Try to imagine this scenario happening in the United States: In a national referendum, a narrow majority of voters decide to hand powers to Donald Trump that are unprecedented in the history of the American presidency.
What if 51 percent of the voters gave Trump the powers that now belong to House Speaker Paul Ryan, the ability to make laws by degree and also to unilaterally appoint the judges who would rule on whether his actions are constitutional, not to mention the power to fire any one of a couple of million federal government employees at will? Oh, and possibly run for a third term if he so desires.
It can't happen here, right? Hopefully it won't, but that exact scenario just did play out over the weekend in a large, economically advanced member of the NATO alliance, Turkey. The hotly contested plebiscite -- the results are also being challenged -- is completing the transition of Turkey's Recip Tayyep Erdogan from a charismatic president of a large, Muslim-majority democracy into an authoritarian strongman who has already cracked down hard on journalists, academics and political opponents.
“It represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdogan’s personal power and quite possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country,” Howard Eissenstat of the Project on Middle East Democracy told the New York Times. Indeed, the reversal of fortune in Turkey -- which in recent years had been hailed as a bastion of democracy in a Muslim world where autocrats and monarchs rule the day -- is one of the more discouraging developments in the recent decline of Western-style liberal government.
The dictatorial powers apparently just handed to Erdogan are hardly an academic matter. Since a failed coup attempt last year, the Turkish ruler has arrested about 45,000 people. Human Rights Watch just this December accused Erdogan of a "systematic effort to silence media in the country" that's included tossing 169 journalists and media staffers behind bars. During the recent referendum campaign, opposition rallies were often banned and press coverage was heavily slanted toward Erdogan's side.
The events in Turkey are very important in their own right -- the country is a key player into the muddled and overlapping crises involving its chaotic next-door neighbors, Syria and Iraq. But they also speak toward the broader malaise of democracy in much of the developed world, in a state of upheaval over globalization that is killing off key sectors of the middle class, mass migration, and rapid social change.
Listen to the Turkish voters who backed Erdogan and you can almost hear traces of a Wisconsin accent, circa November 2016. They wanted a strong leader because democratic institutions were a source of gridlock, not progress. They said various forms of what you could even call "political correctness" were thwarting their religious freedom. For those who voted "yes" in the referendum, Erdogan's in-your-face foreign policy promised to, in so many words, make Turkey great again. Erdogan's narrow margin came mainly from the hinterlands; "no" carried the day in the big cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul.
Please stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
The gut reaction is always that something like this could never happen in the United States of America. And true, it's hard to even imagine the process in which voters or even Congress, for all its myriad flaws, could give our president dictatorial powers. Also, despite the similarities in nationalistic appeal to an Erdogan or other strongman-type rulers, Trump had the support of fewer than 46 percent of Americans who bothered to vote last fall, and he certainly seems even less than that popular now.
That said, the assault on our basic democratic norms that a fairly unpopular Trump has been able to pull off in less than 100 days ought to be cause for major alarm. Given the nonstop chaos of the 45th president, with the occasional talk of nuclear armageddon or what-not, the flaunting of longtime ethical and moral standards isn't getting the media attention it deserves. But we need to pay attention, because it is the Erdogan-ization of America, brick by brick.
The latest? The Trump administration announced over the weekend that it will halt the practice of releasing White House visitor logs, which was done in 2009 under Barack Obama, and shut down the website that hosted them, Open.gov. The White House claimed that security and "privacy concerns" -- that old bugaboo for the rich and famous who spend their weekends at joints such as Mar-a-Lago -- trumped (pun slightly intended) transparency. The move will save a whopping $70,000, which the Verge noted will pay for one-tenth of one of those Tomahawk missiles that Trump lobbed into Syria. And it's more proof that nothing matters less to Trump than transparency. Or ethics. Or even maintaining the pretense that his will be a government by the people, of the people, and for the people.
This is, or course, merely the tip of the ethical iceberg crashing into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump's refusal to sell his business or to place his holdings in a blind trust, the nonstop blurring of the business interests of the Trump Organization and the U.S. government and his increasingly powerful top aide/son-in-law Jared Kushner, also still tied to his own real estate empire -- all of it comprises uncharted waters for American democracy.
To some extent, Team Trump exploits loopholes in our good-government laws that are pretty darn weak. But for the most part, the implosion of our democratic norms only depends on one simply thing: apathy from Voters Like You. That is how authoritarianism comes to America -- not with a goose step but with a giant shrug. And the recent events in Turkey should also remind us that sometimes folks even vote against their own liberty.
But there's a big "but" here. The assault on democracy can be resisted -- and in many corners of America it is being resisted. While Turkish voters were pulling the lever for dictatorship this weekend, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in a remarkable protest -- demanding that Trump return to yet another democratic norm that he so far has shattered: His failure to release his income tax return.
"People care about the taxes," the Rev. Gregory Holston of the Philadelphia activist group POWER loudly proclaimed to about 2,000 protesters on Independence Mall on Saturday. He urged Trump to "release your taxes right now ... because I need to know whether you paid any taxes or not."
As long as folks such as Holston and the demonstrators who marched from Maine to California show the U.S. body politic that we still care, as long as folks turn out this Saturday for marches to protest the Trump administration's rejection of science, then America can avoid becoming Turkey...or worse.
The key is never giving in to apathy or exhaustion, because that's what the world's strongmen count on. This afternoon around the time I began writing this piece, Trump actually called Erdogan to congratulate him on winning that referendum. Our president's phoned-in applause for authoritarianism should also serve as a wake-up call ... for all of us.