It doesn’t matter if Trump or Erdoğan is brought down tomorrow, or if Nigel Farage had never become a leader of public opinion. 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. And unfortunately, as we experienced in Turkey in a very destructive way, even if you are determined to stay away from the world of politics, the minions will find you, even in your own personal space, armed with your own set of values and ready to hunt down anybody who doesn’t resemble themselves. It is better to acknowledge – and sooner rather than later – that this is not merely something imposed on societies by their often absurd leaders, or limited to digital covert operations by the Kremlin; it also arises from the grassroots. The malady of our times won’t be restricted to the corridors of power in Washington or Westminster. The horrifying ethics that have risen to the upper echelons of politics will trickle down and multiply, come to your town and even penetrate your gated community. It’s a new zeitgeist in the making. This is a historic trend, and it is turning the banality of evil into the evil of banality. For though it appears in a different guise in every country, it is time to recognise that what is occurring affects us all.
'So, what can we do for you?' The woman in the audience brings her hands together compassionately as she asks me the question; her raised eyebrows are fixed in a delicate balance between pity and genuine concern. It is September 2016, only two months after the failed coup attempt, and I am at a London event for my book Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy. Under the spotlight on the stage I pause for a second to unpack the invisible baggage of the question: the fact that she is seeing me as a needy victim; her confidence in her own country’s immunity from the political malaise that ruined mine; but most of all, even after the Brexit vote, her unshaken assumption that Britain is still in a position to help anyone. Her inability to acknowledge that we are all drowning in the same political insanity provokes me. I finally manage to calibrate this combination of thoughts into a not-so-intimidating response: 'Well, now I feel like a baby panda waiting to be adopted via a website.'
This is a moment in time when many still believe that Donald Trump cannot be elected, some genuinely hope that the Brexit referendum won’t actually mean Britain leaving the European Union, and the majority of Europeans assume that the new leaders of hate are only a passing infatuation. So my bitter joke provokes not even a smile in the audience. I have already crossed the Rubicon, so why not dig deeper? 'Believe it or not, whatever happened to Turkey is coming towards you. This political insanity is a global phenomenon. So actually, what can I do for you?'
What I decided I could do was to draw together the political and social similarities in different countries to trace a common pattern of rising right-wing populism. In order to do this, I have used stories, which I believe are not only the most powerful transmitters of human experience, but also natural penicillin for diseases of the human soul. I identified seven steps the populist leader takes to transform himself from a ridiculous figure to a seriously terrifying autocrat, while corrupting his country’s entire society to its bones. These steps are easy to follow for would-be dictators, and therefore equally easy to miss for those who would oppose them, unless we learn to read the warning signs. We cannot afford to lose time focusing on conditions unique to each of our countries; we need to recognise these steps when they are taken, define a common pattern, and find a way to break it – together. In order to do this, we’ll need to combine the experience of those countries that have already been subjected to this insanity with that of Western countries whose stamina has not yet been exhausted. Collaboration is urgently required, and this necessitates a global conversation.
It’s now May 2017, and I am first in London, then Warsaw, talking about Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, telling different audiences the story of how real people took over my country politically and socially, strangling all the others who they deemed unreal. People nod with concern, and every question-and-answer session starts with the same question: 'Where the hell did these real people come from?' They recognise the lexicon, because the politicised and mobilised provincial grudge has announced its grand entrance onto the global stage with essentially the same statement in several countries: 'This is a movement, a new movement of real people beyond and above all political factions.' And now many want to know who these real people are, and why this movement has invaded the high table of politics. They speak of it as of a natural disaster, predictable only after it unexpectedly takes place. I am reminded of those who, each summer, are surprised by the heatwave in Scandinavia, and only then recall the climate-change news they read the previous winter. I tell them this 'new' phenomenon has been with us, boiling away, for quite some time.
In July 2017, a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica. For several days the news channels showed the snow-white monster floating idly along. It was the majestic flagship of our age, whispering from screens around the world in creaking ice language: 'This is the final phase of the age of disintegration. Everything that stands firm will break off, everything will fall to pieces.' It wasn’t a spectre but a solid monster telling the story of our times: that from the largest to the smallest entity on planet earth, nothing will remain as we knew it. The United Nations, that huge, impotent body created to foster global peace, is crumbling, while the smallest unit, the soul, is decomposing as it has never been before. A single second can be divided up into centuries during which the wealthy few prepare uncontaminated living spaces in which to live longer while tens of thousands of children in Yemen die of cholera, a pre-twentieth-century disease.
The silent scream of the iceberg
The iceberg was silently screaming: 'The centre cannot hold'. The progressive movements that sprang up all around the world, from the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 to the 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, were in many respects a response to these fractured times. In a world where more people are talking, but fewer are being heard, they wanted to tell the rest of humanity, through their bodies, that regardless of our differences we can, and indeed must, come together to find collective answers to our age of disintegration, otherwise everything will fall apart. They demanded justice and dignity. They demanded that the world realise that a counter-movement is necessary to reverse the global course of events. They showed us that retreat is not the only response to the global loss of hope. Their answer to disintegration was to create new, invigorating, temporary and miniature models of loose collectives in squares around the world.
In several different languages they responded to the famous words of W.B. Yeats with the message that, if people unite, the centre can hold. As time passed, however, many of these progressive movements ended up suppressed, marginalised or swallowed back into the conventional political system. For several understandable reasons they couldn’t accomplish what they started – not yet. However, their voice was clearly heard when they announced globally that representative democracy (abused by financial institutions and stripped of social justice) was undergoing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. Today we are witnessing the response to similar fears of an entirely different mass of people, one with a more limited vocabulary, smaller dreams for the world, and less faith in the collective survival of humanity.
They too say that they want to change the status quo, but they want to do it to build a world in which they are among the lucky few who survive under the leadership of a strong man. It is no coincidence that 'wall', whether literal or virtual, has become the watchword among rising right-wing political movements. 'Yes, the world is disintegrating,' they say, 'and we, the real people, want to make sure we’re on the sunny side of the dividing wall.' It is not that they want to stand by and watch babies die in the Mediterranean, it is just that they do not want to die as well. What we are hearing, as it carries from the provinces to the big cities, is the survival cry of those whose fear of drowning in the rising sea of disintegration trumps their interest in the survival of others. And so, ruthlessly, they move.
Political movements are promises of transition from actuality to potentiality – unlike political parties, which must operate as part of actuality, playing the game but standing still. This is why, from Turkey to the United States, including the most developed countries with their seemingly strong democratic institutions, such as France, the UK and Germany, we have seen people assemble behind relentless, audacious populist leaders, in order to move together and attack the actuality they call the establishment; to attack the game itself, deeming it dysfunctional and corrupt. A movement of real people is the new zeitgeist, a promise to bring back human dignity by draining the swamp of the stagnant water that politics has become. In other words, les invisibles, the masses, long considered to be indifferent to politics and world affairs, are globally withdrawing their assumed consent from the current representative system, and the sound of it is like a chunk of ice breaking off from Antarctica. The job of changing the global course of events is, of course, too big a task for the fragile I, and so we is making a comeback in the world of politics and ethics. ethics. And this comeback is at the heart of the global phenomenon that we are witnessing. We want to depart from the mainland of political language, dismantle it and build a new language for the real people. If one wants to know who the real people are, one must ask the question, what is we? Or why is it that I don’t want to be I any more, but we?
In his debut work of literature, The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump was already describing the 'truthful hyperbole' that would later put him in the White House. He must be proud to have demonstrated that in order to become the American president he had no need to read any books other than his own. Trump knew one simple fact about people that many of us choose to ignore: that even though individualism as a concept has been elevated for many decades, the ordinary man still needs a shepherd to lead him to greatness. He knew how diminishing and disappointing it can feel to realise that you are only mediocre, in a world where you have constantly been told that you can be anything you want to be.
He also knew that the call to break the imaginary chains of slavery preventing the real people from reaching greatness would resonate with his supporters, regardless of the fact that it sounded absurd to those who had had the chance to become what they wanted to be. 'It’s not you', he told them. 'It’s them who prevent us from being great.' He gave them something solid to hate, and they gave him their votes. And once he started speaking in the name of we – as has happened many times over the course of history – they were ready to sacrifice themselves. As Americans know very well from their own constitution, the words 'We, the people' can build a new country and bring empires to their knees. And believe it or not, even the British, a people who take pride in not being easily moved, are also not immune to the allure of we.
'We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit … [This is] a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.' Although this may sound like Salvador Allende, Chile’s Marxist leader, speaking after his election victory in 1970, it was in fact Nigel Farage, the erstwhile leader of UKIP – and incidentally a former banker himself.
He uttered these words on the morning of 24 June 2016, the day after Britain’s Brexit referendum. He too was using the age-old magic of speaking in the name of 'the people'. On the same day, however, many cosmopolitan Londoners, who were automatically excluded from this inflaming narrative, found themselves wondering who these real people were, and why they bore such a grudge against the big cities and the educated.
And those who were old enough were beginning to hear echoes sounding from across the decades. After the horrific experiences of the Second World War, not many people in Western Europe expected the masses ever again to lust after becoming a single totality. Most happily believed that if humans were free to choose what they could buy, love and believe, they would be content. For more than half a century, the word I was promoted in the public sphere by the ever-grinning market economy and its supporting characters, the dominant political discourse and mainstream culture. But now we has returned as the very essence of the movement, burnishing it with a revolutionary glow, and many have found themselves unprepared for this sudden resurrection. Their voice has been so loud and so unexpected that worried critics have struggled to come up with an up-to-date political lexicon with which to describe it, or counter it.
The critical mainstream intelligentsia scrambled to gather ammunition from history, but unfortunately most of it dated back to the Nazi era. The word 'fascism' sounded passé, childish even, and 'authoritarianism' or 'totalitarianism' were too 'khaki' for this Technicolor beast in a neoliberal world. Yet during the last couple of years, numerous political self-help books filled with quotes from George Orwell have been hastily written, and all of a sudden Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is back on the bestseller lists after a sixty-eight-year hiatus. The hip-sounding term that the mainstream intelligentsia chose to use for this retro lust for totality was 'rising populism'.
'Rising populism' is quite a convenient term for our times. It both conceals the right-wing ideological content of the movements in question, and ignores the troubling question of the shady desire of I to melt into we. It masterfully portrays the twisted charismatic leaders who are mobilising the masses as mad men, and diligently dismisses the masses as deceived, ignorant people.
It also washes away the backstory that might reveal how we ended up in this mess. In addition to this, there is the problem that the populists do not define themselves as 'populists'. In a supposedly post-ideology world, they are free to claim to be beyond politics, and above political institutions. Political thought has not been ready to fight this new fight either.
One of the main stumbling blocks is that the critics of the phenomenon have realised that 'rising populism' is the strange fruit of the current practice of democracy. democracy. As they looked deeper into the question they soon discovered that it wasn’t a wound that, all of a sudden, appeared on the body politic, but was in fact a mutant child of crippled representative democracy. Moreover, a new ontological problem was at play thanks to the right-wing spin doctors. Academics, journalists and the well-educated found themselves included in the enemy of the people camp, part of the corrupt establishment, and their criticism of, or even their carefully constructed comments on, this political phenomenon were considered to be oppressive by the real people and the movement’s spin doctors. It was difficult for them to adapt to the new environment in which they had become the 'oppressive elite' – if not 'fascists' – despite the fact that some of them had dedicated their lives to the emancipation of the very masses who now held them in such contempt. One of them was my grandmother.
'Are they now calling me a fascist, Ece?' My grandmother, one of the first generation of teachers in the young Turkish republic, a committed secular woman who had spent many years bringing literacy to rural children, turned to me one evening in 2005 while we were watching a TV debate featuring AKP spin doctors and asked, 'They did say "fascist", right?'
She dismissed my attempt to explain the peculiarities of the new political narratives and exclaimed, 'What does that even mean, anyway? Oppressive elite! I am not an elite. I starved and suffered when I was teaching village kids in the 1950s.' Her arms, having been folded defensively, were now in the air, her finger pointing as she announced, as if addressing a classroom, 'No! Tomorrow I am going to go down to their local party centre and tell them that I am as real as them.' And she did, only to return home speechless, dragging her exhausted eighty-year-old legs off to bed at midday for an unprecedented nap of defeat. 'They are different, Ece. They are …' Despite her excellent linguistic skills, she couldn’t find an appropriate adjective.
I was reminded of my grandmother’s endeavour when a seventy-something American woman approached me with some hesitation after a talk I gave at Harvard University in 2017. Evidently one of those people who are hesitant about bothering others with personal matters, she gave me a fast-forward version of her own story: she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, teaching English to kids in a remote Turkish town, then a dedicated high school teacher in the USA, and since her retirement she had become a serious devotee of Harvard seminars. She was no less stunned than my grandmother at the fact that Trump voters were calling her a member of the 'oppressive elite'. She said, 'I try to show them respect' and complained that respect is a 'scarce commodity' in Europe. She claimed that only respect could save Europe.
Erdoğan likewise introduced excessive amounts of 'respect' into Turkish politics after he came to power in 2002. He repeatedly demonstrated to the Turkish people that respect no longer had to be earned, it could simply be unconditionally demanded. Whenever there were serious poll-rigging claims, he demanded respect for 'my people and their choices', just as he demanded respect for court decisions only when they resulted in his opponents being imprisoned. However, when the Constitutional Court decided to release journalists arrested for criticising him, he said, 'I don’t respect the court decision and I won’t abide by it.' As with Orbán, Trump and others, respect is a one-way street for Erdoğan: he only accepts being on the receiving end.
'[Respect] is what Putin really wants,' wrote Fiona Hill in a piece for the Brookings Institution’s website in February 2015. She continued, 'He wants respect in the old-fashioned, hard-power sense of the word.'
'You come to me and say, "Give me justice!" But you don’t ask with respect.' This quote comes not from another respect-obsessed political leader, but from Don Corleone, in the opening scene of The Godfather. One might easily mix them up, because the global circuit of exchanged respect (Geert Wilders respecting Farage, Farage respecting Trump, Trump respecting Putin, Putin asking for more respect for Trump, and all the way back round again, much as Hitler and Stalin once voiced their respect for one another) has started to sound like some supranational mafia conversation.
The web of respect among authoritarian leaders has expanded so much that one might forget that this whole masquerade started on a smaller scale, with a seemingly harmless question. It started when the ordinary people began transforming themselves into real people by demanding a little bit of political politeness: 'Don't we deserve some simple respect?'
But here’s how the chain of events goes further down the line when respect becomes a political commodity. When the real people become a political movement, their initial, rhetorical question is this: 'Do our beliefs, our way of life, our choices not matter at all?' Of course, nobody can possibly say that they do not, and so the leaders of the movement begin to appear in public, and take to the stage as respected, equal contributors to the political discussion. The next password is tolerance, tolerance for differences. Then some opinion leaders, who’ve noticed social tensions arising from polarisation in the public sphere, throw in the term social peace. It sounds wise and soothing, so nobody wants to dismiss it. However, as the movement gains momentum, tolerance and respect become the possessions of its members, which only they can grant to others, and the leader starts pushing the ‘social peace’ truce to the limits, demanding tolerance and respect every time he or she picks a new fight.
But at a particular point in time, respect becomes a scarce commodity. For Turkey, this invisible shift happened in 2007, on the election night that brought the AKP a second term in power. Erdoğan said: 'Those who did not vote for us are also different colours of Turkey.' At the time, for many political journalists the phrase sounded like the embracing voice of a compassionate father seeking social peace. However, not long afterwards, Erdoğan started speaking Godfather. He stopped asking for respect and raised the bar, warning almost everyone, from European politicians to small-town public figures, that they were required to 'know their place'.
And when that warning was not enough, he followed it up with threats. On 11 March 2017, Turkey was mired in a diplomatic row with Germany and the Netherlands after they banned Turkish officials from campaigning in their countries in support of a referendum on boosting the Turkish president’s powers. Erdoğan said, 'If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.' In threatening an entire continent, he’d become the cruel Michael Corleone of The Godfather Part II.
Even for those countries that have only recently begun to experience a similar social and political process, this chain of events is already beginning to seem like a cliché. Nevertheless, the way in which the logic of contemporary identity politics serves this process is still relatively novel and is rarely discussed. In the twenty-first century it’s much easier for right-wing populist movements to demand respect by wrapping themselves in the bulletproof political membrane of a cultural and political identity and exploiting a political correctness that has disarmed critical commentators.
Moreover, the use of a sacrosanct identity narrative turns the tables, shining the interrogator’s lamp on the critics of the movement instead of on the movement itself, making them ask, 'Are we not respectful enough, and is that why they’re so enraged?' As the opposition becomes mired in compromise, the movement begins to ask the probing questions: 'Are you sure you’re not intimidating us out of arrogance? Can you be certain this is not discrimination?'
And we all know what happens when self-doubting intellect encounters ruthless, self-evident ignorance; to believers in the self-evident, the basic need to question sounds like not having an answer, and embarrassed silence in the face of brazen shamelessness comes across as speechless awe. Politicised ignorance then proudly pulls up a chair alongside members of the entire political spectrum and dedicates itself to dominating the table, elbowing everyone continually while demanding, 'Are you sure your arm was in the right place?' And the opposition finds itself having to bend out of shape to follow the new rules of the table in order to be able to keep sitting there.
'We become increasingly uncomfortable when people take advantage of our freedom and ruin things here.' These words came from a Dutch politician, but not the notorious xenophobe Geert Wilders. They are from his opponent, the Dutch prime minister and leader of the centre-right Liberal Party, Mark Rutte, in a letter to 'all Dutch people' published on 23 January 2017. Although the words seemingly referred to anyone who 'took advantage', they were in fact aimed at immigrants. Rutte’s opposition to right-wing populism was being distorted by the fact that he felt obliged to demonstrate that he shared the concerns of the real people: ordinary, decent people. He must have felt that in order to keep sitting at the top table of politics, he had to compromise. And this is the man who two months later would bring joy to Dutch liberals by beating Wilders. Many Dutch voters accepted, albeit unwillingly, the new reality in which the least-worst option is the only choice. The manufactured we is now strong enough not only to mobilise and energise supporters of the movement by giving them a long-forgotten taste of being part of a larger entity, but to affect the rest of the political sphere by pushing and pulling the opposition until it transforms itself irreversibly. It creates a new normality, which takes us all closer towards insanity.
'We are Muslims too.' This was the most frequent introduction offered by social democrat participants in TV debates in the first years that the AKP held power in Turkey. Just as what constituted being part of the we, 'the real, ordinary, decent people', meant supporting Brexit in Britain or accepting a bit of racism in the Netherlands, so did being conservative, provincial Sunni Muslim in Turkey. Once the parameters had been set by the original owners of we, everyone else started trying to prove that they too prayed – just in private. Soon, Arabic words most people had never heard in their lives before became part of the public debate, and social democrats tried to compete with the 'real Muslims' despite their limited knowledge of religion. The AKP spin doctors were quick to put new religious concepts into circulation, and critics were forever on the back foot, constantly having to prepare for pop quizzes on ancient scriptures.
A secular vs. religious catfight
One might wonder what would happen if you passed all the tests for being as real as them, as I did once. In 2013, after studying the Quran for over a year while writing my novel Women Who Blow on Knots, I was ready for the quiz. When the book was published I was invited to take part in a TV debate with a veiled AKP spin doctor – a classic screen charade that craves a political catfight between a secular and a religious woman. As I recited the verse in Arabic that gave the title to my novel and answered her questions on the Quran she smiled patronisingly and said, 'Well done'. I was politely reminded of the fact that I was at best an apprentice of the craft she had mastered, and somehow owned. She made it very clear that people like me could only ever inhabit the outer circle of the real people. No matter how hard we toiled, we could only ever be members of the despised elite.
Any attempt to hang out at one of Nigel Farage’s 'real people’s pubs' or a Trump supporters’ barbecue would doubtless end with a similar patronising smile, and maybe a condescending pat on the shoulder: 'Way to go, kiddo!'
One of the interesting and rarely mentioned aspects of this process is that at times the cynical and disappointed citizens, even though they are critical of the movement, secretly enjoy the fact that the table has been messed up. The shocked face of the establishment amuses them. They know that the massive discontent of the neglected masses will eventually produce an equally massive political reaction, and they tend to believe that the movement might have the potential to be this long-expected corrective response to injustice. Until they find out it is not. 'The insinuation that the exterminator is not wholly in the wrong is the secret belief of the age of Kafka and Hitler', says the authority on German literature J. P. Stern.
The limitless confidence of the movement is not, therefore, entirely based on its own merit; the undecided, as well as many an adversary, can furnish the movement with confidence through their own hesitations. After all, there’s nothing wrong with saying the establishment is corrupt, right? By keeping its ideological goals vague and its words sweet, the movement seduces many by allowing them to attribute their own varying ideals or disappointments to it. What is wrong with being decent and real anyway?
The vagueness of the narrative and the all-embracing we allow the movement’s leader to create contradictory, previously impossible alliances to both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
The leader, thanks to the ideological shapelessness of the movement, can also attract finance from opposite ends of the social strata, drawing from the poorest to the richest. Most importantly, as the leader speaks of exploitation, inequality, injustice and consciousness, borrowing terminology and references from both right- and left-wing politics, growing numbers of desperate, self-doubting people, and a fair few prominent opinion-makers besides, find themselves saying: 'He actually speaks a lot of sense! Nobody can say that a large part of society wasn’t neglected and dismissed, right?'
'I don’t understand how they won. I’m telling you, lady, not a single passenger said they were voting for them. So who did vote for these guys?' This was the standard chat of taxi drivers in Turkey after the AKP’s second election victory. As a consequence, 'So who did vote for these guys?' became a popular intro to many a newspaper column. Clearly neither taxi drivers nor the majority of opinion-piece writers could make sense of the unceasing success of the movement, despite rising concerns about it. After hearing the same question several times, I eventually answered one of the taxi drivers with a line that became the intro to one of my own columns: 'Evidently they all catch the bus.'
After the Brexit referendum, many people in London doubtless asked themselves a similar question. If I’d been a British columnist, the title for my column might have been 'The Angry Cod Beats European Ideals'. Among the groups who voted Leave in the referendum were Scottish fishermen, who have obsessed for many years over the fact that European fishermen were allowed to fish in Scottish waters, as well as pissed off about an array of other European things that are of next to no consequence to Scotland. Similarly, in countries such as Hungary and Poland where right-wing populism is in control of the political discourse there has always been a 'condescending Brussels elite', or 'the damn Germans', who stand in the way of better lives for ordinary men, as well as the nation’s 'greatness'.
I am aware that what I have written above might seem like the condescending remarks of a cosmopolitan, unreal person, and that there is, of course, a real and solid sense of victimhood behind all of these new movements: many of their members are indeed the people who catch the bus, and who have seen the price of their fish and chips rise. It would therefore, as Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis says, be inconsequential mental gymnastics for intellectuals to analyse these movements only 'psychoanalytically, culturally, anthropologically, aesthetically, and of course in terms of identity politics'. And I agree with him on the fact that 'the unceasing class war that has been waged against the poor since the late 1970s' has been intentionally omitted from the narrative, and carefully kept outside the mainstream global discussion.
Moreover, these right-wing populist movements can, in fact, also be seen as newly-built, fast-moving vehicles for the rich, a means for the ruling class to get rid of the regulations that restrain the free-market economy by throwing the entire field of politics into disarray. After all, there is certainly real suffering, genuine victimhood behind these movements. However, they do not only emerge from real suffering, but also from manufactured victimhood. In fact, it is the latter that provides the movement with most of its energy and creates its unique characteristics.
In Turkey, the invented victimhood was that religious people were oppressed and humiliated by the secular elite of the establishment. For Brexiteers it is that they have been deprived of Britain’s greatness. For Trump voters it is that Mexicans are stealing their jobs.
For Polish right-wing populists it is Nazis committing crimes against humanity on their soil without their participation and the global dismissal of the nation’s fierce resistance to the German invasion in 1939. For Germany’s AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) it is the 'lazy Greeks' who benefit from hard-working real Europeans, etc. etc. The content really doesn’t matter, because in the later stages it changes constantly, transforms and is replaced in relation to emerging needs and the aims of the movement. And every time the masses adapt to the new narrative, regardless of the fact that it often contradicts how the movement began in the first place.
In Turkey, the Gülen movement, a supranational religious network led by an imam who currently lives in Pennsylvania, was an integral part of Erdoğan’s movement, until it was labelled terrorist overnight. The same AKP ministers and party members who had knelt to kiss the imam Fethullah Gülen’s hand were, less than twenty-four hours later, falling over themselves to curse him, and none of Erdoğan’s supporters questioned this shift. Doubtless Trump voters did not find it odd when the FBI, Trump’s very best friend during the probing of Hillary Clinton’s emails scandal, all of a sudden became ‘disgraceful’ after it started questioning whether Trump’s election campaign had colluded with the Russian government. Instead, Fox News called the FBI a 'criminal cabal' and started talking about a possible coup, confident that Trump’s supporters would follow the new lead, feeling, as their leader did, victimised by the disrespectful establishment. Once the identification of the masses and the movement with the leader begins, the ever-changing nature of the content of the manufactured victimhood becomes insignificant. And when the leader is a master of 'truthful hyperbole', the content even becomes irrelevant.
But how, one might ask, did the masses, dismissing the entirety of world history, start moving against their own interests, and against what are so obviously the wrong targets? Not the cheap-labour-chasing giant corporations, but poor Mexicans; not the cruelty of free-market economics, but French fishermen; not the causes of poverty, but the media. How did they become so vindictive against such irrelevant groups? Why do they demand respect from the educated elite, but not from the owners of multinational companies? And why did they do this by believing in a man just because he was seemingly 'one of them'? 'This is almost childish', one might think. It seems infantile. And it is. That’s why, first and foremost, such leaders need to infantilise the people. Infantilisation of the masses through infantilisation of the political language is crucial. Otherwise you cannot make them believe that they can all climb into an imaginary car and travel across continents together. Besides, once you infantilise the common political narrative, it becomes easier to mobilise the masses, and from then on you can promise them anything.
In the barrios of Caracas
'… and that was when Chávez gathered his loyal friends under a fig tree on top of a hill. They all swore on the Bible. That’s how and why the revolution started.' The Venezuelan ambassador to Turkey accompanied his closing words with a rehearsed hand gesture, indicating Heaven above, from whence the irrefutable truth had come. His finger lingered there for a dramatic moment, pointing to the ceiling of the Ankara Faculty of Law. His presentation was over, and as his fellow panellist it was my turn to address the question of how the Venezuelans managed to make a revolution.
This was 2007, a year after I’d published We are Making a Revolution Here, Señorita!, a series of interviews I’d conducted in the barrios of Caracas about how the grassroots movement had started to organise itself in communes long before Hugo Chávez became president. I was therefore quite certain that the real story did not involve mythical components like fig trees on hilltops and messages direct from Heaven. I had maintained a bewildered smile in silence for as long as I could, expecting His Excellency sitting next to me to apply a little common sense, but I found my mouth slowly becoming a miserable prune, as my face adopted the expression of a rational human being confronted by a true believer.
It was already too late to dismiss his fairy tale as nonsense, so I simply said: 'Well, it didn’t really happen like that.' There were a few long seconds of tense silence as our eyes locked, mine wide open, his glassy, and my tone changed from sarcasm to genuine curiosity: 'You know that, right?' His face remained blank, and I realised, with a feeling somewhere between compassion and fear, that this well-educated diplomat was obliged to tell this fairy tale. Hugo Chávez’s name was already in the hall of fame of 'The Great Populists'. He was criminalising every critical voice as coming from an enemy of the real people while claiming to be not only the sole representative of the entire nation, but the nation itself. Evidently he was also concocting self-serving tales and making them into official history, infantilising a nation and rendering basic human intelligence a crime against the proceso, the overall transformation of the country to so-called socialism – or a version of it, tailored by Chávez himself. The ambassador looked like a tired child who just wanted to get to the end of the story and go to sleep. I didn’t know then that in a short while grappling with fairy tales would become our daily business in Turkey, and that we would be obliged to prove that what everybody had seen with their own eyes had really happened.
'It is alleged that the American continent was discovered by Columbus in 1492. In fact, Muslim scholars reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178. In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque on top of a hill on the coast of Cuba.' On 15 November 2014, President Erdoğan told this tale to a gathering of Latin American Muslim leaders. The next day journalists around the world reported on the Turkish president’s bombastic contribution to history, hiding their smirks behind polite sentences that confidently implied, 'Of course it didn’t happen like that, but you know that anyway.' Neither Brexit nor Trump had happened yet. The Western journalists therefore didn’t know that their smirks would become prunes when rationality proved helpless against not only the nonsense of a single man, but the mesmerised eyes of millions who believed his nonsense.
Had they been asked, Venezuelans or Turks could have told those journalists all about the road of despair that leads from a mosque on a Cuban hilltop to a hilltop in Ankara where nonsense becomes official history, and an entire nation succumbs to exhaustion. They could also have explained how the populist engine, intent on infantilising political language and destroying reason, begins its work by saying, 'We know very well who Socrates is! You can’t deceive us about that evil guy any more!' And you say, 'Hold on. Who said anything about Socrates?!'
'With populism on the rise all over Europe, we every so often face the challenge of standing up to populist positions in public discourse. In this workshop, participants learn to successfully stand their ground against populist arguments. By means of hands-on exercises and tangible techniques, participants learn to better assess populist arguments, to quickly identify their strengths and weaknesses, to concisely formulate their own arguments, and to confidently and constructively confront people with populist standpoints.' I am quoting from an advertisement for the Institut für Argumentationskompetenz, a German think tank. The title of the course they offer clients is 'How to Use Logic Against Populists'. Evidently the helplessness of rationality and language against the warped logic of populism has already created considerable demand in the politics market, and as a consequence martial-arts techniques for defensive reasoning are now being taught. The course involves two days of workshops, and attendees are invited to bring their own, no doubt maddening, personal experiences along.
Were I to attend the course with my sixteen years’ worth of Turkish experiences, I would humbly propose, at the risk of having Aristotle turn in his grave, opening this beginner’s guide to populist argumentation by presenting Aristotle’s famous syllogism 'All humans are mortal. Socrates is human. Therefore Socrates is mortal.'
Although the fallacies seem egregious, they did not appear childish to half of Britain when Boris Johnson and his ilk in the Conservative Party and the Leave campaign exercised them liberally during the Brexit debate. As Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian on 16 October 2016: 'You’d hope for consistency and coherence; in its place the bizarre spectacle of a party claiming to have been against the single market all along, because Michael Gove once said so.'
In other words, argumentum ad ignorantiam. Michael Gove was the man who – bearing a striking resemblance to the populist driving Aristotle crazy above – declared that 'People in this country have had enough of experts!' It was comments like this that led the other half of Britain to believe that pro-Brexit arguments were too puerile to take seriously, and that only children could fall for them. Like millions of people in Europe, they also thought that if populist leaders were repeatedly portrayed as being childish, they would never be taken seriously enough to gain actual power.
'I will tell you one description that everyone [in the White House] gave – that everyone has in common. They all say he is like a child.' Almost a year after the Brexit referendum, Americans were exercising the same 'adult strategy' on the other side of the Atlantic. When Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was published in the US in January 2018, its author Michael Wolf repeated this punchline in several television interviews. The concerned nods of the composed presenters, together with Wolf’s expression of someone bring bad news, created the impression of a parent-teacher meeting being held to discuss a problem child. Each interview emphasised Trump’s infantile behaviour, providing a comfortable underestimation of the situation for worried adult Americans. He’s just a wayward child, you know, and we are grownups. We know better. For any country experiencing the rise of populism, it’s commonplace for the populist leader to be described as childlike. Reducing a political problem to the level of dealing with a naughty infant has a soothing effect, a comforting belittlement of a large problem.
Portraying populist leaders as infantile is not the only trap that is all too easy to fall into. Scrutinising their childhoods to search for the traumas that must have turned them into such ruthless adults, and by doing so bandaging the political reality with some medical compassion that the populist leader didn’t actually ask for, is another common ploy used by critics to avoid feeling genuine political anxiety. Poland’s former populist prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński and Turkey’s Erdoğan have both undergone such examinations in absentia by prominent psychiatrists and have likewise been described as broken children.
Elżbieta Sołtys, a Polish social scientist and psychologist, diagnosed Kaczyński as a traumatised child. In one interview she said it was probable that his low emotional intelligence was connected to his loveless and strict upbringing, adding that his current fury was an explosion following years of suppression. Erdoğan’s diagnosis was similar. His father used to hang him by his feet in order to stop him swearing, and as a result an entire country now has to suffer his volatile mood swings.
The primary consequence of calling these leaders infantile and psychologising their ruthlessness, is simply to make their critics feel more adult and mentally healthy by comparison. It attributes childish politics entirely to the populist leader and his supporters. As if everyone else (including the writer of this book, and its readers) were completely immune to an infantilised perception of the world. Well, it’s not like that. You know that, right?
'I drive an old Volkswagen because I don’t need a better car.' It’s November 2015, and the former Uruguayan president, José Mujica, is speaking on stage. I’m chairing what will come to be remembered as an almost legendary talk to an audience of five thousand people, most of them not actually inside the congress building in Izmir, but outside watching on a giant screen. Mujica wants to talk about how Uruguay needs meat-cutting machines (because in order to be able to export its meat the country needs to be able to cut it in accordance with the regulations of other countries), but the audience seems to prefer the fun stuff: the cute old Beetle, his humble house, and so on).
The next day, Mujica is described the same way in all the newspapers: 'The humblest of presidents who drives a Volkswagen Beetle and lives in a small house...' There is no mention of him being a socialist, no ideological blah blah, none of the boring adult content. He is like Bernie Sanders, portrayed as the wise, cool old man during the Democratic primaries, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose home-made jam and red bicycle got more attention than his politics. These are the dervishes of our time, reduced to the kindly old men of fairy tales: fairy tales that attract those who see themselves as the adults and mock the 'infantile' supporters of populist leaders.
Much of the literature on populism and totalitarianism interprets the infantile narrative of the populists, as well as that of the 'deceived' masses who support them and choose to think in their fairy-tale language, as a political reaction that is specific to them. However, it would appear to be neither a reaction, nor specific. Rather, it’s a coherent consequence of the times we live in, and something that contaminates all of us, albeit in different ways. Although it may seem that the current right-wing populist leaders are performing some kind of magic trick to mesmerise the previously rational adult masses and turn them into children, they aren’t the ones who opened the doors to infantilised political language. The process started long before, when, in 1979, a famous handbag hit the political stage and the world changed. That was the year a woman handbagged an entire nation with her black leather Asprey and said: 'There is no alternative!' When Margaret Thatcher 'rescued' a nation from the burden of having to think of alternatives, it resonated on the other side of the Atlantic with a man who perfected his presidential smile in cowboy movies. As the decade-long celebration of alternativeness turned into a triumphalist neoliberal disco dance on the remains of the Berlin Wall, the mainstream political vocabulary became a glitterball of words like 'vision', 'innovation', 'flexibility' and 'motivation', while gradually distancing itself from sepia, adult concepts like 'solidarity', 'equality' and 'social justice'. Because 'That’s the way of the world'.
Meanwhile in Turkey, such terms, along with two hundred other 'leftist terms', were officially banned from the state lexicon, and removed from the state TV channel, after the military coup in 1980. Whether through violence or neoliberalist persuasion, the mainstream vocabulary used globally to talk about the world and our place in it – regardless of what language we speak – was transformed into a sandpit for us to play safely in: socialism and fascism on opposite sides as the improbables of politics, religion and philosophy on the other sides as the irrelevants of ethics.
Politics was reduced to mere administration, with people who knew about numbers and derivatives put in charge of taking care of us. It became the sort of bitter drink that children would instinctively avoid, but if people did insist on having a taste, then bucketfuls of numbers were poured into their glasses to teach them a lesson. It is not surprising that Nigel Farage has said: 'I am the only politician keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive.' And though it angered many when Thatcher’s biographer Jonathan Aitken said, 'I think she would have secretly cheered [Farage]' for his anti-refugee policies, it is nevertheless easy enough to picture Thatcher living down to her 1970s nickname by snatching milk out of the hands of Syrian children while saying, 'People must look after themselves first.'
Infantile political language
Ronald Reagan was likewise no less childlike when his team came up with the 'Let’s make America great again' slogan for his election campaign in 1980. The infantile political language of today, which seems to be causing a regression across the entire political spectrum, from right to left, is not in fact a reaction against the establishment, but instead something that follows the ideological fault lines of the establishment that was created in the eighties. The only significant difference between the forerunners and their successors – apart from the illusory economic boom that made the former look more upstanding than they actually were, and the response to the flood of refugees that makes the latter look even more unpleasant than they actually are – is that today the voice of populist infantile politics is amplified through social media, multiplying the fairy tales more than ever and allowing the ignorant to claim equality with the informed. They are, therefore, powerful enough this time around for there to be no limits to their attack on our capacity for political thought and basic reasoning. And we all know that they are definitely less concerned with manners.
'The use of coarse language stresses that he is in tune with the man on the street. The debunking style, which often slides over the edge into insult, emphasises his desire to distance himself from the political establishment.' Although this description would fit Trump, Erdoğan, Geert Wilders and any other populist leader, it actually refers to Beppe Grillo, former comedian and the leader of the Italian Five Star Movement (as described by the two Italian political scientists Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini). He is just another example of how the populists politicise so-called everyday language in order to establish a direct line of communication to the real people.
Once this connection is established the leader has lift-off, enabling him to appear not only to fly above politics, but as high as he wants to go: the sky is the limit. The perceived sincerity, or genuineness, of direct communication with the masses, and the image of the leader merging to become one with them, is a common political ritual of populism. Hugo Chávez did it every week on his personal TV show Alo Presidente!, Erdoğan has done it through his own media, Grillo performed the same stunt through his website, and Trump uses his famous tweets to have a heart-to-heart with his people, unfiltered by the media elite.
The one important trick the populist leader has to pull off is that of making his supporters believe he is rejecting the elitist snobs and their media. He does so by including the media in his definition of 'the political elite', positioning it as an opponent – despite the fact that it is through the media that his connection to those masses is enabled.
This is a new political game that journalists are mostly unprepared for. It is a populist trick that Putin and Trump have both played on several occasions. On 7 July 2017, during the photo op before their one-on-one meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Putin leaned towards Trump, gestured at the journalists in the room and asked: 'These the ones hurting you?' Trump did not hesitate to respond: 'These are the ones, you’re right about that.' All at once it was as if the bully and the more established bully were preparing to take down some weaker kids in the playground. The journalists at the summit were shocked by this sudden and unprecedented switch of the spotlight. Not only were they themselves the story, they also found themselves portrayed as opponents on the political stage. The supporters of both leaders no doubt enjoyed the moment and relished the idea that a good wrestle – in either the American or the Russian style – was about to begin to knock out the spoiled media brats.
The global media probably wouldn’t have been interested in what Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chanocha, had to say at a press conference on 9 January 2018 had he not put a lifesize cardboard cut-out of himself in front of a microphone and told the assembled journalists to 'Put your questions to this guy'. Then he left the venue with a swagger, the very image of the jolly populist leader who has already achieved a lot, and it wasn’t even midday yet. The journalists were left smiling awkwardly, as if a child had just done something outrageous and there was nothing the adults present could do but hide their embarrassment by laughing. The BBC used the same type of laughter in a trailer that shows Trump heckling a BBC reporter – 'Here’s another beauty' – at a press conference while the other journalists present smile with raised eyebrows like intimidated adults in the school playground.
Erdoğan does it in a more Middle Eastern macho style, occasionally reprimanding the members of his own media, jokingly treating them like little rascals, but his little rascals, live on air, at which they giggle obediently every time. Numerous critics and analysts believe that by displaying such rudeness, populist leaders reject the notion that the media plays an integral role in democracy. However, looking at different examples around the globe, it seems that this ostentatious offensiveness is actually a requirement to establish direct communication between the leader and the masses. Furthermore, it is not actually a rejection of the media at all, but is rather a means of embracing and using them.
Journalists serve as a whipping boy who must be beaten whenever a display of 'These are my people and I don’t give a damn what the establishment write about us' is required. The leader does not even have to talk about the hideous nature of loser Socrates; dismissing oppressive Aristotle works well enough.
As the prominence of progressive intellect is gradually reduced to point-scoring against an opponent on social media or on the TV screen, the question of respectability becomes a problem for the critics of populism. Meanwhile, as the populist movement gains in power, the number of intellectuals lining up alongside the populist leaders rises – not because supporting them becomes less embarrassing, but because it has become normal. This is why Donald Trump received a standing ovation from Congress for his State of the Union address in January 2018, something that would have seemed unimaginable to many Congress members only a year before, when he first entered the White House. The power of numerical normality encourages further departures from rationality and expands the limits of vulgarity until it has invaded the entire public sphere. One hardly realises how dire the damage to free thought and free speech is until the day comes when, for example, an important petition against the populist leader is launched, and you find yourself struggling to come up with prominent names who have not been tainted by the cage fight or driven crazy by the chaos. And in the end you come up with none. The critical voice becomes orphaned in the public sphere, and the opposing masses become a silent ship adrift without a lighthouse as they lose their opinion leaders. Their desperation deepens as they realise that the centrifuge of the dominant narrative has sucked in those they believed knew better. At the same time, the populist media discourse is amplified and repeated to such a degree that even opposing elements of society begin to lose track of its serial crimes against rationality. That’s when you find yourself, finally, too exhausted to say, 'Well it didn’t happen like that. You know that, right?'
There is no law to prevent right-wing populist political language invading and destroying the public sphere. Therefore, when dissident voices become choked with anger, exhausted by the tireless attacks of party apparatchiks and maddened by the slipperiness of the ever-changing populist discourse, their last resort becomes begging for simple ethical manners, and shouting in the street or on social media, 'Have some decency!'
At one point this might have worked, too. 'Have you no sense of decency?' asked the American lawyer Joseph Welch on 9 June 1954. Welch was serving as the chief counsel for the United States Army, which was under investigation for communist activities in the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings, and in one of the televised sessions Senator Joseph McCarthy launched an attack on a young man employed in Welch’s Boston law office. As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: 'Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.' When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, 'Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?' After a four-year-long communist witch-hunt, Welch’s question led to the evaporation of McCarthy’s popularity virtually overnight.
The world has altered dramatically since Joseph Welch changed American history simply by asking a question. And over the last decades the veins of rationality have become swollen with fury from calling – to no avail – for shame, while the populist has simply widened his grin and taken pride in his victory. We have finally lost what Albert Camus called 'the old confidence [that] man had in himself, which led him to believe that he could always elicit human reactions from another man if he spoke to him in the language of a common humanity'. And so it is no wonder that more and more people are surrendering to the weariness of the child who just wants to get to the end of the tale and go to sleep.
About Ece Temelkuran
Ece Temelkuran, born 1973 in Izmir, is a lawyer, writer and journalist. She was fired from one of Turkey’s major daily newspapers because of her opposition to and criticism of the ruling party. Her novel Women Who Blow on Knots (2014) has been translated into twenty-two languages. Her non-fiction book Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy was published in 2015, followed in 2017 by a novel, The Time of Mute Swans. This article is based on her book How To Lose A Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, published by Harper Collins UK, February 2019.
About the Cultural Report
In May the Cultural Report 2020 'Reset Europe' by ifa will be published with the following topics:
1: Democracy on the Backfoot – In Defense of Freedom
2: Reset Europe – Crisis as Opportunity
3: Social Fragmentation – The Fight to Control the Narrative
The image that Europe is currently presenting could hardly be more contradictory: isolationism, populism, scepticism about integration and post-Brexit pragmatism all mixed with a newly blossoming euphoria about the European idea. Does Europe need a new start? Above all, it needs orientation. In the face of democratic crises, climate change, structural change and the hate that exists in society, the people of Europe need new ways of solving pressing problems. Can culture help to win back the trust of Europe’s citizens and rekindle critical, intellectual debate? Can it create more tolerance? And can it defend Europe's existential values of human rights, multilateralism and international solidarity? The contributors to this Culture Report look for the answers to these questions.
All issues of the Culture Report can be downloaded for free on ifa Publikationen.