Which Middle East Authoritarian Leader is Trump most Like?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump’s abrupt and virtually unprecedented firing of FBI director Jim Comey raises the question of whether he and his far right wing circle of Neofascists intend to reshape the Bureau as (even more of) an instrument of white nationalism and executive authoritarianism.

Despite the cover story about Comey’s erratic behavior with regard to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, it seemed immediately apparent to canny observers that the firing was prompted by concerns that Comey was insufficiently pliant with regard to Trump himself. Apparently Trump has been frustrated about the investigation of his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. These anxieties were pitched by the growing scandal around key campaign figure and former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who took $30,000 from Russia Today for appearing at an event where Russian President Vladimir Putin was a prominent attendee. Even after acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump that Flynn could be compromised by Russian intelligence, Trump let him sit in on a call to the Russian government.

Then there is the revelation that Eric Trump boasted “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

Trump and likely his strategist Steve Bannon made this decision and did not tell most White House staff about it. Only a few senior GOP senators were informed beforehand. The letter to Comey was delivered to his empty office (he was in LA giving a talk) at close of business, 5 pm, by Trump’s former bodyguard who still seems to have a security role. It was like a scene out of a mobster movie.

So let’s play a game. Which Middle East ruler is Trump most like?

The FBI is part of the Department of Justice, which in turn is in the executive. In Middle East governments, the leader can hire and fire at will within the executive ministries, so this wouldn’t even have been a scandal over there. But in some Middle Eastern countries the judiciary has at least a little independence. In some countries, the senior judiciary appoints high court judges, so that the judiciary is less politicized than in the US.

There is little point comparing Trump to out-and-out dictators in the region; of course everyone in government serves at their pleasure. But there are two countries that had made small steps toward democracy and which are now backsliding, Egypt and Turkey. Looking at how they are descending into seedy dictatorships could be instructive with regard to keeping a watch on the authoritarian Trump.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013 and then arranged a phony election that gave him a 97% victory in 2014. Part of his power grab has involved cracking down on the press. Now he is making a move against the Egyptian judges. He pushed through a bill in parliament, apparently without bothering actually to get a quorum, which lets him personally intervene in the process of judicial appointments. Even his predecessor, deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, did not attempt to acquire that kind of power over the judiciary.

Democracy Now!: “El-Sisi Widens Crackdown on Egyptian Civil Society”

Or then there is the increasingly authoritarian and erratic Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Since the failed coup of July 15, 2016, Erdogan has fired over 100,000 government employees, including, in just the first few months, 3,500 judges and prosecutors. He then pushed through a constitutional amendment making the powers he arrogated to himself permanent, apparently with the goal of turning Turkey into a presidency for life, reversing Turkey’s baby steps toward pluralistic democracy of the previous 15 years. Insofar as several of the moves Trump has made against the Turkish judiciary appear to be aimed at making sure he is not himself ever investigated for alleged corruption, his firings have a resemblance to those of Trump.

United News International: “Turkey Fires Nearly 4,000 Public Officials in Coup Crackdown”

The way the Republican Party robbed the American public of the Supreme Court justice they expected when they elected Barack Obama in 2012 by 5 million votes, and the way they shoehorned Gorsuch onto the court by going nuclear, perhaps resembles al-Sisi’s plans for shaping the Egyptian supreme court to his liking. Of course al-Sisi made a coup against and got rid of all high Justice Ministry officials from the 2012-2013 Muslim Brotherhood government. In the aftermath, judges thought to have Muslim Brotherhood ties were forced to retire. Trump has already publicly demeaned judges who bucked him, and how he treats the judiciary is something to keep an eye on.

As for Erdogan, he has used a pliant parliament to push through legislation strengthening his hand (his Justice and Development Party only has 50.5% of seats, but it counts as an absolute majority, and anyway it is supported by another, smaller rightwing party). He has also whipped up support in the towns and small cities of the country’s center by pursuing a virtual war on the Kurdish PKK. He also has made a great deal of hay with the failed attempted coup against him. We should keep our eye on any move of Trump to allege a conspiracy against him or any attempt to wage war on an ethnic minority as a way of increasing public support.

Of course, Trump hasn’t yet done anything as egregious as al-Sisi or Erdogan. But he is clearly supporting them and perhaps learning from their tactics. But we can learn, too, for the purposes of the resistance.

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22 Responses

  1. I’d go back to Ahmadinejad for the proper comparison – ignorant, blundering, aggressive and ultimately a failure.

  2. Comparing Trump to almost any dictators anywhere, at least along the lines of “who had the more successful dictatorship” comes out unfavorable to Trump.

    Even the Mobutu’s and Mugabe’s of the world lasted for 30-ish years or more, even the Horthys and other East European storngmen of the pre-WW2 era installed their fascistic administrations, at least for a few years, more effectively than Trump has shown such abilities so far.

    At best, Trump is like a third-rate Berlusconi: Able to take power at least once (but probably not multiple times like Berlusconi), able to milk some media advantages and short-term corrupt deals for his family and his supporters, but ultimately unable to either “transform” society in a regressive direction or prevent the re-emergence of more progressive coalitions.

  3. Most dictators don’t have elections they just take power with the support of the military. Trump and Erdogan were both elected , although by a small majority so I suppose they do have some legitimacy. Its within the gift of every new leader to make changes to his or her administration, if they couldn’t, then the government would be static and without fresh blood. Why Trump left it so long to fire Comey is open to speculation. I would have thought he would have been one of the first people to go especially as he held such a sensitive post. Presumably Comey will be able to write his memoirs now that he’s out of office. It should make a good read.

    • The classic fascists, Hitler and Mussolini, came to power by parliamentary processes, though I understand Mussolini manufactured a “coup” in 1922 when he knew he was going to be asked to become prime minister anyway, to show that he was really installing a New Order.

      This is very important. Fascism is a right-wing populist critique of democratic capitalism. Populism here means mass participation among those coded as the superior race. It’s really the populism of a warrior tribe against those it oppresses. But it creates the possibility of an elected tyrant, who promises to liberate his superior brethren from the injustice of legal equality. That’s potentially far more dangerous than a junta coming to power in a military coup, because it embraces the goal of totalitarian transformation of society that few juntas have the fanatical zeal to carry out. Usually, those guys are just trying to butcher some leftists and then hand power back to the capitalist oligarchs on more favorable terms.

  4. It will be interesting to see what this does to Trumps approval ratings. On the far right Tucker Carlson is leading the band with “Comey was overdue to be fired” while neocon Krauthammer is taking a much dimmer view of the firing.

    My guess is Trump’s Wrestlemania following will lap this up in that Trump tweeted about the firing…”Draining the swamp.”

  5. Speaking on the BBC’s Today’s program this morning, Michael Hayden, the former director of national security agency and CIA, said: “During the past 110 days this president has fired a national security advisor, an acting attorney general and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation … and they were fired when they said publicly something that disagreed with the president, and this has sent a chill throughout the Federal bureaucracy, and we may now be requiring that bureaucracy to have uncommon courage in its dialog with the president.” It remains to be seen whether the Federal bureaucracy has the necessary courage to stand up to Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies or not. This puts an added burden on the shoulders of the members of the public, the press and the judiciary to intensify the pressure in order to preserve democracy in the United States.

    If so far there were mere suspicions about some unlawful contacts between Trump’s team and the Russian Embassy in Washington, the firing of Comey who was leading those investigations strengthens those suspicions and proves that Trump has something to hide. His attempt at a cover up is even more serious and more damaging for him than the original offense, as was the case with President Nixon. Hayden also said this morning that he believed that the investigation of the links between Trump’s team and the Russians might have ended up inconclusively and might have not done him much damage, but his attempt to shoot the messenger has compounded the problem and has turned it into something much more serious.

  6. I would say that it’s Erdoğan with one enormous difference:

    Erdoğan sincerely believes the backward-looking, Islamist, neo-Ottoman program that he spouts. Trump, on the other hand, believes in nothing beyond himself and, following at a safe distance, his businesses and family. Otherwise he is a pure opportunist who will reverse course in a heartbeat if he sees it benefiting himself.

    Sultan Recep Tayyip Çok Yaşa!

  7. Incredibly conspicuous in its absence from immediate MSM, including AJ, reports of the Comey sacking, was the elephant in room of Yates testimony just 24 hours prior. Given the medias negligible attention span, why couldn’t Trump have waited a mere week to ax him? On the one hand you have his impulsiveness and incompetence, and on the other hand you have the stink of fear and desperation.

    Or, maybe he’s doing stuff like this and his silly tweets in the manner of a pickpocket or magician: distracting his audience with one hand while the other does the real business.

    All along, the judiciary has loomed as the center of gravity for whatever impact his administration might have in the immediate and (very) long term. The story doesn’t end with the Merrick/Gorsuch affair. Mitch McConnell and the GOP had put the quietus on a huge number of federal judgeships as well. There’s a larger story here some reporter needs to stitch together that I’ve learned in scraps. But essentially, by a series of senate rules, not unlike those that led to the Gorsuch appointment, the Demos appear to have been outmaneuvered in their influence over this backlog of judicial appointments.

    There’s only so much you can blame on the Russians, Hillary.

  8. In your opinion is there any substance in the 5,000-15,000 more troops to Afghanistan idea or is this just to divert media attention from Trump’s various domestic problems? Besides the ongoing investigation into Russian ties to Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions; there is also the president’s family selling resident visas in exchange for $500K invested in the family’s real estate empire.

  9. Netanyahu? They are all much of a muchness. Better perhaps to ask which is he least like.

    1600 Palestinian prisoners are well into their third week of hunger strike in Israel. Sad how little coverage it gets.

  10. There are objections when any modern leader is compared to Hitler. The problem with the objections is that the public results so far of the Trump regime, dare I say kingdom, are too closely identical to the proto-Nazi and Nazi political playbook 1922 onward to, well we know when and how that ended.

  11. Add Trump the authoritarian to the ruling plutocracy, the climate change deniers, and the Israel lobby, and the future for the United States appears to be at grave risk.

  12. My first choice is Sultan Recep Tayyip Çok Yaşa. If you had included southern Africa, I might have said Uganda’s Idi Amin, but I don’t know enough about Trump’s eating habits to be sure.

    One thing is sure, Trump would be delighted to have Amin’s self bestowed official title:

    “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas”.

    Trump also comes close to Time magazine’s 1977 description of Amin:

    A “killer and clown, big-hearted buffoon and strutting martinet.”

  13. Trump is just a symptom, we want to be like Israel, By god we are exceptional and by god they are chosen, thieving and stealing, apartheid and racism and segregation, militarize police and walls, hatred and aggression for the Muslims. Trump is our Netanyahu.

    • In all fairness, America inspired the Zionist belief they could steal Palestine from its inhabitants and get away with it. Zionist hero Jabotinsky wrote that the Arab natives must be dealt with in the same way the USA dealt with the Indians. All subsequent denials aside, this was exactly the program carried out. And it brilliantly played on America’s unwillingness to accept that the only just compensation for its own crimes would be to give most of the continent back to the Natives.

      Even better, the American settlers themselves stole the Hebrew narrative of stealing Palestine from the Canaanites 3000 years ago to justify their own Manifest Destiny. So America and Israel are locked in a holy loop of self-justified conquest and oppression. The American Right has clearly come to view Israel as its laboratory for its own plans for America’s People of Color.

  14. It is pathetic that you compare Erdogan with Sissi. But then that is expected. Facts really do not matter when ideological points have to be scored. Erdogan was brought back to power by the people of Turkey after a military coup attempt by one of hte most powerful armies in the Middle East, an army that has ruled Turkey for decades. Sissi on the other hand came through the barrel of a gun with thousands slaughtered and jailed after overthrowing a legitimately elected -LEGITIMATELY – government. But you do not care. As always democracy, legitimacy of the right to rule are no considerations for you if the party in power is not ideologically aligned with you. Erdogan is liked, respected and admired by a large number of Turks who have elected him again and again because of what he has done for Turkey. But that does not matter. Where Turkey has been brought from where it was when Erdogan took power does not matter at all for you. You really do not like democratic right of the people to choose their own governments. People must first get an approval from you before they elect their leaders.

    • There are actually three issues here, which you are running together:

      How someone gets to power

      Whether the leader has a national mandate

      Whether the leader’s techniques of rule are democratic.

      Both Erdogan and Sisi became president through a deeply flawed electoral process in which press freedom was suppressed, opponents were coerced or jailed (ask HDP), and significant sections of the opposition were branded terrorist.

      Both Erdogan and Sisi appear to be widely popular, though Sisi is probably more popular than Erdogan across the public.

      Both Erdogan and Sisi have fired large numbers of civil servants on grounds of adherence to a ‘terrorist’ group. Both have governed in an illiberal and undemocratic way. Sisi had been until recently more illiberal and undemocratic, but Erdogan is catching up to him. Sisi has closed fewer universities and jailed or had fired fewer journalists and professors. Despite his military actions in Sinai, Sisi has also not displaced 350,000 of his own citizens.

      Thanks for providing the opportunity to expand on the comparison, which is to Erdogan’s disadvantage more than I originally thought.

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