Review: How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, Ece Temelkuran
By Luke Frostick
It couldn’t happen here
Ece Temelkuran is a writer who demands attention. She is a poet and a novelist, but she is most famous as a journalist. She is rightly applauded for her investigative journalism and principled stand against the authoritarian slide in Turkey.
Her latest non-fiction book is How to Lose a Country: 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. It is an attempt to understand and to see through the way in which populist leaders exploit the political and social systems that they emerge from to create authoritarian states in which democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and the security of vulnerable groups are all eroded for the sake of maintaining their leaders’ continued position at the top.
There are a number of books now on the market, written in a post-Trump/ Brexit panic that address the current danger to democracy of the political moment. What makes Temelkuran’s perspective important in that sub-genre of political discussion is her expertise in the rise of the AKP and the erosion of Turkish democracy into the sorry state it is in today. She looks for the hows and the whys that sit behind a now global trend. She has a great way of humanising some of these discussions with personal anecdotes about how emotionally draining and career damaging trying to push back against the shameless can be.
Although I was initially concerned that the story of Turkey’s democratic backsliding with all of its twist turns and complications unique to Turkey wouldn’t necessarily be a good comparison with other nations’ struggles, the book channels the Turkish experience and draws bigger-picture lessons from it. That said, one thing that I found myself wishing for was a broader international discussion. The book focuses on England, America and Turkey. Though Orban, Putin and the A.F.D get their mentions, Italy and Venezuela barely get a look in. Japan, Brazil and India -all with their own varied authoritarian issues- are not included, which feels like an oversight and could have given her a broader range of example to draw upon. Though, I am a bit of a hypocrite criticising Temelkuran for this actually, because my own thoughts and comments on her book mostly draw from British and American politics as well.
One of the things that makes writing and thinking about populism so difficult is that it is, through a combination of shamelessness, design and incompetence, quite hard to lock down to a set of ideologies, goals or tactics. Populists’ actions can seem quite random and contradictory. Even the facist moments of the 20th century, had to pay lip service to an ideology, however twisted they were Temelkuran argues.
What this book does so well -and which I found really useful- is that she is able to pin a lot of what seems slippery and slithery about the rhetoric and strategy of populists under the microscope and describe in clear language what it is that they are doing, how they are making changes and how these moves can be used to subvert a democratic process. A great example of this that has been rattling round in my brain since then is her exploration around the language of “real people.”
There once was a time when it was a “gotcha” question to ask British politicians what the price of a pint of milk was. It was a question designed to show that a given politician on either side of the aisle was out of touch with real people.
What the British didn’t see back in 2016 was that who exactly constituted the “real people” was being changed from “people who did know how much milk cost or could order sausage rolls without looking slightly afraid" to people who were “concerned about immigration, but not racist and quite frankly I’m disgusted that you would call them that.”
The trick is, if you have “real people”, you must also have unreal people. Nigel Farage in England defined Brexit as a victory for “real people”. The 48% of people who didn’t vote for the epic act of self-harm must be, by extension, unreal. Stateside, Donald Trump’s “real Americans” are white right-wing Christians and the unreal are (let’s not fuck about) of colour, LGBTQ+, women or some combination of the above.
The great thing about having unreal people in your country is you don’t have to pay any attention to them. Supporters of the EU in England hold vast rallies, send in petitions signed by millions . In the EU elections, parties supporting remain gain a higher results in aggregate than those backing leave and it doesn’t matter at all. You get Boris Johnson as prime minister. The “real people” have already spoken.
Temelkuran’s book then expands the idea. The division of people into the real and the unreal is easily supplemented by two simple but highly effective and flexible talking points:
1) The “real people” have been victimised. This victimhood can be real, imagined or some blend of both.
2) The “real people” need to be respected. Therefore the leader must be respected as their representative.
Hillary Clinton broke both these rules while running against Trump by saying that “America is already great” and calling Trump supporters “deplorables”. Unforgivable. Trump on the other hand was able to crank out obscenities like machine gun fire and it didn’t matter because the victimised people he disrespected weren’t “real,” enough -not to his followers anyway.
Temelkuran argues that the the body politic and the media is ill-equipped to deal with this division of people manufactured by the populists and that it paralyses opposition parties and the media. She gives the example of Turkey, how people in the press, business and politics had to prove their AKP credentials or become liable to having their opinions ignored or ridiculed, that if you wanted to have a voice in public life, you have to prove yourself to be in touch with these "real people” This then progressed to the point where careers depend on being a member of this in group..
You can see versions of these factors in other countries struggling with populism. Post the 2016 US election, journalists from all sort of venues went on long self-flagellatory trips to Trump land to discover what these “real people” thought, while ignoring the rest of the population, swallowing the populists’ message about whose anger and discontent was most worthy of coverage totally. Across the pond in a totally different institution, politicians running for leadership of the Conservative party in England say ridiculous things that they must at some level know to be untrue in a grasping attempt to prove their authenticity to the Brexit cause.
So your populist has taken power. What happens next?
They start to corrupt institutions says Temelkuran. Political parties, the media, the civil service, the academy, the judiciary and even the political system itself are gobbled up. These institutions that are often assumed to have the power to act as gate keepers and watchdogs are more vulnerable than we think. Of course, Temelkuran is grounded in the Turkish experience, where there is no question that all of the above institutions have been consumed by the AKP machine. Once it has happened, it is hard to reverse.
Now a smug northern European type might be tempted to say something like. “Well of course it could happen in Turkey. Turkey has had quite a flawed political system for large parts of its history. Its institutions were corrupt, the military was an active impediment to democracy and there was real discrimination against large groups in society. We in … (let’s say Holland) have a much more robust system.”
To which the writer might reply, “Wow you know a lot about Turkish recent political history Dutch guy.” Followed by, “It has already happened in Hungary though. And the far right was trying to replicate parts of the Hungarian model in Austria. And the Republican Party in America has been for years trying to weaken democracy by appointing judges to uphold their voter suppression laws. The FBI might be the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world, but it’s no good if the man they are investigating is kept above the law by his own party because they need him to appoint judges so they can keep subverting democracy to keep winning elections…
“Shall I keep going? Ok. The Tory party in England is about to coronate their own blonde-haired disgrace who has floated the idea of undermining parliament to enact ‘the will of the people.’ My point here is that institutions are vulnerable and when they collapse -or worse- are taken over they go so quickly that there is not much to do about it except say, ‘oh no.’”
I hope that Ms. Temelkuran will forgive me for putting words into her mouth.
Of course, the specific institutions do matter and they do not all buckle as rapidly. For example in England you see the courts, the speaker of the house and parliament assert itself in the Brexit fiasco. Thought of course for their troubles they were labelled “enemies of the people.” “Which people?” you may ask. Why, the real ones naturally.
In addition to highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of our institutions and warning to be vigilant, Temelkuran also strongly rebukes those who think that the era of the populists is a tonic needed to fix the ills of neoliberalism from which she suggests a lot of the causes of our present moment grow. She references Turkish intellectuals and writers who in the 2000s thought the AKP was a necessity for the much needed clipping of the army’s wings were blind to the potential danger the AKP represented. In more recent politics, she refers to Slavoj Žižek who said that Trump’s election would be “a big kind of awakening.” and that “New political processes [would] be set in motion”. The book shows that similar ideas were suggested about the AKP when they took power and were proved to be very wrong. I think the jury is out on this point. Trump and Erdogan are very much not the same person for one and who knows if Brexit, the Gilets Jaunes, or the Five Star Movement will turn out to be the shot of adrenaline needed to get liberal democracy moving again. However, the warning from Turkey should be taken seriously.
One question I had coming into the book was, “Will the writer have solutions?”
Unfortunately the answer is no. There is a broad call for solidarity and collective action. She also suggests that focusing on your own supporters and building coalitions there is better than wasting time trying to win back the “real people”. Though not in those words, I have heard politicians such as Stacy Abrams suggest similar things. There is also some interesting thoughts about how in Turkey the urge to use humour as a tonic in the face of authoritarians’ outrageousness and shamelessness can be self-defeating. The famous words of the British comedian Peter Cook who, in the 60s, modelled his comedy club on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler” come to mind.
It is possible, or even likely that saying Temelkuran doesn’t provide solutions is an unfair criticism. This issues are far bigger than one book or journalist and the solutions difficult as well. If they weren’t, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron or Angela Merkel’s vast political organisations would have found them and this whole conversation wouldn’t be necessary. Temelkuran isn't a political Steve Erwin who knows exactly how to get the snake back in the bag. But thanks to How to Lose a Country, I feel I have a better knowledge of where it might be going next.