My Turkish students and I have been following the U.S. presidential debates. Actually we’ve been following since the primaries.
“It’s like a reality TV show,” more than a few have remarked, somewhat breathlessly. “It just goes on and on!”
And now that we’re getting near the season finale, I thought I’d share some of their thoughts on the candidates. Before that, I suppose I should provide some context, to give the idea of what stakes Turkey has in the election.
Turks have as great a stake in anyone else in this election, with the ongoing war in Syria, the flight of refugees, and the threat of ISIS. The next president, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, will have a hand in decisions and policies that could have long-lasting effects on this region, which continues to be the world’s flash point of terror and powder keg for the next potential world conflict.
The relationship between Turkey and the U.S., longstanding NATO allies, has been severely tested in recent months, with Western leaders pressing Turkey to up its game in dealing with the civil war in Syria (just over the Turkish border), to stem the flow of refugees spilling into Europe, and to help defeat ISIS.
Turkish leaders, in particular President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been vocal in their disagreements, in particular over the role of the Kurds in the conflict. Turks have dealt with terrorism from Kurdish separatists for decades, and Erdogan fears that allying with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS will only be helping these separatists by giving them arms, which could be used against Turks in the long term.
Erdogan has used his disillusionment with the West to cultivate a relationship with Russian President Vladamir Putin. The two strongmen met recently to warm up a relationship that fell apart with the downing of a Russian fighter jet on the Turkish-Syrian border last year, which resulted in both countries imposing economic sanctions on the other. But then they both got mad at the West, and decided to be friends again.
With the West and Russia at loggerheads in Syria, and with both edging for a long-term presence in the Middle East, Turkey seems to be hedging its bets, as always in the middle of East and West, although in recent weeks they have had troops on the ground in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Well, that’s about as close to a nutshell as we’re going to get. Suffice to say, that much remains to be done in this troubled corner of the world. Whoever wins the election will have a full plate, and the biggest challenge may well be wading into a wide-ranging, violent conflict where all parties seem to have different agendas, different outcomes in mind.
So who do Turks seem to favor, Hillary or Trump?
The Tale of the Tape (No, Not That Tape)
This may come as a surprise, but the majority I’ve spoken to, both in and out of the classroom, seem to prefer Trump, even despite his controversial call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. You’d think they’d write him off instantly, but no.
Well, the first reason seems to be cultural. In this part of the world, where I’ve lived and taught for the better part of a decade, there still persists the rather chauvinistic view that politics is a man’s game (despite the fact that Turks did have a woman prime minister back in the 1980s, believe it or not). But even in the world of business, where I teach the majority of the time, this view is persistent. I’ve had dozens of women say that, when asked to choose, they would prefer a male boss, and that they believe men make better leaders than women.
When asked why, they’ll give the usual reasons. Men are more logical; women are “too emotional,” or “too distrustful of other women.”
So you could say that, viewed from this cultural standpoint, many Turks would seem to prefer Trump for the simple reason that he is a man, and men are supposed to be in charge.
But there’s more to it than that, of course.
Trump, after all, is not just your average Joe. He’s a billionaire, he’s iconic, with a global brand. You can see the Trump Towers here in Istanbul, too, over on the European side of the city.
Over the years, I’ve used his show, “The Apprentice,” in my business English classes. My students are managers, professionals, mostly in international companies. When I turn on the show, their eyes always gleam with a mixture of envy and admiration. “Trump!” they say. Or “Rich man!” or “The Boss!” Women also respond visibly, with some of them commenting on his Hair, and others taking notice of his gold-furnished apartment with the view of Central Park, ornamented by his model wife Melania.
Like many people (especially in the developing world, I find), Turks have an innate respect for wealth, for success. Status is very important in this part of the world. Wealth and success speak with authority. If you are a billionaire, like Trump, people assume you know what you’re talking about. If you’re poor and unsuccessful – not so much.
Plus, Trump is a big personality, a strong character, a sultan if you will – historically, Turks have always loved their Sultan. Erdogan is often (only half-jokingly) referred to as the Sultan because of his autocratic style of leadership and larger-than-life presence in modern Turkey.
“He and (Turkish President) Erdogan are alike in many ways,” my students have said. “They’re the same guy.” So that means, they’d either get along famously, or (more likely) they’d hate each other’s guts. Two alpha males in the same room and all that.
Indeed, this last point touches on what I believe – based on these discussions – to be the root cause of their preference for Trump.
“Do you think Hillary Clinton, if she is elected, will be able to command respect?” I asked a group of women executives.
“No,” was the decisive answer.
“Why not?” I pressed on.
“James, you’ve lived here for how many years?” one of them responded. “You know our president (Erdogan). You know the situation in Turkey, and in the Middle East. You have to be a strong man. Bush’s problem was that he was too strong. But Obama was maybe not strong enough. And Hillary is basically another Obama, and she’s a woman. So do I think she will get respect from leaders here? No, I think it will be difficult for her.”
That Hair! That Energy!
So we’ve looked at cultural attitudes toward the sexes in politics, as well as the strength of the Trump name and brand, as well as issues such as respect and trust. We can’t cover all the reasons, I suppose, and this is after all just an informal, chatty sort of survey. Perhaps you’re wondering about how women here reacted to the “pussy grabbing” video, and other controversial statements Trump has made about women. What can I say? They find such remarks “disgusting,” of course, but after the loud clicks of disapproval subside, they seem to ready to move on. “All men talk like that, it’s normal,” seems to be the consensus.
If there is anything that I haven’t touched upon that needs addressing, it would have to be track record. Hillary, as a former Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator, has to carry some of the weight of the previous administrations. Fairly or unfairly, she is seen as part of the existing power structure. Trump, in the eyes of many Turks, would seem to have the strength of being an outsider, a businessman. And he’s got that Hair, which most Turks find as curious, amusing and appalling as anybody else, and yet it’s a powerful reminder of both his brand and his status. In other words, Trump’s hair is strange, (as well as many of his ideas, Turks concede) but then he can afford to be strange.
Case in point: Bernie Sanders didn’t have nearly the same attraction for Turks. They didn’t understand the cult of Bernie Sanders; they didn’t Feel the Bern. Why? Could it have been because he wasn’t rich and famous?
Maybe, but not necessarily.
“He doesn’t have any energy!” complained a Turkish manager, who happens to be male. “Sanders? He talks like a child. Free this, free that, everything free, free. Not realistic at all. No chance. Now, Donald Trump – maybe he is crazy, but he has energy.”
The ‘American Ağaoğlu’
A dreary Thursday afternoon.
I’m looking out the window of our new school location in Atasehir. This area on the Asian side is arguably the fastest growing part of the vast, ever-growing megacity. New skyscrapers and apartment buildings compete with the mosques for domination of the skyline, a reminder of Istanbul’s constant heated visual battle between modernity and tradition.
Given this upward-and-outward environment, construction is one one of the biggest industries by far, and will continue to be for the forseeable future. The constant buzz of jacks and hammers, the swing of cranes, the cement trucks clogging up the already traffic-choked streets – all of this activity flies in the face of experts who have long predicted a downturn in the building industry.
One of the chief architects of this new skyline is Ali Ağaoğlu whose name can be seen on many of the buildings. When we talk of Trump here, inevitably a comparison is made. “Donald Trump – yes, the American Ağaoğlu ,” people will say, nodding knowingly. You sense that these Turks feel they already know Trump, or at least his kind.
But while they may feel they have Trump – the brand, the icon, the groper, the builder, the Big Man, however you choose to describe him – locked in, they may find that over time they are in for a surprise. As we in America know, Trump has a strong effect on people, and often he has a way of wearing out his welcome.
Just ask Erdem, a manager who has been following the campaign ever since the primaries began. At first, Erdem was a strong Trump supporter. But as the debates have unfolded, and he’s gradually shifted his allegiance to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s ideas, Erdem feels, such as his famous Wall, his proposed massive tax cuts, his dreams of bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., while ambitious, seem unrealistic.
“Hillary is a better at politics than Trump,” Erdem said. “Trump’s ideas – especially about the Middle East – seem very unclear. I understand Hillary’s plan, but Trump – Trump I don’t understand.”
A Question of Priorities
Back in America, most have already conceded that a Hillary Clinton victory, which has been bolstered by both Trump’s self-destructive tendencies, his iconoclastic personality, as well as strong opinion polls favoring Clinton. My students and I have covered this ground, and yet most of them retain this sidelong, crafty certainty that, one way or the other, it will be Trump in November.
“I just have a feeling it will be Trump,” is how they express it.
You could argue that this confidence stems from a certain Turkish preoccupation with fate (kizmet) or the fact that elections here in recent years have swung decisively toward the country’s conservative ruling AK Party. Certainly in Turkey, the nation’s mood has become increasingly conservative over the past decade. Also, with the failed military coup this past July, President Erdogan has seen his approval ratings rise.
Other Turks, perhaps with a broader outlook, seem to be viewing the increasing likelihood of a Clinton presidency with wary shrugs.
“It probably will be Hillary Clinton,” concedes a close female friend who has followed the debates. “I think she will be a good president for America. She is probably the right choice for America. But I’m not sure she’s the right choice for the rest of the world.”
But then again, just put things in perspective, not everyone really cares all that much.
“I think democracy is an illusion,” says Tuncay, a manager at an automotive firm in one of my night classes. “It doesn’t matter who is president, James. You and I both know that. It is money that makes the world go ‘round. And now, as Trump says, it is China that has the money.”
Be that as may be, perhaps it’s best to finish off with something Erdem, who we talked with earlier, said after we finished watching the last debate.
“Ultimately,” Erdem said. “The question is not for us here in Turkey. It is up to the American people. But before they can choose Hillary or Trump, I think they have to focus on their priorities. What for the American people is the most important? They must think about this first.”
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.