Trump and the sultan

Turkey is a long way from Cleveland, where the Republicans are holding their presidential convention. But I'd urge you to study the recent failed military coup against Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. America is not Turkey - but in terms of personality and political strategy, Mr Erdogan and Donald Trump were separated at birth.

And the drama playing out in Turkey today is the story of just how off-track a once-successful country can get when a leader who demonises his rivals and dabbles in crazy conspiracy theories comes to believe that he alone is The Man - the only one who can make his country great again - and ensconces himself in power.

Let's start with Mr Erdogan, who was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, but then manoeuvred himself into the previously symbolic role of President and got all key powers shifted to that position. I confess that when I heard the news of the July 15 coup attempt, my first instinct was to consult that great foreign policy expert Miss Manners, The Washington Post's etiquette columnist, because I was asking myself: "What is the right response when bad things happen to bad people?"

"Dear Miss Manners: I instinctively oppose military coups against democratically elected governments, like the one in Turkey. But am I a bad person if part of me felt that Turkey's President had it coming?" Anyone who has been following Turkey closely knows that Mr Erdogan has been mounting his own silent, drip-by-drip coup against Turkish democracy for years - jailing reporters, hounding rivals with giant tax bills, reviving an internal war against Turkish Kurds to stoke nationalist passions to propel his efforts to grab more powers - and by generally making himself into a modern-day sultan for life.

I'm glad the coup failed, especially the way it did - with many secular Turks who actually opposed Mr Erdogan's autocratic rule, and had been abused by it, nevertheless coming out against the plotters on the principle that Turkish democracy must be upheld. That was a truly impressive act of collective wisdom and a display of democratic sensibilities.

The maturity of the Turkish people resulted in Mr Erdogan getting what golfers call a mulligan, or a do-over, to demonstrate that he is committed to the universal precepts of democracy. Will he? Or will Mr Erdogan go right back to his preferred means of staying in power: dividing Turks into his supporters and enemies of the state, weaving conspiracy theories and using the failed coup as a licence for a witch-hunt, not only for plotters but for anyone who has dared to cross his path?

The early signs are bad. A day after the failed coup, Mr Erdogan dismissed 2,745 judges and prosecutors. How did he know exactly who to fire in one day? Did he already have an enemies list? To date, he has now reportedly purged 1,500 university deans, revoked the licences of 21,000 teachers and either purged or detained nearly 35,000 members of the military, security forces and judiciary as part of his "cleansing" of coup supporters.

Here's the real tragedy: Mr Erdogan was an outstanding leader in his first five years and truly lifted the country's economy and middle class. But since then it's all gone to his head, and he has gotten away with increasingly bad behaviour by creating an us-versus-them divide between his loyal, more religious followers, and the more secular communities in Turkey.

Because his followers see their dignity wrapped up in his remaining in power, he can say and do anything and never pay a political price. His base will always rally to his us-versus-them dog whistles. But Turkey in the long run suffers.

Sound familiar?

Mr Trump relies on the same tactics: He fabricates facts and figures on an industrial scale. He puts out conspiracy theories - his latest is that President Barack Obama's "body language" suggests that "there's something going on" with the President - hinting that Mr Obama is not comfortable condemning the killing of cops by African-American gunmen and has sympathy for radical Islamists.

Mr Trump also relies on the us-versus-them bond with his followers to avoid punishment for any of his misbehaviour. He, too, is obsessed with his own prowess, and he uses Twitter to get around traditional media gatekeepers - and fact-checkers - to inject anything he wants into the nation's media bloodstream. (Mr Erdogan just uses his own friendly media.) And most of the people Mr Trump has surrounded himself with are either family or second-raters looking for a star turn, including his vice-presidential choice and the person who wrote his wife's convention speech and clearly plagiarised part of it from Mrs Michelle Obama. The whole thing reeks of flimflam.

If Mr Trump is elected, I don't think there will be a coup, but I guarantee you that Mr Jeb Bush's prediction will be proven true, that he'll be "a chaos president" just as he's been a "chaos candidate". Americans will regularly be in the streets, because they are not going to follow - on any big issue - a man who lies as he breathes, who has not done an ounce of homework to prepare for the job and who generates support by conspiracy theories and making people afraid of the future and one another.

If you like what's going on in Turkey today, you'll love Mr Trump's America.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'Trump and the sultan'. Print Edition | Subscribe