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Autocratic regimes

It’s not the economy, stupid

Erdogan: built himself a $615m palace. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The “totalitarian phenomenon” is impossible to understand, observed the French philosopher Jean-François Revel, unless you realise that “some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny: either to exercise it themselves or – much more mysteriously – to submit to it”. I thought of Revel’s words this week, says Bret Stephens in The New York Times, following the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many earnestly believed that Turkey’s strongman was cooked, having tanked the economy, pushed Islamism in a constitutionally secular country, and built himself a “grotesque” 1,100-room presidential palace for $615m. Yet far from scandalising his supporters, “it seems to have delighted them”.

Erdogan’s victory is an important rebuke to James Carville’s parochially American slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In this case it was “God, tradition, values, identity, culture and the resentments that go with each”. Only a “denuded” secular imagination could fail to appreciate that. It’s also a stark warning to other countries about how seemingly incompetent autocratic leaders can win back power. I wrote that Donald Trump was “finally finished” last year, after pretty much all the candidates he had backed in the midterm elections lost. Surely, I thought, that would be the final straw for devotees promised “so much winning”? “Silly me.” The Trump movement isn’t built on electoral success. It’s about a “sense of belonging: of being heard and seen; of being a thorn in the side to those you sense despise you”. Erdogan defied expectations because he understood this. “He won’t be the last populist leader to do so.”