In several previous articles we looked at the executive presidency within the American context, as a sort of primer on executive presidential systems as Turkey approaches a vote on whether to adopt such a system or not. A crucial element of any executive presidency is the person who holds the office, something not touched on previously in articles that looked at governance systems and structures. Today, a look at the US chief executive and the reception he has received, and what this tells us about the nature of the person serving as an executive president.
President Trump is different from most of his predecessors in multiple ways – he is not a politician but a businessman, a branding expert selling himself as a brand. Also, he was not selected by the grandees of the Republican party but effectively hijacked the party and turned it into the vehicle to take him and personal brand of populist nationalism into the White House. He has also disdained many of the traditions associated with the presidency or a presidential campaign – not releasing his tax returns, not fully disassociating himself from his business interests but transferring assets to family members, not appointing Republican party insiders to high level government positions but using his network of business contacts to staff his Cabinet are a few prominent disruptive actions he has undertaken. This unique way of operating as the US chief executive has not assuaged the concerns of the political elites and activists. To the contrary, their concern has only grown, as his missteps on the travel restrictions, health care reforms, foreign relations, ethics issues, etc. have reinforced the idea that he is not fit to serve as the chief executive of the US government.
Well before the elections many prominent Republicans, as well as almost all supporters of Hilary Clinton, pointed out his flaw. Some of these prominent Republicans formed a group titled NeverTrump! They were more disgruntled with his victory, in some ways, than the Democrats, for they were in effect ignored by the rank-and-file of the party – political elites dislike losing, but they hate being ignored. Many explanations for Trump’s political success have been offered, but the most remarkable one is that his supporters convinced themselves that he had their best interests at heart. The parallel with Turkey is striking, for long before LePen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK energized the populace using re-awakened nationalism and national pride, President Erdogan had used the AKP to do the same in Turkey.
The AKP’s striking electoral success since 2002 owes much to Erdogan’s rejection of the political elites and embracing the working class and lower middle-class facing social dislocation and economic uncertainty. Erdogan and the AKP, like Trump but before him, reached out to many who felt they had been ignored or rejected by the political elites in general and the CHP in particular. Like Trump too, but again before Trump thought of it, Erdogan used the AKP as an anxiety and nationalist sentiment fueled vehicle to bring him to his own White House (Ak Saray).
In both countries, the political elites have yet to adapt to their fall from power. They are better educated, more cosmopolitan, more widely traveled, etc. than their national chief executives, but they are disconnected from their respective electorates. In the US, convinced that the chief executive is not fit for the job, Trump’s circulate rumors of his imminent resignation, or speak hopefully that the FBI will find he has committed crimes that will lead to his impeachment and removal from office. For now, both possibilities are nothing more than wishful thinking, for the elites have not figured out that for all his financial and social distance from the average voter, Trump has many of them convinced that he is the only leading politician listening to their concerns. In similar ways, the political elites in Turkey do not see Erdogan fit to lead, but his supports consistently vote for him and there is no indication he plans to retire from political life any more than Trump will volunteer to leave office. Of course, the parallels are not absolute. For all their similarities in delivering a message that resonates with the economically anxious and socially dislocated, there are numerous ways in which the situation of the two chief executives are dissimilar due to the particular history, culture, and political system of the two countries. One of the most important of these dissimilarities is term limits on the chief executive, but that is another article.