it’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?
I got up early on Wednesday morning to see what my countrymen and women back home had decided overnight in America while we slept in Istanbul.
At 7 a.m. Istanbul time, both CNN and the BBC showed Hillary Clinton holding a slim lead, but with final counts still pending in many states. From my previous experience as a political journalist, I knew it was looking to be a while. My wife Ozge was still asleep, so I decided to go and have a shower, shave, get dressed, feed the cat and prepare coffee.
Half an hour or so later, I returned to the computer. Trump had surged, pulled surprisingly ahead, with only nine states to go. I checked to see which states remained – Michigan, my home state of Pennsylvania, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Hampshire, Alaska, etc. – and also the projected results.
Suddenly I had a flash: Hillary wasn’t going to make it. One had only to look at the numbers.
My wife woke up, and still half-asleep, groped for the cup of coffee I had set on the night table.
“Trump’s winning!” I said.
A wail pealed from her, jolting her out of her slumber.
“Unbelievable!” she said. Then she was really awake. “I told you, baby! 2016 is a strange year, strange things have been happening all year.”
It’s true. She had told me that. Brexit, the failed military coup here in Turkey and resulting (and ongoing) witch hunt. Prince, David Bowie, (and Leonard Cohen, as of Friday). We’d cataloged all the shocks, the cataclysms, the surprises. Regarding Trump, in fact, many other Turks had harbored the same prediction, as some LoCo readers may recall from my last letter (“Why Are Turks Sold On Trump?”).
My Facebook chat box pinged. Berkin, a close friend and big Trump supporter, was all but licking his chops.
“Good morning, James,” he chatted. I could feel the shine of the bastard’s gleam over in Kazakhstan, where he now resides. “I hate to say this, but … I TOLD YOU SO, BRO! HA! HA!” He quickly followed up with “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! LET THAT EAGLE SOAR HIGH!”
Yeah, if we’d have had a bet (which we sort of did), Berkin – and for that matter my wife and many other Turks, would have won.
I left the apartment to catch the bus to my morning class. The strange, warm winds called lodos gave the city an eerie feeling, with birds flying in Hitchcockian patterns. Well, this year I’ve become perhaps a bit more superstitious. I’ve known the sound of F-16s roaring over my apartment in the middle of the night, and tanks on the Bosphorus bridge, and tens of thousands of people sacked from their jobs and thrown in prison. I’ve been shaken up a bit. And now it appeared that Donald Trump was going to be the next president. So there’s that.
The journey took about a forty-five minutes through the traffic. When I arrived at the company, I checked the BBC. It was official: TRUMP WINS PRESIDENCY IN STUNNING UPSET, the headline read.
My student, a businessman, was sitting behind his desk. He looked up from his computer. “Donald Trump!” This exclamation was simultaneous, with each of us registering the surprise in the other’s face.
“What do you think about it, James?” he asked.
“Unbelievable,” I said. “A big surprise.”
“Yes, a big surprise,” he said. “Big change is coming, I think.”
That morning we were supposed to be working on the student’s presentation that he was set to give to visiting directors the following week. Instead, we found ourselves glued to the news and social media for the next hour, checking updates. “What is Erdogan saying?” I asked, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
My student went to the Turkish news. “He’s saying, ‘This is the American people’s decision. We respect that, and we hope the outcome will be beneficial.”
“He’s probably hoping now that they’ll extradite Gulen,” I said.
“Yes, maybe! James, we read in Turkey that Trump has no political experience. Is this true? Yes? How is it possible he became president?”
“Well,” I said, groping for an explanation. “I think the voters in America are tired of politicians. They want change.”
“I see,” the student said. “Well, it is a big change! Very interesting!”
At the school, some of my colleagues just about jumped out of their chairs when I told them that Trump had won.
“Wait, you’re joking!” one of them said. “Seriously, you’re joking, right?”
“Haven’t you guys been watching the news?” I asked, equally incredulous. “The whole world is talking about it right now.”
I let the announcement sink in. “Wow,” one of them said, finally. “I have a feeling that today is one of those days – remember 9/11? One of those days that the world has changed.”
I spent the rest of the day in a daze, like a lot of people. Whether you were pleased with the news or otherwise, it was quite a day. The waves of Trump’s seismic victory rolled all the way around the globe, and were felt here in Istanbul as well. All of the Turk TV and radio stations, as well as the social media, were buzzing, discussing no doubt the implications of a Trump presidency and its effect on relations in this troubled corner of the world. What would it mean for the recently strained U.S.-Turkey ties? The conflict in Syria? What would it mean for the Gulen issue? What would it mean for Muslims in the U.S.? What would it mean for the markets? And so on.
In the conventional and social media, the reactions were somewhat mixed. Many echoed the optimism of President Erdogan, while others remarked cynically (and perhaps realistically) that nothing really would change. After all, most people in this part of the world, from Turkey to neighboring Syria, Iran, Iraq, et al, are accustomed to changes in leadership in the West, and over the decades have learned to temper (lower) their expectations.
Arguably, the most interesting comment came from another of my students, actually a former student. We’re still Facebook friends. He’s a manager in an American company in Istanbul, and frequently travels to the U.S. He and I, incidentally, used to watch “The Apprentice” together in our lessons, so he’s no stranger to Trump.
“This is great news for America and the world,” he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing). “Because this election has really shaken up the political establishment in America. We can hope that by proving that even this idiot (Trump) can be elected, there are some serious problems that the political establishment have not addressed. Trump, by his candidacy, his success, has exposed these problems. Maybe finally we can begin to address them – not just in America, but in many countries around the world.”
(Aside: I’m not sure if I would so quickly dub an idiot a guy (Trump) who managed to not only parlay a $1 million loan from his father in the mid-1970s into a global empire – even here in Istanbul you can see the Trump Towers over on the European side) – and outfight the Clinton dynasty, a clearly biased media (no offense), as well as a sitting president’s endorsement, for the White House. But I leave the rest of the former student’s appraisal for what it’s worth.)
Actually, my intent was not to dissect this election. We’re all sick to death by now of raking this hot dog over the coals. Sick of Facebook tirades, of our friends bitching, moaning, talking of moving to Canada, jumping off bridges. Really? Ask Turks, especially journalists and many others in prison, how they felt when Erdogan and his party were re-elected last year. And we’re sick of hearing about how Bernie Sanders could have, should have, would have won the election. “No chance,” nearly all Turks concur, by the way. Having observed the rise of Erdogan to the position of dictator – Erdogan himself has reportedly stated he doesn’t mind allegations that he is a dictator – Turks are more than aware that a well-meaning guy like Sanders is way too soft, too lacking in energy, for these turbulent times. If you don’t believe me, then tell the Syrian mother who comes up and asks for money in the street. Or her children. Here in Istanbul, we see them everyday. They even stand in the way of cars, oncoming traffic, begging for help. Just the other night a Syrian man stood in the center of the freeway of a city of 20 million people. I saw him throw his body into the oncoming traffic, a sign in his hands. He appealed to me, he appealed to everybody. Nobody stopped. Tell that man about baby steps, about step-by-step improvement. Tell him about gradual change, and how his life will get better, someday.
Trump’s rise is in tune with much of the rest of the world. Nationalism, or fascism, whatever you want to call it, as well as conservatism, retrenchment, reactionism,would seem to be the order of the day, both here in this part of the world and back home in America.
Not gonna try to play prognosticator: What it all is leading to is anybody’s guess.
At any rate, when I got home from work Wednesday evening, my wife had prepared dinner. We sat quietly in the kitchen, both of us tired. “Were they talking about it at your work?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Everyone’s wondering what’s gonna happen now.”
After the meal, Ozge went to the study to work on her thesis, and I retired to the balcony with a couple of beers. As I wound down, I found myself realizing that the feeling that had been chasing me relentlessly all day long was one I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Deja vu. When did I last have this feeling?
Of course. Election night, 2002. My first election as a full-time political reporter for The Times-Standard in Eureka. Our long-time veteran David Anderson had recently died, and I had taken over his beat just weeks before the March election. With not much time to get up to speed, I was forced to rely a lot on long-time courthouse habitues to get any sense of the candidates and issues in the various local elections. Most of the conventional wisdom that year said that Terry Farmer, the 20-year incumbent District Attorney, would easily sail to a fifth term over his upstart challenger, a political newcomer named Paul Gallegos who had no experience as a prosecutor.
So on Election Night, I was so sure Farmer would win that I didn’t even bother to find out where Gallegos would be that night.
Imagine my shock and embarrassment when the poll results came in, and I had to write “GALLEGOS STUNS FARMER IN D.A. RACE” for the next day’s edition without a quote from the victor. I was standing right next to Farmer, and he looked appropriately stunned alright. We both did.
The next morning, I woke up with a heavy feeling in my chest. I wanted to stay in bed with the covers over my head. How had I failed to see this upset coming? It was a harsh lesson for a young reporter. But then I realized that I had bought too much into what the people at the courthouse were saying, the conventional wisdom, and had failed to get out into the street and get the pulse of regular people. And I also realized something more pressing: I had to find Paul Gallegos, somehow, someway, apologize for not being able to reach him on Election Night. I ripped the covers off, jumped in the shower, dressed and hauled ass out in search of the man.
It took some doing, and a lot of legwork, but by the end of the day, I tracked down Gallegos, phoning him at home (after a long campaign, he was understandably exhausted and wanted to take the day off to be with his wife and kids).
Gallegos accepted my apology gracefully.
“What does this shocking upset mean, Paul?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I guess what I have to do now is continue what I’ve been doing – reaching out to the people to figure out exactly what the way forward is.”
I said it looked like he and I – the new district attorney and the new political reporter – would have to learn our jobs together. We did. Over the next couple rocky years, as he came under fire and a recall effort began, we had ample opportunities to get to know each other, and to learn, usually on deadline.
Ultimately, it was satisfying, enormously so, when the night the recall effort failed, I was standing right beside Gallegos (along with Hank Sims and a number of other reporters) ready to offer congratulations and to get his quote. It felt like we had come full circle in our relationship, and had each grown a bit in some way.
I realize this must sound a bit rich coming from a guy who hangs his hat far from America’s shores. What can I say? I love my wife very much, and our home is here now. But believe me folks, this election has also, in a strange and curious way, made me miss America. I envy the choices, and the opportunity, that you have.
I guess what I’m trying to say, all these years and thousands of miles – worlds, in fact – later, is that this past week has shaken a lot of people. We have felt it here in the city by the Bosphorus as well. But we’ve been shaken up here for a long time now, ever since the events of the past July coup attempt.
The events of this past week are, more than anything else, an opportunity.
The question is, what kind of opportunity?
For some, maybe it’s an opportunity to go to Canada, or jump off a bridge. For others, it could be a chance to learn something. Whatever it may be, make it a great one.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.