In 1989, a small Islamist party called Refah, or “Welfare,” holds a conference titled “National Consciousness.” In the crowd are mustached men with lean faces; many of them are old, wearing skullcaps Muslims use during prayer. Soon, a tall, thin young man dressed in a well-tailored suit rises to speak. “May the peace of God be upon all believers,” he says. His polite bearing, however, belies his firm message. He invokes the ur-enemies of Turkishness— *“Agop,” the Armenians, and “Jacques” and “Hans,” a reference to the Europeans. They distribute birth control to the villages, corrupt the youth, and scoop up Turkey’s national wealth, he claims, adding that Turkey’s bureaucrats, farmers, widowers, and orphans are all forced to pay them interest, “that which will facilitate the reign of the Jew.” Meanwhile, the ruling class lies around on nude beaches, sips fancy alcohol, and gawks at exotic dancers from the far corners of the earth, he says. All the evil, theft, and corruption in the country, the man says, can be traced to a mentality of surrender to the West. But Turkey’s true heirs will eventually take their country back. “You must love,” he says, “you must be possessed with the idea that holy justice will reign in this country.”
In the years to come, the young man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would be elected mayor of Istanbul, prime minister of Turkey, and, in 2014, president. Today, he is reconfiguring the very DNA of the state. Last year, he redrafted the constitution to create a super presidency that will allow him to reshape the state apparatus over the next decade. First, he’ll need to win one more election, the first round of which will be held on June 24.
While Turkey watchers point to Erdoğan’s Islamist appeals, nationalism, and anti-Western sentiment to explain his rise, a better answer may lie in a contemporary strain of what Friedrich Nietzsche described as ressentiment, or “a slave revolt in morality.” In Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra traces the power of this idea through history, writing about the ressentiment the German romantics felt for the glamour of the French enlightenment, and of how the Ottomans and Russians felt the world was passing them by. Mishra calls the feeling an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.”
This feeling has been present in Turkey for centuries, and spans the entire political spectrum. And it’s a feeling that Erdoğan has mobilized to serve his needs.
In the 1960s, Turkey was a sleepy agrarian nation, with only about 31 percent of its population living in cities. By 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, that number was 66 percent. While Turkey’s economy grew as it industrialized, mass urbanization led to great social and spiritual dislocation. People suddenly had to face the fact that they were born into a poor country. They were stuck living in towns that were lesser versions of Ankara or Istanbul, which, in turn, are lesser versions of Paris or New York. When asked why he didn’t have a formal education, the beloved folk singer İbrahim Tatlıses famously replied, “It’s not like we had Oxford in Urfa and I didn’t go!”
For many Turks, the world is split between its functioning and malfunctioning halves—and they know precisely which part is theirs. It’s humiliating to know that the other half of the world knows it too. Regular “Progress Reports” by the EU remind them that their country is constantly judged by people apparently occupying a higher civilizational plane. People will caution the government against jailing journalists, or caution the opposition against protesting it for doing so, not based on principle, but because it is “bad for Turkey’s reputation”—code for: Everybody is looking at us. Stop being uncivilized! It’s a culture of self-pity coded into the country’s fabric for centuries. Ressentiment is a rebellion against this destiny—and that rebellion, more than anything, fuels Erdoğan’s success.
Everyone in Turkey has heard Erdoğan recite perhaps his favorite poem, written by Sezai Karakoç, one of the most influential of Turkey’s Islamists.
Don't give in and say it is destined, there is a destiny above destiny
Whatever they do, it is futile, there is a ruling coming down from the heavens
No matter if the day ends, there is a design mending the night
If I am ever scorched, there is a castle built from my ashes
With every defeat heaped upon defeat, there is a victory ascending
Animating these lines is the sense of an epic struggle to push through defeat. The engine of that struggle is the mythical power of the nation. German romantics developed the concept of Das Volk, the common people who embodied the inherent values of the land—the antidote to all things divisive, metropolitan, and foreign.
Erdoğan’s rhetoric references a similar idea: the millet, or “nation” or “the people,” are authentically Turkish, and they are the ones who built its cities, reared its children, fought its wars. His campaign ads depict this group in large happy families living in small towns, reverently kissing the hands of their elders. This isn’t just a flattering depiction of voters: It’s a thinly veiled exercise in nation building. In past campaign videos, the millet form huge motorcades, and travel across the country to help Erdoğan assemble the President’s seal. In one infamous video, thousands of them pile on top of each other like lemmings to protect the Turkish flag. With the people’s will elevated to mythical status, elections become quasi-religious events. As results roll in on election night, TV pundits will repeat the phrase “milletin iradesi tecelli etti,” meaning “the will of the people has been transfigured,” consecrating the act.
This movement is not about Islamism—not really. Erdoğan himself is by all indications a genuine Muslim and Islamist, yet he doesn’t seem to govern as one. The country’s youth is also more secular than ever. Earlier this year, Erdoğan, seemingly aware of this, pushed back on reports of misogynistic clerics. He has called for Islam to be “updated,” saying that “you can’t impose old rules to modern times.”
Despite his claim to be the protector of Muslims everywhere, in terms of foreign policy, Erdoğan’s government is quiet about the plight of Muslim Tatars in Russian-annexed Crimea, or the Uighurs of Xingyang, probably the most oppressed Muslim population in the world. The Erdoğan government appears far more interested in things like Islamophobia in Europe and the Israel-Palestine conflict, which give it an opportunity to face off against the West. Islamism here is not an operating principle: It is a host ideology to ressentiment.
In the economic sphere, ressentiment mimics the most visible aspects of Western modernity. The Erdoğan government builds mammoth airports, knockoff theme parks, and universities in every city. The president himself places immense faith in growth numbers, reciting them at every opportunity. Like ressentiment through history, Turkey’s deplores the mechanization and “soullessness” of the West, but to avoid future humiliation at its hands, it inflicts the same kind of disruption on its own society. Citizens today suffer from mine disasters, contaminated rivers, and never-ending traffic. This isn’t development for its own sake as much as a hasty push toward modernity.
This competition with the West rages across the airwaves, too. Every day, news programs presents everything the government does not like—terrorist groups, opposition parties, the CIA, interest rates—as the tool of a powerful monolithic enemy out to destroy the millet. Historical fiction helps sell this narrative: TV dramas about swashbuckling Turkish heroes liberating Anatolia from the Byzantines, conquering Istanbul, and fighting the British in World War I. There is usually a depraved Christian king or a crafty Anglo-American spy trying to enslave the Turkish nation, thwarted by sheer millet resolve. In a much-cited scene from one of these shows, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who appears to be modeled after Erdoğan, discovers that the British ambassador is trying to cheat him. Furious, he smacks the ambassador across the face, shouting “Begone!”
Of course, not all of this is a fantasy. European powers did preside over the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the Cold War, the United States did seek to mold its junior ally in its own image, and did not mind working with the military to do so. Currently, the United States is backing the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey believes to be an existential enemy. It is also a safe haven to the leadership of the Gülenist organization, which is highly likely to have staged the attempted coup in 2016.
In an impromptu video recording from the night of the coup that later surfaced, Erdoğan says that it was staged by the üst akıl, or “higher mind,” a reference to the United States. Metin Külünk, an AKP member of parliament, later said that the coup attempt was “a crossing of the struggle between the victorious civilization and the defeated civilization, and this struggle continues.” This is a common theme: The AKP is fighting the West, which is somehow technologically and institutionally superior. Victory requires the mythical power of the millet, which they not only lack, but cannot understand.
What are the limits of this “slave revolt in morality”? For the first time in decades, Erdoğan is leading a lackluster campaign. In leaked footage, he tells a gathering of supporters that the election “isn’t a done deal, let me tell you. In the polls right now, we don’t get the sense that this is finished.” The reason he called for snap elections was precisely because long-term trends are turning against his favor. The economy is on the brink of a crisis. Polls show that young people, and especially first-time voters, stubbornly resist the party’s allure. Most importantly, the government’s underdog status is fading. Things like the headscarf, Ottoman-era vocabulary, and a religious education are no longer symbols of the dispossessed, but of a vengeful elite.
Even if he wins this election, Erdoğan will have a hard time molding the country according to his design. For years, he has accused opposition parties of being a bunch of un-milli, terrorist-loving losers. But this group represents half of Turkey’s population, and it is getting organized. Day by day, it is assuming a moral authority that should sound familiar to the AKP. Muharrem İnce, a former physics teacher and Erdoğan’s surprisingly serious opponent, attacked Erdoğan on the campaign trail: “He calls me wretched! It’s true. I am the candidate of the wretched! My opponent is a white Turk. He drinks white tea in his palace. I drink black tea, just like you. That is why he is a white Turk, and I am black. All the TV stations are his, all the newspaper are his.”
The crowd booed. “He writes the headlines, I wage war against the headlines!” Deafening cheers from the crowd. “With him stands the media. With me, stands the millet! The millet!” The crowd loved it.
* This article originally defined the term "Agop" incorrectly.