If the vicious power struggle between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ally-turned-bitter enemy Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric and leader of a worldwide Islamic movement suspected to be behind last week’s failed coup attempt, sounds too foreign and baffling, consider the following scenario.
Capitalizing on the popular discontent with the status quo and promising to make America great again, Donald Trump wins November’s presidential election with a landslide. Distrusted by the establishment, he seeks allies outside. This brings him close to an enigmatic televangelist, let’s call him Mr. Smiles, who gives moving sermons, preaches creationism and interfaith dialogue, opens schools and charities around the world, and has sympathiers in key positions in the federal agencies, the business world and the media.
In an attempt to assuage fears about his presidency at home and abroad, Trump initially treads a reconciliatory line. With a series of surprisingly liberal economic policies, he gains the sympathy of the markets. He pours billions of dollars to modernize the country’s crumbling infrastructure. The Wall Street Journal calls him a “moderate populist” who can draw the disenfranchised conservative masses back into the center of U.S. politics.
Yet President Trump never feels secure in his position. He receives intelligence, through his resourceful ally, that senior generals are conspiring against him. Allegations of a coup plot hit news networks affiliated with Mr. Smiles. Furious and paranoid, Trump orders a massive purge within the armed forces, which soon extends to critical journalists, academics and civil society activists.
In an ensuing court case, overseen by attorneys and judges close to Mr. Smiles, hundreds of alleged coup plotters, including four-star generals, are handed down lengthy prison sentences. Their posts are quickly filled by the preacher’s own followers. But the integrity of the trial is beset by accusations of forged evidence and politicized indictments, further polarizing the public.
Incredulous that the American democracy could face such an existential threat, voters rally behind the president and re-elect him in 2020. The Democrats are in disarray, as this second victory boosts Trump’s confidence and sense of invincibility. His rhetoric turns pompous and divisive. He labels his critics as out of touch elites, enemies of the people and agents of Chinese imperialism. Presenting himself as the savior of America, he vows to cleanse the country of trouble makers, terrorists and fifth-columnists. A personality cult starts to form as he commands a growing base of die-hard loyalists.
In the swelling ultra-patriotic tide, Trump issues executive orders and pushes through the Congress bills that curb civil liberties and the independence of the Supreme Court. He floats the idea of removing presidential term limits. Senior Republicans who express their displeasure are sidelined. Liberal commentators and academics, including some of Trump’s earlier supporters, are taken to court along with thousands of citizens for insulting the president. Protests spark across the nation and are put down brutally by the military police. African Americans and Latinos start taking up arms against police violence and white supremacists.
Having marginalized their common foes, the two allies suddenly remember their differences. Suspicions turn into hostility and a vicious power struggle ensues. In a dramatic move, pro-Smiles federal agents launch an investigation into corruption allegations in Trump companies, implicating the president’s family and close associates. His government is also accused of funneling weapons to drug cartels in Mexico. There is talk of impeachment.
Trump retorts by declaring Mr. Smiles the ringleader of a foreign-backed terrorist organization that aims to grab power by infiltrating the government. Scrambling to suppress the investigation, he launches an even deeper witch hunt against his former ally’s supporters. The government seizes Smiles-affiliated banks and media organisztions. In the process, Trump confesses to being duped by the preacher to conspire against patriotic officers. Overnight, the verdicts on the coup case are overturned and hundreds of officers walk free.
The corruption scandal and political instability take their toll on the economy and the president’s popularity. When the Republicans lose the midterm elections, Trump cites the threat of Islamist terror and the surge in racial violence to declare a partial state of emergency. In the midst of heavy clashes between the military police and the Black Panthers that lay entire cities to ruin, he calls for a repeat election, in which the Republicans regain control of both houses.
Just as it seems Trump’s grip is assured, a pro-Smiles faction inside the military attempts a bloody coup d’état. Tanks block the Brooklyn Bridge and fighter jets bomb Capitol Hill. The offices of the Washington Post and the Pentagon are occupied and the Chief of Joint Staffs is kidnapped. Trump evades capture by escaping his luxury resort in Miami moments before putschist soldiers storm in. Up in Air Force One, he starts a live Facebook broadcast and calls on the American people to resist the coup makers.
Tens of thousands of Americans pour to the streets and confront the tanks. There are reports of civilian massacres and soldiers being lynched by furious crowds. By dawn, hundreds have died but the coup has failed and the putschists are on the run. The White House declares a victory for democracy; a second Fourth of July. Amid celebrations, a nationwide state of emergency is declared and the bill of rights is suspended. Mass arrests and a new round of purges follow…
What sounds like a terrifying (if slightly exaggerated) Hollywood script is the dystopian reality of today’s Turkey. It may be easier for American readers, who live and breathe Donald Trump daily, to grasp the phenomenon of Erdoğan: democracies do from time to time produce populist leaders who thrive on the fears and resentments of disenfranchised masses to establish illiberal one-man regimes.
But Fethullah Gülen – a.k.a Mr. Smiles – is a beast of another, more medieval and arguably more sinister, nature. Luckily for Americans, no preacher with such political influence exists in the United States; except of course for Mr. Gülen himself, who happens to be living and thriving in Pennsylvania for the past 17 years.