Erdogan blamed Turkey’s economic woes on the Gezi protests as support declined. Eventually, a quick reform package was announced, the streets were cleared with tear gas, and we went back to business as usual.
Except we were worse off, with a government that saw civil liberties as a threat and gradually narrowed the space for public expressions of discontent. Today it is practically impossible to protest in Turkey.
My second warning is about the coercive power of the state, first seen during the covid-19 pandemic and then escalated during the recent protests. With the exception of a few events in world history, the law-and-order camp tends to win. Scenes of looting alienate people, even as the majority of protests are peaceful. Worse, social upheavals often serve to push the security bureaucracy to align itself with the status quo. While some cops are taking a knee in solidarity with demonstrators in the United States, there are others who are upset about the breakdown of order or attacks on their own. They will coalesce around a very polarizing president promising to protect them and praising their mission.
Trump has now set the stage for using the coercive power of the state in an emergency. What could stop him from invoking those powers during the elections? I’m not talking about cheating but about creating conditions in which police and military personnel are sent to voting booths, free speech is curtailed, and opponents are prevented from campaigning. Of course, the United States will not turn into a dictatorship overnight, but any measure of state intimidation could shift the balance in battleground electoral districts.
So enjoy your revolution, but watch out for the counterrevolution. A popular upheaval is successful only if it can bring about change, but that happens through organizing, protesting, campaigning and getting out to vote. I would save some of the anger for November.