Well, Donald Trump will be the new U.S. president. This is certainly not what was predicted, or what I expected, but it’ll be interesting. My mother says that we should sit back and “enjoy the circus.”
I wish that I could do that, but U.S. foreign policy towards this corner of the world is an issue of lives: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Egyptian military regime, the Syrian civil war. Ukraine, Crimea, South Ossetia. The theological regime in Iran; Israel and Palestine. All of these problems and more will be in Trump’s hands starting January 20, 2017.
Scanning the news and social media reaction to this unprecedented president-elect, I’ve noticed a number of Turkish pundits, generally pro-AKP and/or pro-Erdoğan, who are feeling some justifiable schadenfreude over the stunning end to the Democratic Party’s eight-year sway over the U.S. presidency. Especially the last four years have been disastrous for Turkish-U.S. relations, as well as for the citizens of Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, and Crimea. Obama’s foreign policy legacy, even before the end of his administration, is already recognized for the broad range of failures left behind. The damage, though at this point not as far-reaching as the consequences of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (which is the true direct cause for many of the current crises we are experiencing), looks to carry on well into the future.
The same commentators also seem to have the idea that an American liberal elite, comparable to the “secular” elites in Turkish society, got its comeuppance with this election’s result. That idea is fundamentally in error because no such class-identified, elite liberal block exists in American society. In the U.S., the upper- and upper-middle classes are generally conservative and consequently vote Republican (1), a tendency which is entirely normal for stable, industrialized societies. There is a segment of affluent, liberal urban elites, but they are usually educated middle-class professionals or, more rarely, from the upper-classes. Traditionally, U.S. Democratic voters come from the middle-classes and working-classes — even though the Democratic Party’s voting base has been changing in recent decades. Some of the working-class support the Democrats used to depend on has switched to the Republicans.
But those Turkish pundits enjoying the moment need to recover from their gloating as soon as possible. Eight years has apparently been enough for them to forget what a Republican administration means. We are faced with the possibility of a re-emergence of neoconservative influence over U.S. foreign policy. Remember how Paul Wolfowitz came to Turkey after the 1 Mart Tezkeresi to turn the thumbscrew? We may be seeing more of him soon. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? Courtesy of the neo-conservatives. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, John Bolton? They’re still lurking around Foggy Bottom. Michael Rubin already began anticipating political appointments under a Trump Presidency a year ago (2). This is the threat stemming from the 2016 U.S. presidential election that I’ve been worried about for the past year — that a Republican administration would bring the neo-conservatives back into the Washington, D.C. corridors of power.
At this point we don’t really know what foreign policy stands Trump will take because he hasn’t offered detailed descriptions of his opinions towards Turkey or its region. Trump’s main foreign policy advisor, Walid Phares, recently caused excitement in the Turkish press (3) by telling an American-Turkish Council meeting that Trump would examine possible ties between Fethullah Gülen’s cult and the Clinton campaign, and that he “desired closer ties with Turkey.” Phares, a Lebanese Christian by heritage, a foreign policy advisor for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign, and a Fox News commentator, has also made positive statements about the possibility of no-fly and safe-zones in Northern Syria. But Phares has also been described as a neo-conservative, and in the more distant past has made comments on issues relating to Turkey that were quite different from what he has said over the past eight months (4).
I’ve also observed some snarky comments, also laced with schadenfreude and generally coming from the “secular” or Kemalist/ulusalcı segment of Turkish society, implying that Americans unhappy with Tuesday’s result are now in the same boat as the Turkish elites upset over the election of the AKP/Erdoğan. However, comparisons between how the AKP or President Erdoğan have won in Turkey and how Trump won in the U.S. are superficial and faulty on a variety of levels. Simplest are electoral reasons: On Tuesday Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — she lost the presidency because of the U.S.’s Electoral College system, through which states are awarded votes according to their respective populations. The U.S. vote turned out to be surprisingly close, but no presidential candidate has won an election by double-digit percentage points since Ronald Reagan in 1984. In Turkey, the AKP and Tayyip Erdoğan have won all of their elections by double-digit margins, whether in local elections, parliamentary elections, or presidential elections.
Social reasons: Failure to understand the U.S.’s social reality in “battleground” states played an important part in erroneous predictions. Economic vitality is traditionally the key issue which decides U.S. presidential elections. The issues now identified as important by pollsters also seem to revolve around the economy, in particular the failure of the sputtering economy to help voters in key Midwestern swing states achieve better lives. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore even predicted this exact result several months ago based on those same Midwestern voters (5). The weakness of the U.S. economy can be traced to the extreme Republican Congressional opposition which did everything possible to prevent President Obama from taking the actions necessary to revive the U.S. economy after the 2008-2009 subprime mortgage crisis. The U.S. economy has still not fully recovered from the effects. Outside of the economy, the results of the polls seem to be a mix of various factors such as class, gender, and ethnicity. Ideology does not seem to have been a deciding factor, and Trump got more votes than expected from many minority groups in key swing states.
But competent pollsters predict Turkish elections with ease; the only unclear aspect when Turkish citizens head to the polls is whether the AKP will have 317, 330, or 367 seats in the parliament. Currently, the predominant issue determining Turkish electoral outcomes is the lack of competent political alternatives. The AKP has proven itself able to obtain results and provide real improvements for the lives of Turkish citizens. As a result, no other party inspires the same confidence across a wide swath of Turkish society. Turkish elites are so detached from the rest of Turkish society that they have difficulty comprehending the reality that the Turkish working- and middle-classes live in.
Issues: Trump ran a campaign based on loud proclamations of various issues that he identified as important to his base. And because those issues changed over time and according to what location he was in during the campaign, he even contradicted his own statements. He used racism, bigotry, chauvinism, Islamophobia, populist anti-trade rhetoric, and xenophobia in generous doses. One of the immediate Republican goals will be to dismantle President Obama’s universal health care program. The AKP, by contrast, attempts to embrace all ethnic and religious identities in Turkish society, promotes the entry of women into professional life, has welcomed three million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, is pro-trade, and wants to expand the access to high-quality health care of all Turkish citizens.
Historical context: Turkish society is part of an entirely different socio-historical process. The U.S. has been a constitutional democracy for nearly 250 years, and has been a stable, industrialized society since the beginning of the 20th century. The richest and politically most powerful society in human history, the U.S. is also vastly urban, with only about 60 million of the U.S.’s 320 million inhabitants living in areas that the government classifies as “rural” (5). U.S. presidential elections generally see around 50 percent of the electorate going to the polls.
Turkish citizens, on the other hand, have gone through the experience of having their democratic choices repeatedly denied over the past 50 years by a coalition of state, military, and social elites that cooperated in a series of military-led interventions into civilian politics. Only in the past ten years was the military’s political meddling halted, upon which a messianic cult presumed to appoint itself the new state power-broker. That initiated a decade of civilian political effort devoted to ridding Turkish state institutions of this cult’s influence. Turkey only began to industrialize in a real sense in the 1960s, and is still going through that process. That’s why, even though Turkey’s population is now 90 percent urban, much of the urban population is actually mobile, maintaining strong links with rural areas. Nearly 90 percent of the Turkish electorate turns out for Turkish elections.
Even though the prospect of a new Republican administration of any kind is horrifying, in the end, my mother is certainly right from one perspective. If the U.S. made it through two George W. Bush administrations, then we can get also through a Trump administration (or two?). But the question is how many lives will be lost in Turkey’s region during the process.