How to stop the populist wave

On the night of July 15, 2016, Turkish columnist and author Ece Temelkuran began stacking pillows against the windows of her Istanbul apartment after fighter jets cracked sonic booms over the city.

It was the night of Turkey’s failed coup, in which more than 250 people were killed before the government restored order in the wee hours. As announcements from mosques called people into the streets to save the nation in the name of Allah, Temelkuran recalled the poem Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recited in 1999: “the mosques [are] our barracks, and the faithful our soldiers”.

The recitation landed him in jail and turned him into a martyr who re-emerged to become Turkey’s longest-tenured leader. “After 17 years,” she writes in her new book, “How to Lose a Country”, “on the night of the coup the poem sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a promise that has been kept at the cost of a country.”

The coup attempt arrived just weeks after Britons voted to leave the European Union and a few months before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Temelkuran saw the commonalities in what Turkey had gone through and what some Western states, including to a lesser extent, Germany and France, had begun to experience, and started this book in the hopes of helping them avoid Turkey’s fate.

Back in 2002, she travelled across Turkey reporting on the newly launched Justice and Development Party (AKP), which of course won that vote, and every election since. AKP campaigners saw themselves as a movement, not a party, and spoke to “the real people” - a common phrase among populists today.

A key step to populists’ gaining and maintaining power is control of language. Trump has Twitter, Erdoğan has his near-daily speeches and almost absolute media control, while Putin has several news outlets and his social media army. This builds understanding and trust between the populist leader and his base while serving as a rejection of the mainstream media.

Though Temelkuran points to a loss of public shame, the decline of journalism and the rise of social media may have done more to assist populist bombast. Starting around 2010 - which, not coincidentally, is right around the time the news industry began its great and continuing decline -- politicians of all stripes saw that they no longer needed to abide by the old system, but could speak directly to the people via the online bullhorn.

As Temelkuran points out, on social media lies become “alternative facts” and spread at incredible speed. In his New York Times column last month, Farhad Manjoo, whose 2018 book is titled “True Enough: Living in a Post-Fact Society”, examined the 1,400 media industry layoffs at Buzzfeed, Yahoo, Huffington Post, and Gannett newspapers. “We are in the midst of a persistent global information war,” Manjoo wrote. “Last week’s cuts tell a story of impending slow-motion doom and a democratic emergency in the making.”

Temelkuran argues instead that the media went corporate and began holding the weak to a level of scrutiny that favoured the powerful. Reading this, I wondered if she was including herself. Early on, she argues that populism tends to begin in small towns, as its narrative “feeds on provincial perceptions”. She points admiringly to progressive protests in Seattle in 1999 and Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011, and explains that populist support is a response to similar fears, but by people with “a more limited vocabulary [and] smaller dreams for the world”. Towards the end of the book she writes that populist voters have “lost all hope of ever getting justice from a crumbling establishment”, so they support their leader without question.

As Temelkuran sees it, masses of hopeless, small-minded people have been hoodwinked into voting for a mafia boss. Yet many observers, including Harvard economist Jeffrey Frieden, Harvard historian and bestselling author Niall Ferguson, and the head of a global labourers’ union, have argued that the rise of populism is in part a backlash to globalisation from the millions who have yet to benefit from it. Far from irrational or ignorant, an embrace of populism can be “the optimal response of rational voters to rising inequality”, according to two economists from the University of Chicago.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Erdoğan and Trump have all overseen varying degrees of economic success, and a simple Google search turns up a wealth of sources detailing how widespread support for populists tends to spring from increased immigration, growing inequality, a sense of deepening corruption and democratic rot, and a recent financial crisis or economic downturn. Weeks before the election of Trump, for instance, just 9 percent of Americans had faith in Congress, while just prior to the AKP’s 2002 victory, Turkey was mired in an economic slump and vast charges of corruption.

At least Temelkuran acknowledges that in recent years, after its criticism about populists and their supporters were seen as dismissive, the media has begun “questioning its own ability to respect ordinary people”. Though she does seem to have a healthy respect for herself. The book highlights several of her room-silencing, ahead-of-the-curve responses during panel discussions. After one talk she feels like “the Cassandra of our times”; later she calls herself a “prophet of doom”. She meets with prominent thinkers in exclusive London clubs, delivers keynote speeches in Berlin and Buenos Aires, and holidays in Spain with a Turkish rock star.

Temelkuran has every right to feel good about her success and live well. And I have little doubt she has suffered under a barrage of social media attacks in recent years. But it is a bit rich for her to jet-set with the one percent while painting herself as the long-suffering, Twitter-attacked exile.

Yet in some ways, she has earned it. Temelkuran was for several years one of Turkey’s most popular columnists, and she now has more than 2.7 million followers on Twitter. Few have suffered as many social media slings and arrows, and few have watched their society and its politics remade by populism over such a long period and from such close proximity. She has come to understand that populist leaders favour their own, and smartly points out that a key question is “whether the economic networks they build are strong enough to create a safety net for the populist leader to seize the state powers”.

Soon after taking power, populist leaders begin to suggest that certain democratic institutions may be superfluous, that their power should be unconstrained. They point to the people’s mandate, handed to them at elections, and argue that those who challenge their vision stand in the way of progress. Erdoğan, Trump, Orban and others frequently use this with-us-or-against-us rhetoric. Erosion of the rule of law soon follows, prodding a citizenry to begin to think, “this is not my country”.

At the outset, Temelkuran mentions her main objective: laying out the patterns of populism and finding a way to break them. Yet, much like the populist leaders she seeks to bring down, she divides the electorate into us and them, and all but calls her side to battle. “It doesn’t matter if Trump or Erdoğan is brought down tomorrow,” she writes. “The millions of people fired up by their message will still be there, and will still be ready to act upon the orders of a similar figure.”

“How to Lose a Country” seems more likely to increase polarisation than quell it. Populist backers may have failed to adequately express the frustration that led to their electoral choices, but that does not justify dismissing them as ignorant. The people who vote for Erdoğan, Trump, and Brexit largely want the same thing the other side wants - security and prosperity. The main difference is that they feel previous leaders failed to give it to them.

Our democracies and our discourse are only likely to rebound if and when the two sides begin to find common ground, however distant that might seem today.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.