GAZIANTEP, TURKEY—I’ve been interviewing Jalal Nofal and Beshr al-Haj Hussein – both psychologists from Damascus who now live in this border town in southern Turkey – for about an hour, when al-Haj Hussein turns the tables on me. “We have a question for you,” he says. “How can the American people vote for Donald Trump?”
The two men laugh. I say I’m worried that if elected president, Trump would rule as a strongman, authoritarian-type figure.
“You will have your Assad!” says Nofal, who was arrested several times by the Assad regime for his work in the Syrian revolution, and has been in Turkey for 15 months.
“It’s scary,” I respond. “Actually, we are scared,” says al-Haj Hussein. “For all of us, not only you.” He then says something I don’t fully catch about “doomsday,” but his point is clear: Trump is an unpredictable madman, who could spell destruction on an unimaginable scale.
Both doctors make the comparison between Trump and Assad partially in jest, and it’s important not to push the analogy too far. Still, these men fled an authoritarian regime guilty of some of the worst crimes against humanity in decades, and their fear of a Trump presidency shouldn’t be dismissed. Trump is regularly compared with Russian President Vladimir Putin, about whom he has spoken admiringly. Trump could also be compared to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose crackdown on the press and consolidation of power might serve as a template of sorts for a President Trump. What all of these figures share is an authoritarian grip on power — one Trump seems more than ready to emulate, and his supporters seem to want in a leader.
Studies have shown that the trait that predicts support for Trump is a voter’s authoritarian leaning. Trump’s continued success in the Republican primary suggests the amount of latent authoritarianism in the United States may be greater than previously acknowledged.
Whatever strongman one prefers as an analog, none are particularly comforting. In the United States, discussions of authoritarianism are rare, and often dismissed as hyperbolic. But for many observers, Trump’s dictatorial inclinations are obvious – from his constant performance of dominance in Republican debates, to his promise to “loosen up libel laws” to make it easier to retaliate against the press, to his pledge to bring back torture and “a whole lot worse.” He does not discuss policy, he discusses power – namely, his power.
The feeling here in Gaziantep is reportedly shared by leaders worldwide. “I am getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made,” President Obama said in early April, referencing both Trump and his then-rival Ted Cruz. Just weeks prior, Secretary of State John Kerry said the GOP primary was worrying heads of state around the world. “Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it,” Kerry said on CBS’s Face the Nation. The following day, State Department spokesperson John Kirby doubled down on the comments. “Virtually every foreign leader the secretary meets with expresses concerns about the campaign rhetoric here in the United States, and expresses a fair bit of angst about where things are going,” he said. And The Guardian recently reported that top diplomats and government officials used the following string of words to describe a possible Trump presidency: “Dangerous, foolish, irrational, scary, terrifying, irresponsible, a clown, a disaster.”