The special relationship between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a throwback to the distant past, when powerful men decided the fate of nations without giving account to anyone else. The Turkish president appears to be playing his American counterpart, bypassing all US services and institutions. One would have expected these revelations by reporting legend Carl Bernstein to have alarmed even Trump’s supporters. And yet the issue seems to have been forgotten after a couple of days, as if most people now expect such behavior. This raises the question: Are these leaders sad relics of the past or heralds of a dark future?
A few years ago the question would have been unthinkable. But Trump, Vladimir Putin, Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro and others have shown that autocratic behavior, brutal hostility toward human rights, rivals and experts, combined with incessant propaganda and bigotry, are leading us back to the age that preceded the multidimensional system of international governance and cooperation. China, with its one-party state, is a special case. At one point it seemed to be working toward filling the void left by the United States in the global system of governance; today it is acting with ever greater self-confidence, indifferent to the reactions of anyone else. It is exploiting the prevailing climate, strengthening further the feeling that we are entering a period of “strong men” and brutal behavior.
Today’s supporters of autocratic government are all men. It is no coincidence that (according to Bernstein’s revelations) Trump is most condescending toward women, as when addressing Theresa May and Angela Merkel, leaders of the United States’ closest allies. His behavior seems to be determined solely by how he feels about those he is talking to: He has a special weakness for “tough guys,” for those who are indifferent to the rights of their own people and others; he bullies those who care about details such as expertise, rights and cooperation.
Technology today empowers a small number of people to control the rest of us. That is why it is imperative that the American citizens react against Trump, that the liberal democracies of the European Union ally themselves immediately against Erdogan and others who would trample on rules and institutions. If they do not, a miserable future is inevitable.