Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly won a referendum on Sunday that gives him vast new powers while eviscerating the parliament and judiciary that stand as the last checks and balances against his increasingly autocratic rule.
European leaders stayed mostly silent. International monitors condemned the vote as unfair. And then there was President Donald Trump, who called Erdoğan to congratulate him on the win.
Trump’s affinity for strongmen the world over is nothing new, from his repeated praise for Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail to the White House invitation he issued to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (whose personal war on drugs has left more than 7,000 dead) to the Oval Office meeting he held last month with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (who took power in a coup and killed more than 800 protesters in a single day).
Still, there are a pair of striking and profoundly disturbing things about Trump’s Monday call with Erdoğan, who has rebuffed US calls to fight ISIS more aggressively, likened the German government to Nazis, jailed more journalists than any other leader in the world, and arrested tens of thousands of his own people on suspect charges.
First, Trump’s congratulatory call was significantly warmer than his own State Department’s comments had been.
“We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens,” acting spokesperson Mark Toner said, pointing to the widespread election irregularities observed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The US is a member of the OSCE, which said the anti-referendum forces were fighting on "an unlevel playing field."
Toner’s comments were in line with those of most European leaders, who pointedly avoided offering any form of congratulations to Erdoğan and instead urged him to respect the rights of his political opponents and focus on healing what they rightly termed a deeply divided country. (Erdoğan lost in the country's three biggest cities despite his government's de facto control of the Turkish media.)
The second, and far more troubling, source of concern is the nature of the referendum itself. It’s possible Trump may not have understood the magnitude of what just took place in one of Washington's most important allies. But it's far likelier that Trump understood exactly what Erdogan had just accomplished in bringing his country closer to autocracy — and that he liked what he saw.
Turkey moved closer to one-man rule. That’s fine with Donald Trump.
It's hard to overstate the magnitude of what just took place in Turkey, a NATO member that houses one of America’s largest and most important military bases.
As Turkey expert David Stevens wrote for Vox, Sunday’s vote in Turkey was genuinely historic — and not in a good way:
The referendum — if fully implemented — would change Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into one run by a strong executive president who will absorb all the current functions of the prime minister. The new president will be free from accountability to the country's parliament, will wield broad budgetary powers, and will have complete autonomy to shape the executive branch as he sees fit.
In a normal moment in American political history, a president of either party would have likely responded to Sunday’s vote by either offering measured comments encouraging Erdoğan to respect the views of his political opponents or avoiding the substance of the referendum altogether and simply saying that the US respects the will of the Turkish people.
As we’re seeing again and again, these aren’t normal times. A US president with strong autocratic tendencies is going out of his way to praise a foreign leader that has already amassed the powers Trump clearly wishes he possessed. We shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but we also shouldn’t pretend that it’s normal.