The Trump administration is not a reliable guardian of democratic values.
After Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Trump at the White House in mid-May, members of Erdoğan’s security detail proceeded to attack Americans protesting Erdoğan’s regime. As Erdoğan watched from a distance, his thugs beat peaceful protestors, causing injuries to eleven people. There have always been dictators ready to brutalize their own citizens in foreign countries, but the American government has never tolerated such an egregious and flagrant anti-democratic demonstration to be carried out by a foreign power in America. The Trump administration’s silence in the wake of brutal totalitarianism on our own soil by a visiting world leader is deafening.
This has not been the first time that Erdoğan’s security entourage has been the subject of controversy concerning abusive acts against demonstrators. In fact, Erdoğan’s decade-and-a-half-long career as prime minister and president of Turkey has been marked by a general crackdown on freedom of expression and public dissent in the country. The recent referendum on Turkey’s constitution has only raised further questions and provoked uncertainty about the future of democracy in Turkey under Erdoğan. Such actions run counter to fundamental democratic values in the US; typically, American administrations condemn them. Yet when Erdoğan won a referendum in mid-April granting him broader, more authoritarian powers, Trump actually called Erdoğan to congratulate him on his victory. Maybe that was an early warning sign that we should be worried.
Across the political spectrum, the actions of the Turkish security personnel were widely, and justifiably, condemned. US Senator John McCain called for the Turkish ambassador to be “thrown out” of the country and for appropriate charges to be brought against those responsible. California congressman Ed Royce asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the incident immediately. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted that “this is the kind of thing Pres Erdogan lets happen to the Turkish ppl. Its wrong there and its wrong here [sic].”
But the Trump administration has offered no response at all to the outrage. Trump’s disconcerting lack of a vocal public response to the incident should concern all Americans. His unwillingness to protect democratic values, not only abroad, but even in the American capital itself, is demonstrated and validated by his failure to respond to this confrontation in a manner befitting his role as president.
Although Turkish ambassador Serdar Kılıç was summoned by the US State Department to explain the reprehensible actions of his countrymen, Erdoğan’s bodyguards were reportedly permitted to leave the United States in the aftermath of the confrontation. Turkey has, incredibly, responded not by apologizing but by summoning US ambassador John Bass to formally complain about “the inability of US authorities to take sufficient precautions at every stage of the official program” of Erdoğan’s visit. Naturally, Turkey’s official response to the incident has been doctored: the state-controlled Anadolu news agency released an edited video that portrayed the incident as a clash between protesters and counter-protesters rather than an unprovoked attack by Turkish security guards against peaceful protesters on US—not Turkish—soil.
Trump himself has said absolutely nothing about the violence perpetrated on behalf of the Turkish government towards US citizens. Even White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to comment on the violence and simply redirected questions to the official statement of the State Department, which declared that “violence is never an appropriate response to free speech” and that the State Department supports “the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest.”
Yet the Trump administration’s silence on the matter is in complete opposition to past administrations’ claim to uphold American democratic values. The White House missed an opportunity—a responsibility—to assume a position of moral authority and unequivocal support for Americans’ rights to freedom of expression. The White House should be an institution that symbolizes American democratic and moral authority, but has abdicated that responsibility through its silence.
The Trump administration’s resolute muteness on the subject should be especially worrying to Americans, given Trump’s personal predilection for the authoritarian and strongman tendencies that characterize Erdoğan’s regime. Trump has based his political legitimacy in a fundamentally authoritarian understanding of his place in the political process. As both a candidate and president, Trump has disregarded the legitimacy of institutions that exist as checks and balances on the powers of the executive branch. He labels the mainstream media “fake news” when it does not cover his presidency favorably, which recalls Erdoğan’s silencing of the media; he has threatened to deconstruct parts of the US judicial system when rulings oppose his priorities, just as Erdoğan has forced the Turkish judiciary to bow to his will. At rallies during his campaign, Trump encouraged his supporters to perpetrate violence against protesters. In fact, according to a federal judge, Trump “incited violence” at his rallies during the presidential campaign.
Furthermore, the subjects on which the president chooses to comment are suspicious. He has made positive remarks about a number of foreign leaders with questionable and downright egregious records on free expression and democratic openness. In addition to congratulating Erdoğan on his victory, Trump has been worryingly praiseful of other dictators, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, whose murderous crackdown on the drug trade Trump just praised.
However, Trump’s failure to respond forcefully to the brutalization of American citizens represents a new level of disgraceful neglect of democratic freedoms. Given his track record, Trump and his administration’s unwillingness to respond to attacks against American values on US territory in an appropriate fashion reflects a deeper incapability of the Trump administration to stand up for American democratic values. Trump’s inaction should be the last straw for any Americans still skeptical about accusations of authoritarianism. No American citizen or American ally should trust him to guard democratic values when they are threatened, as he has shown himself to be unable of rising to that challenge as his duty requires.
Though America may talk a big game when it comes to democratic freedoms, we have lamentably not always stood up for the liberties of foreigners living under tyrannies. We have also struggled to uphold these freedoms on American soil, from institutionalized slavery to the internment of Japanese Americans to segregation and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, we have always prided ourselves on our ideological commitment to democratic virtue, despite our often hypocritical past. But Trump has not worked to continue overcoming that past: he has instead embraced this hypocrisy and brought it to a new level by failing to stand up for Americans under assault at home by a foreign power. All Americans must ask themselves if they are prepared for the next step in the drift toward authoritarianism. What would be the domestic and international response if Trump’s Secret Service cohort started attacking protesters wherever and whenever they chose?
America does not want to know what a world without strong US commitment to democratic values looks like. But if Trump’s nonexistent response to Turkey’s crimes is anything to go by, that future could be staring at us right now.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.