Trumpmenbashi: Central Asian dictatorship and American tabloid spectacle

My first article for The Diplomat is on the parallels between Donald Trump and the leaders of Central Asian authoritarian states:

In January, shortly before he began sweeping the primaries after months of hate rhetoric, Trump staged a rallyin which three girls–called “The Freedom Kids”–lip-synched a pop song praising the brutality of their incumbent leader. “Enemies of freedom face the music/ C’mon boys, take them down/ President Donald Trump knows how to make America great/ Deal from strength or get crushed every time!” they sang, dancing in their red, white, and blue outfits before an enthusiastic crowd. Many Americans found it baffling. For those familiar with the decadent patriotism of Central Asian national performances, which commonly feature declarations of loyalty from dancing children, it was disconcerting in its familiarity.

Adams notes that “spectacle enables elites to close opportunities for input from below, but without making the masses feel left out.” Spectacle soothes the masses while distracting them from their suffering. Trump, a master of the American reality TV genre which has made a spectacle of human suffering – he made “You’re fired!” a beloved tagline during one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history – knows how to make an audience feel included through the theatrical exclusion of others. This tactic carries over into Trump’s rallies, where protesters are booted — and sometimes beaten — with fanfare. It also carries over into his policies, which are structured around exclusion: a wall against Mexico, banned entry for foreign Muslims, a database for U.S. Muslims, and a media denied access unless they acquiesce to Trump’s demands.

Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state – and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.

The most obvious corollary to Trump is Turkmenistan’s deceased leader Niyazov, also known as “Turkmenbashi”, or “Leader of the Turkmens.” Before he died in 2006, Niyazov was best known for the monuments and dictates bolstering his personality cult. They included building a giant golden statue of himself which rotated to face the sun; renaming the months and common words, like “bread”, after his relatives; and the Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” a collection of autobiographical anecdotes, Turkmen “history” (loosely defined), and parables which all citizens were required to read. (A giant electronic version of the Ruhnamablared Niyazov’s wisdom from its perch in the capital.) Like Trump, Niyazov was an avowed isolationist, proclaiming a policy of “permanent neutrality” while focusing his efforts on social control disguised as public spectacle.

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets, but it’s what the people want,” explained Niyazov when asked about his ubiquitous visage. It is easy to imagine Trump making similar claims, given his deflection to “the people” when confronted about his sometimes violent and overtly racist fan base. It is also easy to imagine a “Trumpmenbashi” building a giant golden statue of himself that revolves to face the sun.

Read the whole thing — Trumpmenbashi What Central Asia’s spectacular states can tell us about authoritarianism in America — at the Diplomat.

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