- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Trump and U.S. Support for Authoritarian Power-Grabs

Dan Drezner objects [1] to Trump’s congratulatory call to Erdogan:

No, actually, this is worse than demonstrating indifference: Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome.

I agree that Trump shouldn’t have congratulated Erdogan. For one thing, the extensive irregularities in the referendum strongly suggest that the outcome was rigged from the start and shouldn’t be treated as a legitimate result. Even if the constitutional changes weren’t a fairly naked power-grab by the president and his party, the irregularities in the voting would merit criticism rather than praise. Having said that, I’m not so sure that this is as much of a break with the last few presidents as Drezner suggests.

Most recently, the Obama administration went out of its way to legitimize the 2013 military coup in Egypt. They refused to call the coup what it was, because acknowledging that it was a coup would oblige them to suspend military aid. Then-Secretary of State Kerry even said [2] that the coup was “restoring democracy.” That was laughable on its face, and it signaled that there would be no serious consequences for overthrowing Egypt’s elected president. If Trump were looking for a model for approving of a power-grab by a strongman, he wouldn’t have to look very far back into the past to find one. When the same coup government brutally put down a protest and killed over a thousand people [3], the Obama administration briefly froze some aid, but it wasn’t long before that was lifted [4] and things went back to the old status quo.

When Yeltsin tried to consolidate power [5] and even ordered the shelling of his country’s parliament to quash resistance to his rule, he had the full and public backing [6] of the Clinton administration. Clinton justified this by saying, “The US supported Yeltsin because he is Russia’s democratically-elected leader.” This is one of the more egregious examples of how leaders in Washington will get behind a country’s “democratic” leader and then make excuses for whatever he does once in power, but it is hardly the only one. The Bush administration promoted Georgia’s Saakashvili as a reforming democratic leader and would-be client, and they did this despite extensive evidence that Saakashvili and his allies were abusing their power and becoming increasingly authoritarian [7]. Once certain leaders win the confidence of our presidents, they tend to be able to do what they like with Washington’s blessing. These are not the only examples, but these are the ones that most readily come to mind.

The point here is not that the errors of previous presidents excuse Trump’s bad decision, but that other post-Cold War presidents have supported similar or worse power-grabs and abuses by semi-authoritarian and authoritarian leaders. Trump may be more enthusiastic [8] in his embrace of dictators and despots than the average president, but in siding with such leaders against their domestic opposition he is unfortunately not so different from his predecessors.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Trump and U.S. Support for Authoritarian Power-Grabs"

#1 Comment By Bill H On April 18, 2017 @ 11:05 am

Not to mention Honduras.

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On April 18, 2017 @ 11:10 am

I look on this in a more Westphalian manner. I would favor a studied indifference to the internal arrangements of other states, neither praising nor denouncing deviations from some democratic orthodoxy. Democracy may not be well-suited to every generation or to every people.

At some point, perhaps, oppression and violence against the people become so offensive that we might have to take them into account, but I would not elevate John Stuart Mill into some secular saint.

Let us mind our own business, but keep our powder dry

#3 Comment By Turkey Trimmings On April 18, 2017 @ 11:35 am

“I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. “

Sure you do, Dan. Trump’s embrace of Egypt’s Gen. Sisi met this criterion. Virtually all congratulatory phone calls US presidents have made to Bibi Netanyahu fit this description.

Erdogan isn’t good for Turkey. He took a wrong turn many years ago and is now well down the road to dictatorship with all the trimmings. If Turkey wasn’t such an vitally important piece of real estate, and if we weren’t so indebted to Turkey for housing millions of Syrian refugees and limiting other effects of the Syrian disaster that we insist on protracting, we could afford the luxury of openly condemning him.

But as long as we refuse to end our incompetent blundering around in the Middle East we need Erdogan inside the tent.

#4 Comment By jamie On April 18, 2017 @ 11:53 am

Inevitably our foreign policy becomes our domestic policy. We use foreigners to practice procedures and institutions we wish to re-import.

Reagan, Clinton, Bush or Obama may legitimize a populist strongman crushing dissent in his country, even for limited practical reasons, but it ultimately has the effect of legimizing populist strongmen crushing dissent here.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 18, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

“Reagan, Clinton, Bush or Obama may legitimize a populist strongman crushing dissent in his country, even for limited practical reasons, but it ultimately has the effect of legimizing populist strongmen crushing dissent here.”

So let me see if I get this correct. The election of Mr. Trump is the culmination of supporting populist strong men in the US. I would be curious what the examples of this would be. The history of the US has been that we supported those whom we best thought served our interests. And the last two noted actually were responsible for toppling supposed strong men so the examples don’t really work. In examining domestic policy, thus far little has changed as to the power of the US executive. And the use of that power has actually leaned to decreasing authoritarian power.

The shifting of burdens on the states to regulate policies is a common theme for this admin.

The populism press doesn’t work will in the US system, because the process is designed to reflect the popular will. Populism is usually employed by the intellectual set to describe something they don’t like, participation of the underclass in decision making. It suggests a rule change or shift in how things get done that points to some leadership flaw in those normally in control of the same.

Odd that no one claims the campus mayhem as populist in nature.

#6 Comment By Georgetown Awake! On April 19, 2017 @ 2:22 am

Too bad Turkey’s our only useful ally in the Middle East. And of course too bad we’re still entangled in the Middle East.