If it were happening in Turkey, we’d call Trump’s actions an attempted coup

Ece Temelkuran

Coming from an ‘illiberal democracy’, I recognise what the US president is doing by prolonging political instability

President Trump’s refusal to concede to his successful challenger is “giving great comfort” to “authoritarian regimes” around the world, said Joe Biden’s biographer on CNN. “This is a source of delight [for them] … ” Turkey, my country, falls into that category of authoritarian regimes. But I can tell you that what is happening in the US is a source of horror, not delight, for those on the ground. We know the signs of when a political crisis becomes a de facto coup – so here’s a word of warning.

Never mind the bitter jokes on social media (“America is faster at choosing other countries’ presidents”), the celebrations of Trump’s defeat across the world are filled with the expectation of a domino effect. The cheer doesn’t come from some belief that the US is the guiding light of democracy. What people want to believe is that when Trump goes, the mafioso network of 21st-century strongmen will be hit hard, and the world will be able to reverse the course of recent history. But things don’t appear to be that simple.

A word of caution – I am not predicting that Trump will be successful in his immediate aim. The few routes available for him to remain president will be difficult to travel. And his utterances over the weekend – he both said that Biden won and that he won – suggest he might be closer to accepting reality. But this is also about undermining consent: a large proportion of the country does not trust the media or Congress or the Democrats, and now the actual functioning of electoral democracy is discredited in their eyes too.

n ballots that helped deliver Biden a victory, the president-elect is acting coolly “presidential”; he is receiving calls from world leaders, which, he suggests, are the first steps in restoring respect for the US across the world. This courtly behaviour, this “wait and see” approach towards the incumbent, depends on trusting the health of US institutions.

But contemporary authoritarianism works not by explicitly oppressing the people, but by accelerating the moral rot of already weakened institutions. Everything is riding on how those arms of the state and society – from the Senate and the supreme court to the press and the most insignificant of local public office – behave in the coming few days and weeks. And Trump has been manipulating these institutions for four years: see the way he used his term to pack the courts with rightwing judges at dizzying speed. Even the openly Biden-supporting media is hesitating to call a spade a spade, because they believe the institutions will prevail. Make no mistake, this is an attempted coup. If it were happening in Turkey the world’s media would not think twice about calling it so.

It is happening in several corners all at once: Mike Pompeo’s smirk – the signature facial expression of “illiberal democracies” – as he promises a “smooth transition to the second Trump administration”; the sudden changes of cadre in the Pentagon; the calculated silence of Republican senators; Trump’s invocation of the “people” and the “movement”, hinting at a popular power that might carry him further than his opponents believe. Those who are analysing his behaviour in terms of psychology, referring to his famous allergy to losing, must be reminded: coups don’t always begin with a dramatic Reichstag fire, but through obscure and elusive machinations. Since the Americans might not know about our countries as much as we do about theirs, we can tell them that it has happened just like this here too – we trusted the institutions and were certain the leader wouldn’t dare.

Today’s authoritarian societies are not fully formed dictatorships, single-party states – they don’t need to be. They manufacture crises and prolong political instability, keeping the masses on their toes, but ensuring leaders can act with impunity. American democrats shouldn’t expect a clear-cut power-grab from Trump, but rather a maddeningly obscure process that keeps everything up in the air until the masses are exhausted and lose interest. Even if he accepts reality and his electoral loss, Trump’s “movement” will see its task as running a parallel political reality for the next four years that will constantly threaten Biden’s legitimacy. Most importantly, through his recent appointments in the state apparatus and consolidation of anti-democratic loyalists, Trump is already engineering his own shadow state.

The silence of the Republicans and the state offices responsible for power transfer tell those of us who are experienced in the business of “illiberal democracy” that the machine that creates parallel political realities is ready to take off. If you live in those countries like Turkey, which American liberals think of as a horrible yet impossible example of what might transpire in their own land, you know that an impossible tomorrow can become today’s reality, very quickly indeed.