On January 23, 2016, Donald Trump while speaking in Iowa as the frontrunner Republican presidential candidate, said these exact words to his supporters: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
It was a matter of speech, for sure; nobody actually thought that a presidential candidate could actually kill someone in plain sight. He was merely showing off how loyal his base was. Furthermore, his claim couldn’t possibly be true, right? No voter in their right mind would support a politician who was a murderer. Well, let’s go forward to November 2017 -a year into Trump’s presidency…
Vice.com did an experiment on November 25, 2017 in which they asked Trump supporters and the MAGA faithful what they would do if Trump did, actually, shoot somebody in the middle of the street. Would they still support him? Half of Trump supporters who were asked the question said yes. They would continue to support their president no matter what. And that’s exactly what Personenkultus means: worshipping the image of a leader through unquestioning flattery and praise.
Of course, killing someone is the extreme example of the bad things that a politician can do. A politician is more likely to do bad by managing the country badly. He may run the economy to the ground, restrict freedoms, isolate his country in the international arena, turn a blind eye on corruption, administer extreme nepotism, or else, polarize his nation to the point of a boiling kettle. And as we have been witnessing it over and over recently, he doesn’t lose any voters -provided he has successfully established a Cult of Personality, a Personenkultus.
Cult of Personality, deriving from the Ancient Greek term “Apotheosis” which means the glorification of a subject to divine level, has been a political system that has been used to great effect by the USSR and other authoritarian states since the ‘50s. Turkey had its share of Personenkultus in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk up until 2000s, with other right-wing leaders filling in the role to varying degrees of success in the interim until 2002: A. Menderes, S. Demirel, T. Ozal were all models of the same mold. The father of Turkey in the 21st century, so far, has been the still reigning president of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has almost always been enamored by a father-like politician figure that is seen as a savior for the nation -a solid reason why the left has almost never won here: they never produced a Cult of Personality. This concept is perfectly documented in Bulent Somay’s “The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father” As a father figure, the cult politician is generally assumed to know everything, knows how to take care of problems, can raise hell with other nations if he needs to, and perhaps, as his most father-like behavior, he can punish us if we disappoint him. And we let him do it because a father cannot possibly do any wrong.
Erdogan has done plenty of wrongs. His policies ran the economy to the ground, he has significantly restricted freedoms of expression whether it be in public gatherings or online activities, has isolated Turkey against all her neighbors, has fought to get Reza Zarrab and Hakan Atilla exonerated despite all the evidence against them, has placed his close relatives in crucial government positions, and has effectively turned Turkey into a nation of “Us and Them.” Yet, year after year, election after election, he keeps winning half of the Turkish vote by himself against all his opponents combined. And this is achieved by -and only by, his Personenkultus status. At this point, it doesn’t matter what Erdogan does right or wrong: he has successfully teared the fabric of Turkish society in two. One side will oppose him no matter what, while the other half will never, ever admit any wrongdoing by their president -under any circumstances. Since Turkey is still a democracy on paper, Erdogan doesn’t need the whole country rallying behind him. He only needs half. And he will continue to have his half, if not more, as long as he is running. The latest elections have squarely proved that beyond any doubt. The elections were held in the midst of an ongoing currency and a looming economic crisis with the highest rate of inflation in two decades, and despite offering absolutely nothing new to the nation, he took the presidency as if he was taking candy from a baby. And it is because of this perception of the Cult of Personality that most people do not see a post-Erdogan AKP succeeding -without the father figure, the family is doomed to disintegrate.
Erdogan supporters are not alone, of course, in putting their blind faith in one person for all their problems. Cult of Personality runs wild in these lands, and CHP supporters finally found themselves face to face with a savior of their own, Muharrem Ince, in the last couple of months. For the first time in more than 40 years, the left was hopeful about winning an election, and their hopes lied thinly balanced on the tips of Mr. Ince’s persona. When Muharrem Ince first appeared as CHP’s and their alliance’s presidential candidate, not many people knew much about him. The vast majority of people knew him as the politician who kept losing against Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the Chair of the party. (Mr. Kilicdaroglu, by the way, is a politician that doesn’t fit the Personenkultus profile, and thus, never had a chance to win an election in Turkey.)
Muharrem Ince roared on stage as the redeemer of Turkish center-left and the so called “White Turks”. He sounded like Erdogan -I, personally, mistook him for Erdogan when hearing his speeches on the radio during cab rides, he was not afraid to call it as it is. He held a record number of rallies in record time, and rally by rally, he steadily increased his standing and his crowd by talking trash about Erdogan and AKP. He seemed to have all the answers. He spoke about freedoms, of science, of women’s rights, of education day after day. There were huge posters of him hung in every corner of every big city. We were witnessing the makings of a new father figure. And soon enough, he had a cult following among a good portion of the public. Just one look at the tweets about him will show how people saw him as the new father figure of the center and left. The crowds that always carried a hint of inferiority complex because they didn’t have a representative who could take on Erdogan, were suddenly ecstatic to see Mr. Ince carrying the anti-Erdogan flag, proudly, in front of them, scolding his opponent and calling his troops to action. Even after he conceded the presidential race, there were thousands of tweets posted, all calling him not to surrender, not to accept the obvious defeat and to continue their fight for them. Suddenly the presidential elections, perhaps the most important election of this generation, became a war-or-words between Erdogan and Ince supporters. There were no mentions of policies, programs or economic measures. It was all about “how my father beat your father”. In Erdogan’s victory, his people saw a victory for themselves, rather than for Turkey. No doubt, it would have played exactly the same had the elections gone in Ince’s favor.
Cult of Personality which is making a comeback after the fall of the Soviet Empire is being more and more embraced by other nations around the world, with the US being the most obvious example. There have been countless articles comparing Erdogan to Trump (and, to a lesser extent, to Putin). When we look at what makes Personenkultus, we see five common threads: 1) They are anchored in popular sovereignty (Erdogan’s constant use of “nation’s will” to justify his policies), 2) the objects are all males (of course), 3) they target the entire population (Ince’s election motto was “A president to all of us”), 4) they use mass media (during the campaign, Turkey’s state television had 60 hours of AKP and Erdogan appearances vs 5 hours for CHP and Ince), 5) they exist where mass media can be controlled enough to inhibit the introduction of rival cults (the purchasing of Dogan Medya by a conglomerate close to Erdogan through state funds). It would surprise no one to see that all five boxes are boldly ticked in Turkey -which also means that there doesn’t seem to be a future without a Cult of Personality running the country. I don’t think the US will have this problem for very long. More likely than not, cooler heads will prevail over there, and Trump will be looked upon as an experiment in Personenkultus gone wrong
However over here, the only viable alternative to a father figure is another father figure who may, or may not, be as autocratic. The sad thing is, most people wanted Muharrem Ince to win, not so he can make Turkey a better overall country, but just to shove the results in Erdogan and his supports’ faces. Deep in their hearts, what they wanted, above everything else, was to see the “other side” disappointed for once. In fact, the aftermath of the recent elections was not that different from the aftermath of a derby game of soccer. The jubilant side kept rubbing their victory in the losers’ faces, and the losers braced for the next game to put the winners in their place, with neither side talking -or even caring, about the quality of the game. And just like in soccer fandom, this blind embrace of a leader has far reaching consequences into the future. With party leaders being treated like soccer teams, it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that the next generation of voters will inherit the leader of choice from their parents, like they do for soccer teams.
The point is, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this mess. There are now thousands of disenfranchised voters out there who do not believe there is a future for Turkey without Erdogan, until he chooses to step down. And when he does, we’ll have a new father in his place. Bulent Somay’s Oriental Father is, unfortunately, here to stay – as either a biological or a stepfather depending on who you vote for, but a father nevertheless.