Prepare For Regime Change, Not Policy Change

Prepare For Regime Change, Not Policy Change

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Çanakkale, Turkey, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

It can happen here

Over the past decade, I, along with millions of my compatriots, watched an illiberal populist leader commandeer every lever of power in my country of origin, Turkey, by systematically dismantling constitutional safeguards and intimidating society into submission. Having secured less than half of the popular vote in successive elections, Erdoğan proceeded to jail journalists, activists, judges, prosecutors, generals, and members of parliament. To stay in power, he has reignited a dormant civil conflict, stoked ultranationalist violence, allowed extremist movements to flourish, orchestrated military incursions into two neighboring countries, and shredded the rule of law. In hindsight, the signs of his authoritarian intentions were there all along; many of us just didn’t think the republic would succumb so easily.

Those of us who witnessed illiberal populist movements take hold in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and elsewhere are watching the election of Donald Trump with a particularly acute sense of foreboding. With this difference: unlike the United States, none of these countries have ever stood out as a beacon of liberty. To many Americans, this means that however autocratic his leanings, Trump’s designs will fail. But this is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. It is precisely such overconfidence in the United States’ long and illustrious tradition of liberty that could lull the American public into a false sense of security and facilitate the rapid destruction of that very tradition.

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook. Defenders of liberal democracy, too, must learn from each other’s victories and defeats. Below are some hard-earned lessons from countries that have been overrun by the contemporary wave of illiberal democracy. They could be essential for preserving the American republic in the dark years to come.

Expect the worst

Don’t look for ways to soothe your sense of alarm, or assume that a Trump presidency might turn out less harmful than he has so far indicated. Autocrats almost always turn out worse than they seem before coming to power. A presidential candidate who has uncontrollable fits of rage over perceived slights from a former beauty queen is likely to use every resource available to him to hound his enemies. In the United States, those powers are formidable indeed, ranging from a nuclear arsenal to the boundless surveillance powers of the NSA.

Don’t expect the Republican establishment to rein him in, as few Republicans were courageous enough to disavow his candidacy even when he appeared to be losing the election. Now that he controls the most powerful office in the land, expect them to be fully servile.

Don’t count on the elaborate system of checks and balances instituted by the founders. James Madison’s ingenious machine was designed to withstand the mundane incompetence, greed, and short-sightedness of politicians, but it cannot weather the onslaught of an aspiring tyrant hell-bent on destroying it. Consider that the separation of powers, the primary mechanism Madison envisaged for holding tyranny at bay, is all but irrelevant while Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the presidency—particularly once they get their hands on key federal judicial appointments. All autocrats set about dismantling countervailing power structures, but with the inauspicious ideological alignment of all three branches of government, Trump won’t even have to try.

If you trust in freedom of expression to expose the autocratic machinations of a Trump administration, think again. It is no coincidence that Erdoğan and Trump are both litigious in the extreme, regularly using personal lawsuits to bludgeon their critics into quiescence. Autocrats understand that freedom of expression is fragile, and seek to stifle it by hook or by crook. The American free speech tradition is stronger than Russia’s or Turkey’s, but a hyper-sensitive, bullying White House press office could easily cow the media into favorable reporting. It does not take much for the deleterious chilling effect of such measures to take hold. Conservative “news” outlets already enjoy overwhelming dominance in the United States, and Trump’s singular genius is for manipulating the media. That, after all, is how he fueled the birther movement that in turn made him into a political force. Finally, he can also be expected, like Berlusconi, to create his own private media empire to shape the “truth” to which a large part of the electorate is exposed.

Time to use the F-word

Progressives err in assuming that the worst danger of a Trump presidency is the reversal of Obama legacy, including the Affordable Care Act, the vindication of the constitutional rights of LGBTQ people, the Iran deal, and progress on climate change. There will surely be an all-out assault on these achievements. But it would a grave mistake to see the obliteration of the progressive policy agenda as the chief danger of a Trump presidency. What we confront is not the usual dogfight between liberals and conservatives. It is a struggle between those who believe in preserving the imperfect but serviceable constitutional system of the republic, and those who will try to undermine it. For all his abhorrent policy positions, a President Cruz could have been counted on to observe the strictures of constitutional democracy, such as the peaceful alternation of power through free and fair elections. Trump gives us every reason to suspect that he will not. If the tactics of Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, and other populists are any guide, we can expect Trump to do everything he has either threatened to do or baselessly accused the Democrats of doing: fomenting violence and voter intimidation, rigging elections, spying on, prosecuting, and imprisoning his opponents, silencing the press, and more.

Like other illiberal populists, Trump is capable of inflicting irreparable damage to this country’s institutions within a relatively short space of time. What we therefore have to prepare to resist is not policy change; it is regime change. Above all, we must shake off the “it can’t happen here” mentality and seriously contemplate the unprecedented danger Trump represents: that of the United States sliding into a form of fascism. A single cataclysmic event, such as a major terror attack, could hasten this slide. Americans from all across the political spectrum who believe in constitutional democracy must unite to resist it.

Protest early and often

The experience of Russia and Turkey suggest that the only democratic, nonviolent practice capable of deterring the autocrats is the sight of endless crowds marching: vociferous, tenacious, disciplined citizens claiming ownership over their constitutional liberties and defending the integrity of their political institutions. Erdoğan was never so rattled as he was by the Gezi Park protests that quickly spread all over the country; Putin experienced the only real challenge to his regime during the street demonstrations of 2011 and 2012. In the short term, both movements failed to defang the authoritarian regimes they challenged, not because mass protests were the wrong strategy but because the brutal force commanded by a consolidated authoritarian regime makes it very difficult for such movements to succeed.

This is why it is essential to protest early and often. Citizens of consolidated democracies have absorbed a genteel lesson: if our side loses, we wait our turn until the next election. Under normal circumstances, the internalization of that lesson is essential to democracy’s stability. When those in power are poised to destroy constitutional safeguards, however, hanging on in quiet desperation until the next election can be fatal to democracy.

Instead, Americans must tap into their rich and proud tradition of civic resistance, whose highlights are the twentieth-century civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Civic action needs to begin now. We must claim public squares before Trump takes office, marching in droves and communicating a clear message that his brand of autocracy shall not pass.

Already, citizens are congregating in cities across the land and a “million-woman march on Washington” is in the works for January 21. Nationwide gatherings take time to organize, but rallies and vigils must become regular events in cities and university campuses across the land. As recent waves of popular mobilization, from Tahrir Square to Gezi Park, have shown, social media enables masses to converge on short notice. Millennials excel at this kind of thing. However, closed-circuit, feel-good moping on social media can never substitute for warm bodies on streets that refuse to be dispersed or intimidated. As concerned citizens, we must coordinate with our families, friends, colleagues, students, neighbors, and congregants, making couches available, giving rides, providing childcare, covering work shifts, and cooking meals for one another to amplify an effective civic presence. (And let’s not forget to continue poking fun at Trump. Autocrats cannot stand humor, which makes it a potent device not just for sapping their egos but also for giving citizens the much-needed solace and encouragement of laughing together.)

Find strange bedfellows

Thanks in part to their control over the media, the Russian and Turkish governments persuaded the larger public that the protesters were godless vandals, foreign agents, and marginal types. To combat such a smear campaign, citizens and community leaders must be willing to look past the ideological differences that divide them. These differences have been rendered irrelevant, at least for the moment, by the overriding danger presented by the Trump presidency. This civic resistance must bring together not just progressives of all stripes—including Black Lives Matter activists, unions, and the climate justice movement—but also immigrants, LGBTQ people, conservatives, libertarians, religious groups, veterans, teachers, students, people of all faiths, races, and ethnicities; in short, all those who believe that political disagreements should only be resolved within the framework of constitutional democracy. The good news is that it is easier to unite around opposition to despotism than it is to set out an alternative vision of how government must be run. Still, one of the most potent strategies in the autocrat’s toolkit is to sow divisions among the opposition by selectively favoring their causes. Leftists, then, should refuse to be mollified by Trump’s anti-free trade agenda, for instance, or his promise to increase government spending.

Be peaceful and resolute

Trump will use the militarized force of U.S. law enforcement against protesters on the ground, and will seek to discredit them in the public eye. Already, Milwaukee County Sheriff and Trump’s potential nominee for Homeland Security Secretary David Clarke tweeted that “temper tantrums from . . . radical anarchists must be quelled.” (In August, Clarke was quick to call the National Guard into Milwaukee when protests erupted after the police shooting of twenty-three-year-old Sylville Smith.) We must take inspiration from the peaceful momentum built by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists, and steel our spines against ominous threats that betray the U.S. Constitution’s unequivocal guarantees of the freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

Above all, let us not forget that Trump rode to power on the back of public rallies fueled by protest against political power. The tidy, staged meetings in which Hillary supporters wanly pledged to be “with her” failed to match the energy of the Trump movement. The only thing that can arrest the lawless momentum of a Trump regime is the hair of the dog: wave after wave of loud, proud, and peaceful citizens rejecting the hate, vilification, lawlessness, and division for which he stands.

Many Americans have still to discover that nothing boosts civic morale and solidarity like a massive public protest. The act of standing together in a public space and affirming our shared values and our respect for one another is a transformative experience, one that could release the still largely untapped political potential of millennials. In contrast to the Trump rallies in which racist, sexist, and Islamophobic obscenities were chanted by thousands, peaceful mass demonstrations are in order to enact the resilience of American democracy and the inclusive and affirmative ideals for which it stands. The vast majority of Americans who still affirm these ideals need just such an antidote, and they need it now.


N. Turkuler Isiksel is James P. Shenton Assistant Professor of the Core Curriculum at the Department of Political Science at Columbia University.

This is part of an ongoing series of responses to the election results.

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