If Turks celebrated Thanksgiving, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters would be giving thanks for U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Against the backdrop of the president-elect’s intemperate rhetoric about Islam, enthusiasm for Trump seems odd in a country with a population that is 99.8 percent Muslim, and where the ruling Islamist political party aspires to make Turkey a leading Muslim power. During the campaign, Erdogan, on at least one occasion, did criticize Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, demanding that the GOP candidate’s name be removed from Trump-branded property in Istanbul, as he “has no tolerance for Muslims in America.” Still, on November 9, Turkish newspapers that faithfully reflect Erdogan’s views were sanguine about Trump’s victory. Somehow, the candidate who once promised to ban Muslims temporarily from entering the United States — then, after an avalanche of criticism, fell back on subjecting them to “extreme vetting” — and is now reportedly considering the idea of registering all Muslim immigrants and non-immigrants in America would usher in a new, positive era in U.S.-Turkey relations.
So what do Erdogan and his supporters like about Trump? What do they see in him that has made them declare, as one Turkish newspaper wrote, that “Turkey is optimistic about starting with a clean slate” for U.S.-Turkish relations?
It’s not just that Trump and Erdogan share strongman tendencies like hostility toward the press and a belief in themselves as saviors to their respective nations, or that Trump’s designated national security adviser has cozy ties with the Turks. More important, the two leaders share an anti-establishment message that aligns in ways that indicate to Turks, at least the pro-Erdogan among them, that relations will improve with a Trump-led United States.
They are likely to be mistaken, however, as the U.S. president-elect holds views on issues like Syria, Iraq and Islam that run counter to Turkey’s interests and Erdogan’s religious views.
Perhaps the congratulatory tone of the pro-Erdogan press reflected the Turkish leader’s well-known pragmatic streak—a signal to Trump Tower that the Turks are willing to look beyond the Islamophobia of the campaign and do business with the new American president. At the same time, it is unlikely that anyone within Trump’s inner circle reads the Turkish press, suggesting that the endorsements really were heartfelt expressions of joy among Turkey’s pro-government elite and Erdogan’s broad constituency.
This should not actually be surprising, given the strikingly parallel anti-establishment messages that the two men have employed to achieve electoral success. Like Erdogan’s supporters, the predominantly middle-class and rural voters without college degrees who delivered the White House to Trump are deeply suspicious of the elites. When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, also known as AKP, first came to power in 2002, it represented voters from the Anatolian heartland, Kurds and pious Turks, many of whom had felt shunned and repressed by the Istanbul and Ankara elite. The members of the Turkish establishment—educated at the exclusive Galatasaray Lisesi high school and Bogazici University (which might as well be Vassar on the Bosphorus), Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics or, of course, the military academy—looked down on the AKP’s constituents.
For the past 14 years now, Erdogan’s dominance of the political arena has undermined the prestige and authority of these so-called White Turks. They still exist and have considerable economic resources at their disposal, but they have been playing defense all this time while the AKP has consolidated its political power, provided its constituents with new economic opportunities and normalized their conservative religious values such that pious men and women are now being portrayed in positive ways in television, movies and the fashion industry. Trump’s supporters in Kansas City can only hope that he achieves the same kind of success as Erdogan has for his voters in Kayseri.
These parallels do not in and of themselves explain the enthusiasm with which Trump’s election was met in Turkey, however. The answer, in fact, lies in another parallel between Erdogan’s Turkey and Trump’s America: Turkey’s pro-government press and the people they represent hate the American establishment almost as much as the folks who want to “Make America Great Again.” The AKP’s leaders and the media outlets they indirectly control have developed the belief that the American establishment—in both the Democratic and the Republican parties—is uniquely hostile to Erdogan. The Turks cite the editorial boards of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which have repeatedly savaged the Turkish president for his thuggish approach to politics, as well as the equally unsparing criticism among Washington’s foreign policy wonks of what has come to be known as Turkey’s “authoritarian turn.”
Then, of course, there’s the cooling of once warm relations between Presidents Barack Obama and Erdogan or, more recently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration during the presidential campaign that, in the fight against the Islamic State, she “would consider arming the Kurds,” which was met with alarm in Turkey. These Kurds—specifically Syria’s People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are not just effective fighters against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIL forces, but are linked to the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is known as PKK and has been waging war on Turkey for more than 30 years. Clinton’s statement no doubt convinced many in Turkey that the American establishment was conspiring to undermine Turkey’s security again, the 2003 invasion of Iraq being the first example.
Still, nothing confirmed the American establishment’s abiding hostility to Turkey in the minds of the AKP than the U.S. response to Turkey’s failed coup in July, when rogue units of the armed forces tried to kill Erdogan and push the AKP from power. The Turks charge that the White House was too slow to condemn the putsch, and insufficiently sympathetic given the trauma the coup plotters inflicted on Turkish society when they killed more than 240 people, wounded another 2,000 and bombed the Grand National Assembly. AKP members also assail the American media and various U.S.-based analysts for focusing on Erdogan’s purge of military officers, civil servants, teachers, professors, journalists and even soccer referees that followed the coup instead of focusing on the alleged perpetrators: the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers, whom the Turkish government regard as members of a terrorist organization similar to Al Qaeda. (Gulen denies leading the coup.) The Obama administration’s unwillingness to extradite Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, without direct evidence of his culpability or assurances that he will receive a fair trial in Turkey indicates for many Turks, including those who are not supporters of the AKP, that America was complicit in the attempted power grab.
It may very well be that the American press and Turkey watchers almost immediately turned their attention to the post-coup crackdown, but Erdogan’s vow to “cleanse” the military of hostile elements upon his return to Istanbul in the wee hours of the morning of July 16 set him up for such coverage. The fact that the purge has gone well beyond the officers who led the coup—now involving the detention of 78,000 people, as well as an additional 115,000 who have lost their jobs, 145 journalists and at least nine members of Parliament who have been jailed—makes the post-coup repression an ongoing and important story. Plus the Obama administration’s first statement, offering the president’s “unwavering support for the democratically elected, civilian Government of Turkey,” came within hours of the first sightings of Turkish troops in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul—extraordinarily swift by U.S. government standards. And it was hard to be much more sympathetic than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, who visited Ankara in August and strongly condemned the coup in a private meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. After Dunford’s visit, Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Ankara, where he relayed his understanding of the “intense feeling in Turkey” concerning Gulen and toured the bombed sections of the Grand National Assembly building.
What’s more, the same establishment that the pro-Erdogan press is busy assailing has historically been pro-Turkey: extolling the country as a “model” for the Arab world, shielding Turkey from a congressional resolution recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide and consistently advocating for Turkey’s European Union membership. Elites in the United States designated the PKK a terrorist organization long before their European counterparts; generally tolerate the shocking levels of anti-Americanism that the Turkish media regularly stokes; and have played down the AKP’s questionable relationships with the likes of Syrian President Bashar Assad (which was friendly until the fall of 2011), Hamas and extremist groups operating in Syria.
Despite this demonstrated Turkophilia, pro-AKP elites are nevertheless convinced of the enduring enmity of the American ruling class, and so are their constituents, which makes hammering the United States and the people who traditionally held influence in Washington very good politics. From the Turkish perspective, Trump’s open disdain for the American establishment, which worked hard to prevent his election, means he owes the denizens of the Northeast corridor nothing. Trump, presumably, will neither seek their counsel on relations with Turkey nor give credence to their criticisms. In the new environment, Turkey’s anti-American ranks in fact are looking forward to the restoration of close Turkish-American relations.
From Ankara’s perspective, perhaps no one better represents the potential for productive bilateral relations in the Trump era than Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama who advised the Trump campaign and now is the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser. On Election Day, Flynn published an essay in the Hill, called “Our Ally Turkey Is in Crisis and Needs Our Support.” In the article, Flynn aligns U.S. and Turkish policy on Gulen in such a way that it could have been written in the Turkish capital, arguing that the American media’s reporting on Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown lacks “perspective” and linking Gulen to the intellectual founder of transnational jihad, a long-dead Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb. It seems plausible that Flynn received assistance from Ankara on his article, given his consulting firm’s relationship to a company registered in the Netherlands with ties to Turkey’s presidential palace. A video recently surfaced in which the general expressed support for Turkey’s coup plotters, earning Flynn some criticism for inconsistency. But to the extent the Turks continue to shape the narrative about Gulen and his supporters in terms of Islamic extremism and terrorism, it stands to reason that Turkey will get a warm welcome and interested hearing in a Trump White House.
Still, for all the sense of self-satisfaction in Ankara that Trump has slayed the American establishment, potential trouble for Turkey lies ahead. Consider, for example, Iraq. Trump no doubt wants to fight the Islamic State there, having vowed to “bomb the shit out of them,” but that short-term solution seems like all he wants to do. While the Turks might be able to count on Trump to finish what Obama began in 2014 and extinguish the ISIL threat in Iraq, they cannot count on the kind of sustained American diplomacy and political pressure necessary to keep Iraq from fragmenting further. This is not good news for the Turks, whose interests are best served by a unified and relatively stable Iraq.
Then there is Syria. Much to his credit, Erdogan has welcomed almost 3 million Syrian refugees into Turkey, whereas the American president-to-be has expressed only hostility to the idea of accepting small numbers of them in the United States. More germane, if Trump’s alleged affinity for Russia and desire to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin turns out to be true, Syria may yet remain a point of contention between Washington and Ankara. The Trump team’s desire to apply maximum force on the Islamic State, including in Syria, is a good thing for Turkey, especially since it has become a regular target of ISIL’s suicide bombers. If the United States aligns with Russia in this effort in a way that de-emphasizes or even severs links with Syria’s Kurds, the YPG, which are indistinguishable from the PKK, then all the better for Ankara. But Moscow has demonstrated far less interest in battling ISIL than in destroying the opposition to Assad—that is, Turkey’s allies in Syria—whom the Russians (and possibly the Trump administration) regard as terrorists. One can imagine a division of labor in Syria in which American forces focus their firepower on the Islamic State and Russian forces continue their efforts to wipe out the Syrian regime’s opponents. Under these circumstances, Assad is sure to survive—a major setback for Turkey, which has been a leading member of the anti-Assad coalition.
Then, again, there are the views Trump and his inner circle harbor about Islam. The national security appointments Trump has announced so far combined with his known sentiments about Islam strongly suggest that America will soon be at war with “radical Islamic terrorism,” as Trump describes it. The use of Islamic as opposed to Islamist is a subtle but significant shift in rhetoric that casts aspersions on Islam as a faith rather than on those who have leveraged this religion in the service of political goals. In addition, the people with whom Trump has surrounded himself seem to have an abiding hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt that has branches throughout the Arab world and parts of the West. This is not good news for Turkey, given that it was Erdogan (and the Qatari emir) who not only gave the Brothers safe refuge after they were swept from power in Egypt in a 2013 coup, but also provided them with a media platform from which they sought to undermine Egypt’s new leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is well-regarded by the American right. A stridently (bordering on paranoid) anti-Muslim Brotherhood Trump administration is likely to pose challenges to the AKP, which, despite significant differences with the organization, has at times been erroneously identified as part of the Brotherhood.
Most ominously, there seems to be a belief among Trump advisers, his supporters and elements of the American conservative movement that regards Islam not as a religion but as an ideology masquerading as faith. Neither of these positions is likely to sit well with the Turks, who fashion themselves as leaders of the Muslim world, especially given the far-reaching and dangerous implications they pose for American domestic politics and democracy. It will be increasingly difficult for Erdogan to maintain good relations with the United States if Muslims in America are forced to register with the government or are stripped of their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and expression, something not as far-fetched as it might sound in an environment where Islam is denied its essential qualities as a faith.
Those Turks who are salivating at the idea of a Trump presidency are responding to their own misreading of the American establishment and its principles. The elite in the United States have long looked at Turkey and declared it too important to risk a confrontation. In fact, the story of Turkey’s relationship with the American ruling class is precisely the opposite of what the pro-Erdogan press and the AKP’s constituents believe. They have now gotten in Trump what they wished for—an opponent of the American establishment—but that also means someone inimical to Turkey’s interests. In their seemingly blind hatred of American elites, Turks are celebrating someone who harbors an abiding mistrust of Muslims and who is willing to make common cause with Turkey’s actual enemies. By the time next November rolls around, the Turks may no longer be giving thanks for Donald J. Trump.
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