Trump and Erdogan are a lot alike

The man who just won reelection as Turkey’s president appeals heavily, like Trump, to rural, less educated and more religious voters, with a simplistic but incendiary message of national pride and traditional values.

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This file photo from Dec. 4, 2019, shows then-President Donald Trump (left) and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) at the NATO summit in London.

Peter Nicholls/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

ISTANBUL — When Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a crowd of supporters here in Istanbul after winning a new five-year term as Turkey’s president, he was not wearing a red hat proclaiming “Make Turkey Great Again.” But he might as well have been. Erdogan looks and sounds a whole lot like Donald Trump.

Standing on top of a bus, the victor thundered, “The only winner today is Turkey,” and then added, “No one can look down on our nation.”

There are, of course, profound differences between the two countries. The United States is the world’s largest economy; Turkey ranks 19th. Turkey is almost entirely Muslim, while American Muslims are just over 1% of the population. Turkey belongs to NATO, but its drift away from democratic principles under Erdogan has thwarted its bid to join the European Union. The president has refused to support Western countries in imposing sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

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Yet the resemblance between Trump and Erdogan reveals a lot about both men — and both countries — and it starts with political geography. The opposition to Erdogan is concentrated in Turkey’s more coastal and cosmopolitan cities, much like the Democrats in America. Erdogan, like Trump, appeals heavily to rural, less educated and more religious voters in the center of the country with a simplistic but incendiary message of national pride and traditional values.

“Large segments of society, particularly in the conservative heartland, identify with Erdogan,” Turkish political analyst Asli Aydintasbas told NPR. “Erdogan’s idea — very strong message about a rising Turkey, a new power, a country that’s destined to be a global power in the 21st century — in fact, he called his campaign the Century of Turkey — resonated with the conservative heartland. ... Erdogan, in the end, sold a very appealing idea, which was to make Turkey great again.”

Trump famously boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Erdogan’s followers reflect a similar messianic belief in their leader and ignore his many flaws.

Inflation is rampant here; the Turkish lira is likewise plunging in value. The government has been slow to help survivors of a devastating earthquake that killed about 60,000 in the country’s eastern provinces last February. And yet those areas still voted heavily for Erdogan.

“He has been in power for a very long time and he is very good at delivering a message,” Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a Turkish political consultant, told The New York Times. “Over the years, he has built trust with his voters, and they believe whatever he says.”

Like Trump, Erdogan has built that trust in part by emphasizing his ties to religious conservatives. He’s repeatedly branded the LGBTQ community here as “deviants,” encouraged women to wear headscarves, supported religious schools and generally rolled back the secular reforms introduced by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, 100 years ago.

“Our victory came from God,” shouted one group of Erdogan supporters in Ankara on election night, reported the Washington Post. Another replied, “Now, 100 years in power.”

Xenophobia and misinformation

Another link between Trump and Erdogan is their cynical exploitation of xenophobia, raising fears of malign foreigners to galvanize their supporters. Trump vowed to build a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists” and “drug dealers” and banned Muslims from entering the country.

Erdogan’s villains of choice are Kurdish militants in the country’s southeast region, and in a particularly egregious campaign tactic, he promoted a fake video purporting to show Kurdish fighters singing the campaign song of his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Confronted with the forgery, Erdogan answered in pure Trumpian terms: “So what if it is a fake?”

That comment reflects another parallel between the two leaders: a penchant for spreading misinformation, aided by captive news organizations. Trump has long been promoted by allies at Fox News and right-wing talk radio; Erdogan goes him one better by controlling the country’s official news agencies.

“The president and his allies also were afforded blanket media coverage,” reports the Post. “One state outlet covered Erdogan’s campaign for more than 32 hours while devoting just 32 minutes to Kilicdaroglu, according to an estimate from Turkey’s broadcast watchdog.”

There is one critical difference between Erdogan and Trump, however. The Turkish leader won 52%, a small but clear majority. Trump has never appealed to a majority of Americans, failing to reach 47% in both of his presidential runs. That’s why Erdogan has ruled for 20 years, and many shrewd Republicans think Trump will lose badly if he’s nominated again.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.

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