How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, with Ece Temelkuran

June 3, 2019

President Erdoğan & President Trump at the White House, May 2017. CREDIT: Shealah Craighead/Public Domain

JOANNE MYERS: To all our listeners, welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs here at the Council.

Shortly I'll be speaking with Ece Temelkuran, who is the author of an important book entitled How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. In How to Lose a Country Ece makes an impassioned plea to warn against complacency for those living in a democracy. By this she means that if we think nothing can really shake it or make it collapse we may be fooling ourselves.

Ece is an award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator whose journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, New Statesman, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, and Der Spiegel. She has been twice recognized as Turkey's most-read political columnist.

Today, populist movements have recently appeared in nearly every democracy around the world, but politicians of all stripes appeal to the interests of the people, and every opposition party campaigns against the current establishment. So my question is, what distinguishes populism from run-of-the-mill democratic politics?

ECE TEMELKURAN: Populism is a sort of political insanity that disrupts the rationale and terrorizes the entire political mechanism. It creeps into every system, even into the most mature democracies and the strongest state institutions, and it paralyzes them in order to gain more and more power and finally to end up being an authoritarian regime.

In the book I gave the seven steps from democracy to dictatorship, and some of these steps might be invisible to people even when they are living in it, so I wanted to make sure that people of the world, especially the Western societies, including European countries and the United States, can see what is happening to them so they won't lose time like we did in Turkey. I hope they won't end up losing their country as we did.

JOANNE MYERS: Before we get into the seven steps, which I would like you to discuss, could you just talk about who do the populists represent?

ECE TEMELKURAN: They say that they represent real people, and this is how they get into the political sphere. They enter the political space by saying, "We represent the real people." Automatically, that statement turns people who are critical of the right-wing populist leaders into not-so-real people or an oppressive elite.

It happens exactly the same way in every country as it happened 17 years ago in Turkey. Then all of a sudden people like me or you, people who have the capacity to exercise critical thinking, find themselves trying to prove that they are not elites, they are not oppressive, and so on. They first of all terrorize the narrative, the social sphere, by saying "We represent real people." Then they ask for respect, and when they gain respect and when they sit at the table of conventional politics, they start elbowing out the other actors of the political sphere until they are the only ones sitting at the table. They keep terrorizing basic human reasoning and the political consensuses.

JOANNE MYERS: Are populist governments distinct from dictatorial or fascist regimes?

ECE TEMELKURAN: We all tend to think that dictators or fascists come in uniforms, and most of us think that fascism or authoritarian regimes are regimes that happen overnight, the bad guy is coming along and then beating up the good guys and seizing power. It doesn't happen like that. It takes a lot of silence, silent approval from ordinary people, and it takes a lot of normalization of absurdity and insanity before right-wing populism turns into a real fully formed authoritarian regime. This is why I wanted to warn people that most of the steps from democracy to dictatorship are almost invisible, and it's not easy to recognize them when it's happening to a society.

Another thing that separates right-wing populism from fascism is that it happens in such an "entertaining" way, so to speak. You don't recognize that there are authoritarian aspects in right-wing populist regimes. When I say "entertaining," I think American people will recognize what I mean by looking at how much Americans laugh at Trump.

For the first year after Trump was elected, as far as I can remember, people were laughing at him, and they thought that he wouldn't last for another year. But now there is no more laughter, but still we are trying to laugh at these clownish figures, right-wing populist leaders, and we think that as long as we laugh at them it won't be so serious, it won't be so threatening. That's why right-wing populism happens with a lot of laughter and a lot of sarcasm until there's nothing to laugh about.

JOANNE MYERS: Is this what you see as an early warning sign, or are there others that you would like to highlight?

ECE TEMELKURAN: There are other steps to dictatorship, which the United States is experiencing as well, although every country is naturally different from each other.

I try to see through the myth that right-wing populism creates all around the world, and through that myth what I see is a mechanism that operates exactly the same way in every country that is subjected to right-wing populism, and the United States is one of them as well.

When you say "dictatorship," it sounds almost impossible. It sounds almost too passé, and one tends to say, "Oh, it cannot happen to us. We are the strongest democracy of the world," and so on. Many Americans do say that, and I understand why they say that.

We have been saying the same thing for 10 years. Every country has its own material to feel immune to right-wing populism. We thought that all these crazy things would happen to other countries. We Turkish people thought that until it happened to us.

Europeans for a long time thought that those crazy things would happen to crazy countries like Turkey, and now they're experiencing the same thing alongside the United States.

I wanted to make sure that people see the seven common patterns on a global level, and those seven common patterns are about right-wing populism and how they trick societies into this complete insanity of politics and morality.

JOANNE MYERS: Are there also warning signs about left-wing populism as well as right-wing, or do you see them having common denominators?

ECE TEMELKURAN: I have been asked this question in several countries in Europe during my book launches in several languages, but I don't see that happening as a current threat to democracy as we know it. Representative democracy is going through its biggest crisis since the Second World War all over the world, and this current threat, the biggest ongoing threat, is coming from right-wing populism.

In order to make sure that it is right-wing populism, one can look at how all these guys, from Trump to Putin, from Britain's Farage to Hungary's Orbán, or Mr. Erdoğan to other populist leaders, they are all in touch with each other, and they are presenting their respects to each other.

I mention the global solidarity that they are exercising at the moment, and I wanted to make sure that people who are critical of these regimes should be in solidarity as well. That's why I wrote the book, in fact, to bring back the idea that we should be in global conversation and to make sure that people feel that they are not the only nation or the only society that experiences this kind of political insanity.

JOANNE MYERS: But you do talk about seven warning signs, and you mentioned laughter, which certainly was here in the United States because of Donald Trump being a reality star, and maybe one could say that about Boris Johnson with Brexit in London, but what about the six other characteristics that you mention? I know you talk about alternative facts and dismantling of the judiciary. Could you talk a little bit about these please?

ECE TEMELKURAN: Sure. The first step is creating a movement of real people, asking for respect, exploiting the concert of identity politics, making ignorance an identity, and equalizing the knowledgeable with the ignorant through social media, of course.

The second common pattern or second step to dictatorship is disrupting the basic human rationale. As we all experience, it's not easy to talk to spin doctors of right-wing populism. They somehow make it impossible to have a normal conversation, a normal political debate. I describe, for instance, how they do it in a conversation. There is a fictional dialogue between Aristotle and a right-wing populist spin doctor in the book that shows how conversation is impossible with a spin doctor of right-wing populism.

The third step is about shame and post-truth. Post-truth has become a very popular concept for years now, and many journalists and opinion-makers are trying to deal with this concept on a very technical, practical level, especially journalists who wanted to believe for several years that they could beat the post-truth world by fact-checking, doubling down on fact-checking, etc. But I think the post-truth reality has a lot to do with the transformation of shame that we have witnessed throughout the late recent decades, globally.

JOANNE MYERS: What do you mean by shame? Could you just elaborate a little bit about shame?

ECE TEMELKURAN: I'll give you one example from the United States, in fact. In 1970, when the Vietnam War was happening, there was a black-and-white photo of a naked girl running away from a napalm attack.

JOANNE MYERS: Right, in Vietnam.

ECE TEMELKURAN: That photo brought out millions of people into the streets because they said, "We are ashamed of this, and this cannot be done in our name."

But now, today, we do not feel the same shame. It's because we don't feel the same shame that there are dead babies washing ashore in the Mediterranean, Syrian dead babies, and politics do not change, and millions of people do not take to the streets to stop the political decisions. We are living in a world where cruelty is normalized, and our truths are so split that we can consider dead babies belonging to other people's truth, to other people's worlds.

It's the longest chapter in the book, so I don't want to ruin it by simplifying it, but I do think that living in a post-truth world has a lot to do with the transformation of shame, transformation of the human mind, the human emotional state when it comes to witnessing cruelty and when it comes to reacting to cruelty. That is why it is becoming more and more normalized, for instance, when Trump says, "Oh, the refugee crisis is important. It's a national crisis, so we have to take the babies away from refugees." There is a lot of reaction to that in the United States, but I wonder what would have happened in the 1970s if such a policy was applied to refugee children. I think the reaction would have been far bigger.

This is the third common pattern that we all share globally, living in a post-truth world and how this "shamelessness," so to speak, is exploited and encouraged in fact by right-wing populist leaders.

The fourth common pattern or step from democracy to dictatorship is dismantling the political and judicial mechanisms. You have seen this in the United States as well. Mr. Trump's government shutdown was the longest government shutdown in American history, and the entire American establishment had to come together to stop Mr. Trump doing this. So, dismantling the political institutions, dismantling the judiciary institutions does not happen overnight. It becomes normalized as well when right-wing populist leaders start toying with political institutions just like Mr. Trump is, even in his first days of his presidency.

By the way, the book gives examples from all over the world and European countries and the United States as well as Turkey. This happens exactly the same way in every country.

The fifth common pattern is laughter and political humor and how political humor operates as an encouraging tool for the opposition in the beginning, but then how it becomes a tool to calm down our anxieties as the people who are critical of the regime. Then the sarcasm, this mocking of the political figure, at some point becomes completely useless, and it becomes too comfortable a shelter to go out from. You start thinking that or feeling that as long as you laugh at this political figure or as long as you laugh at what's going on in the country it is not touching you. So it operates like a shield, which is not good because it diminishes the realness of the situation or seriousness of the situation.

The sixth one is design your own citizen. This common pattern of right-wing populism is especially important for women because every right-wing populist leader starts designing its own ideal citizens by meddling with women, by messing with women. Nowadays it's happening in the United States by abandoning abortion rights. It's incredible. It's so backward, but it's not only the United States. Even in Germany, where women's rights are so advanced, German woman are all of a sudden dealing with this situation as well. They're trying to get back their abortion rights and so on. In Poland and in Hungary it's happening the same way. It happened in Turkey 10 years ago.

They design women, and they think that designing women is easier than men, so they attack women first. That's why women in all these countries that are subject to right-wing populism are the first ones to respond, to react.

It's not a coincidence that we see all these women out on the streets when right-wing populist leaders take the stage. It's like that in Britain, in Turkey, in Hungary, and in United States. It was the first day of Mr. Trump's presidency that women took to the streets, which was amazing, and which gave an amazing motivation—

JOANNE MYERS: The Women's March, right.

ECE TEMELKURAN: —to the women population of the world.

The seventh common pattern is designing your own country, which means the last step starts with people feeling, This is not my country anymore. It's not the country I know. It's changing. The ground is shifting. I am standing where I stood always, but somehow the world around me is changing.

I know how one feels when it starts happening. It's like you're going insane or the world is going insane, and you're feeling completely alone in it, and you feel like, Where do I go from here? Do I have to go now? When shall I go? Do I have to leave the country now?

It happened to us in Turkey. It's happening almost everywhere in Europe for people like me, who are critical and who are being vocal about their criticism.

The very end, which I hope doesn't happen in this country or in the European countries, is criminalizing the opposition, stigmatizing them, and finally making them feel completely insecure and under attack so that they really literally leave the country.

JOANNE MYERS: You have presented such a clear-sighted argument and painted with a broad stroke everything that has been taking place in our country as well as in Europe and other places. I was just wondering if you have any prognosis for what is going to take place in the coming years or how we can reverse this trend.

ECE TEMELKURAN: Certainly. That's why I have written a book because I see people doing the wrong things in Europe and in the United States, and it's exactly the things that we did in Turkey, and it didn't work.

First of all, we shouldn't be trying to find a third-party technique, so to speak a couples therapy technique, to deal with this issue, because people are trying to find a common ground, consensus, and so on to talk to right-wing populist spin doctors. No. This is a political problem. The answer should be political as well. But in order to give a political answer, to create a political reaction, to reverse the current, we should come together and talk to each other.

Every country, every society thinks that it's only happening to them and that their condition is so unique that they cannot deal with it globally, whereas I can say that there are seven common patterns, and this is how the right-wing populist machine works. If we now know how the machine works, we can stop it.

My answer to this is let's talk to each other, and as soon as we start this global conversation against right-wing populism it will generate automatically a global political wave. This global political wave—I am hoping that it will start from the United States because you have the most obvious problem. Europeans are different, but you have Trump. He's the most obvious right-wing populist. He is very hard to miss, so to speak.

I see a lot of political energy in the United States. The global political wave against right-wing populism might start from the United States, and I'm looking forward to that as well.

The global political wave, once it starts, cannot be stopped. We have to remember that this is a 21st-century problem, so we cannot deal with this problem with the conventional party system and the tools of representative democracy. I am very, very sure that the new 21st-century political tools to deal with this problem will come from young people and young politicians.

I have to tell you that I didn't write a depressive book because I'm not depressed, and I don't have fears, and I urge people not to have fears because fear automatically makes us do wrong things. We have to have joy in the fact that we are not alone, so I want to say to people, all those people who are concerned by what's going on in the United States or in the European countries, that they are not alone, and we can beat this together.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for this insightful but alarming discussion. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

The book is How To Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.

ECE TEMELKURAN: Thank you, Joanne.

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