On Turkey, Trump Catches Spring Fever

Amid reports of significant ballot-box stuffing, roughing up dissenters, and other electoral fraud, Turkey’s sharia-supremacist strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hammered the final nail in the coffin of his country’s democracy. Last weekend, he narrowly prevailed in a referendum that formally concentrates in the presidency the autocratic powers he had previously usurped.

Afterwards, Donald Trump called to congratulate him.

You read that right. The president of the United States called to congratulate a terror-supporting Islamist ruler on completing his country’s turn away from Western liberalism.

Five years ago, I wrote a book called Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy. It was largely about Erdogan and Turkey. That story needed telling in order to explain why, far from a democratic revolution, the so-called Arab Spring would result in the ascendancy of political Islam in all its classic totalitarianism. The point was that we knew how the story would end in the Middle East and North Africa because the same story had already played out in Ankara.

And so it did.

Erdogan had seized the reins thanks to a constitutional quirk ironically designed to keep Islamists out of power. Gradually -- in many ways, brilliantly -- he strengthened his hand until, finally, he succeeded in his goal of eviscerating the secular, Westward-leaning society forged by Mustafa Kemal -- Atatürk -- out of the Ottoman Empire’s post-World War I collapse.

Spring Fever presaged what happened last weekend. Though he was still prime minister at the time (mid-2012, the height of Arab Spring exuberance), I contended that Erdogan’s goal was “the adoption of a new constitution with a powerful presidency that Erdogan would occupy.” Thus, my rueful conclusion that “‘Islamic Democracy’ begins to sound a lot like Russian ‘democracy.’”

It was always sadly amusing that Western devotees of “Islamic democracy” pointed to “the Turkish model” as proof positive that their oxymoronic fantasy could become Middle Eastern reality.

Even in their rose-tinted telling, the Arab Spring was supposed to be a mass transformation from dictatorships to democracy. Turkey, to the contrary, was already a democracy when Erdogan took over in 2003. He represented a shift from a secular, pro-Western orientation to sharia supremacism. There never was an Arab Spring, but Erdogan is the Turkish Winter, transforming democracy into dictatorship.

Steadily, he accumulated power though starting from a position of weakness. He was shrewd, but the tea leaves were never hard to read. “Democracy,” he proclaimed, “is just the train we board to reach our destination.” Erdogan never saw democracy as a goal, never aspired to adopt a culture of liberty and the protection of minority rights. For him democracy was nothing but the procedural means -- mainly, popular elections in a Muslim majority country -- to the desired end of imposing sharia, Islam’s societal framework and legal system. “I am a servant of sharia,” Erdogan was wont to say when he was Istanbul’s mayor -- though he preferred to refer to himself as the city’s “imam.”