Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
On Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a rigged vote to take a wrecking ball to the remaining ruins of Turkish liberal democracy. On Monday, President Trump called Erdogan, a long-standing NATO ally, and congratulated him for entrenching and formalizing his role as an authoritarian despot.
A shockingly misguided move, the call sent precisely the wrong signal to leaders around the world. Every leader from Caracas to Moscow will see Trump’s seemingly unfettered enthusiasm for the death of a democracy. And they’ll take note of a key lesson: Trump is happy to cheerlead for despots across the globe who abuse their people, so long as they work with him on counterterrorism and avoid weapons of mass destruction.
Everything else, from barrel bombs to beating protesters, seems to be fair game.
Since a failed coup attempt last July, Erdogan has purged more than 100,000 Turkish civil servants, judges, teachers, soldiers and police officers. In addition, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country. Erdogan has been using a near-permanent “state of emergency” to rule with an iron fist. Democracy has been dying a slow death in Turkey for years.
Erdogan pulled out all the stops in his campaign to ensure the referendum’s success. He used all the resources at the disposal of the state to push Turks to vote “yes” to his demand for vastly expanded powers. Those who publicly campaigned for a “no” vote in the referendum faced harsh reprisals. The referendum could never have been free and fair in such an environment. And yet there is considerable evidence that Erdogan’s supporters also engaged in substantial vote-rigging just to be on the safe side.
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan got the “right” result. Now he can effectively rule as a one-man state, without pesky checks and balances to stop him. The constitutional changes approved in the referendum also allow Erdogan to seek two further five-year terms, giving him the chance to stay in power until 2029 — a total of 26 years in charge of Turkey. (Of course, given his penchant for changing the rules when they don’t suit him, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll give up power even then.)
The White House readout of Trump’s call with Erdogan mentions nothing about human rights. It fails to mention that independent observers said the election was manipulated in the regime’s favor. It doesn’t chastise Erdogan for jailing journalists or harassing the opposition. It is silent on mass purges of civil society. Instead, the White House summary of the call amounts to “Congratulations! Looking forward to working with you on terrorism.”
The State Department issued a weak statement that lightly chided the vote’s irregularities, but that message was immediately and severely undercut by Trump’s congratulatory phone call.
American presidents have always had to balance hard-nosed foreign policy interests with respect for democracy and human rights. Yet Trump, in a stark break with the past, has shown utter contempt for the second part of that equation. His dealings with despots in the first 90 days of his presidency have been marked by the absence of any references to democracy in his statements on foreign policy.
This is in keeping with Trump’s long-standing adoration for strongmen. At various times, he has praised Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Moammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Un and the anti-democracy leaders of China for their strength. In recent state visits to Washington, he showed more affection for Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sissi than for democratic NATO allies Theresa May or Angela Merkel.
This month, Trump seemingly diverged from the norm by launching missiles at Assad and finding harsh words for Kim. Crucially, however, Trump faults both leaders for their fixation on weapons of mass destruction — not their long-standing abuse, torture and killings of their own citizens with conventional weapons. In reading Trump’s public statements, it’s clear that he views dictators and despots as strongmen to be admired — until they cross the line and use chemical weapons or nukes.
The media will almost certainly pay little attention to Trump’s ill-advised call to the Turkish leader. It won’t get the same wall-to-wall media attention as the airstrike in Syria, the carrier battle group deployed to the Korean Peninsula or the MOAB dropped on Afghanistan. But the world is home to 7.5 billion people and about 7.4 billion of them live outside those three countries. The signals Trump sends affect the calculations of presidents and prime ministers everywhere.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s phone call arose because he genuinely believes that strongman rule is worth embracing, or because he is acting to promote the regime that protects Trump Towers Istanbul. But either way, power-hungry aspiring despots around the world got the message: They can let the champagne flow in their palaces as they roll back democracy. The American president doesn’t really care.