I want to flag a point about the President’s current trade spat with Turkey.
First, Turkey has moved in a decidedly negative direction in recent years, both in terms of internal repression and attempts to find a working alliance with Russia, despite being a NATO member state. There are lots of reasons for the US to be down on Turkey. But the Trump administration has actually been fairly indulgent toward Turkey and the man who is increasingly synonymous with the Turkish state, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He’s the kind of guy Trump likes – autocratic, intolerant of dissent. But the current flare-up in US-Turkish relations is unrelated to any of that. It has to do with the detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson.
Brunson was arrested in October 2016 on charges of being a member of the Gulen Movement and complicit in the July 2016 failed coup, as well as possibly being an American spy. (Gulen is a Muslim cleric who lives in exile in the US. Erdogan holds his movement responsible for the coup, which may or may not be true.) The Erdogan government arrested tens of thousands of Turks for alleged ties to the coup and conducted a massive purge of the state sector. This was a dramatic acceleration of the growing repression and autocracy that preceded the coup. Point being, the Erdogan government is bad news and they clearly used the coup to deepen their grip on Turkey. In this context I really have no idea whether Brunson’s arrest has some merit to it or is completely trumped up.
But Brunson is not the only US citizen swept up in the crackdown. And even if we believe that he’s a victim in this – which is entirely possible, perhaps even probable – states don’t destroy their bilateral relationships over the fate of a single national caught up in another country’s legal system.
Here we get to the real issue. It is quite clear that the only reason Brunson has become the central issue in US-Turkish relations is because he is an evangelical pastor and he’s become a top issue for US evangelicals who are the core of Trump’s power base. What is important to them is non-negotiable for him. Full stop. So here we have the US President wreaking havoc with the Turkish economy and putting the bilateral relationship into crisis as a payoff to his evangelical supporters. That is simply terrible.
The situation is murkier because of all the good reasons for downgrading relations with Turkey. But the fact is that this is another prime example that President Trump doesn’t want to be President but rather more like a faction leader or warlord who uses his control of the state to direct nonstop payoffs to his core supporters.