Today Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. As I watched him being sworn in to office I was reminded of another man who, one hundred years ago, was the most powerful man in his country: Mehmed Talat, the Grand Vizier (equivalent to Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire. There are so many disturbing similarities between the two that I had to ask myself: Were Donald Trump and Mehmed Talat separated at birth?
- American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau in The Ambassador’s Story recalled that Talat was disappointed “at the failure of the Turks to appreciate democratic institutions. ‘I hoped for it once, and I worked hard for it, … but they were not prepared for it.’ He saw a government which the first enterprising man who came along might seize, and he determined to be that man.” Trump, as everyone knows from his flagrant self-promotion, is above all an entrepreneur and an “enterprising man.” What Morgenthau said about Talat, he could have been talking about Trump: “He had great force and dominance.” “He showed his shrewdness in the measures which he took … to gain the upper hand.”
Talat “attempted to gain the support of all influential factions by gradually placing their representatives in the other cabinet posts.” Trump naturally replaced all cabinet positions, but also immediately dismissed all American ambassadors, effective January 20, 2017. Talat “maintained the pretense that the Committee stood for the unionization of all the races in the empire”; Trump announced in his inauguration speech that he was the President of all Americans, but had made it clear during his campaign that some ethnic Americans, such as a judge of Hispanic heritage, were less worthy.
- Government and Diplomacy
- Both men entered politics with a total lack of governance and diplomatic experience, and were, in Morgenthau’s words, “ignorant … of foreign statecraft.” Ben Carson, a campaign rival but now nominee for a cabinet position, said that Trump “does whatever is politically expedient in order to elevate himself.” One could add, “to win.”
Winning is very important to Trump. He commented on winning and losing frequently in his campaign. Even in his inaugural address he said, now that he was President, “America will start winning again.” Talat stated that “The only important thing is to win.” He was speaking of a war, but went so far as to say that even “economic considerations are of no importance at this time. … If we win, everything will be all right.” It didn’t matter that the economy was vital to the empire’s health. Talat was as politically expedient as Trump. He stated that at that moment, “it is for our interest to side with Germany; if, a month from now, it is our interest to embrace France and England, we shall do that just as readily.”
In late 1915 Talat had arranged for Germany to send a military mission to reorganize the Turkish forces. He told Morgenthau that “in calling in this mission, he was using Germany, though Germany thought that it was using him.” Morgenthau believed that Talat “was not then a willing tool of Germany” but wondered “whether Talat and his associates realized that they were playing the German game.” Does Trump understand the game Russia is playing with him?
After the Ottoman Empire dwindled to Turkey and a small area beyond, Talat explained his national policy to Morgenthau. “If what was left of Turkey was to survive, added Talat, he must get rid of these alien peoples. ‘Turkey for the Turks’ was now Talat’s controlling idea.” Many Americans were appalled by Trump’s vow to deport “millions” of Mexicans who were, for the most part, “killers and rapists”, and to prevent Muslims (“radical terrorists”) from entering the country. They were dismayed by his history of discrimination against “the blacks.” In an eerie recall of Talat’s slogan, today Trump declared, “From this point forward, only ‘America First’,” at least, his idea of America.
In his address, Trump vowed, “I will never, ever let you down”, though it was not clear who “you” was: his supporters or all Americans? When Morgenthau reminded Talat of a promise he made to treat Canadians (British subjects) in the employ of Americans as Americans, Talat replied, “That may be … but a promise is not made to be kept forever. I withdraw that promise now. There is a time limit on a promise.” We shall see how long Trump keeps the promises he made today.
- Trump was born into Christianity, and Talat into Islam, but it seems religion and faith played a small role in their lives. Morgenthau was adamant that Talat “cared nothing for Mohammedanism … [and had] scoffed at all religions.” Indeed, Talat had once told him, “I hate all priests, rabbis, and hodjas.” Trump was raised as a Protestant and had attended Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens. But throughout his campaign, his references to his religious practices were weak and often awkward, such as referring to the sacrament as “my little wine” and “my little cracker,” and telling a gathering of Christian organizations that “he does not ask for forgiveness, and ‘does not bring God into that picture’ when he makes mistakes.”
Trump and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor in Manhattan who wrote several popular books, including The Power of Positive Thinking, were friends. Peale officiated at Trump’s first marriage, and at the funeral of his parents. But in an article about Trump’s “guilt-free gospel”, an assessment of Peale by religious studies professor William Lee Miller in 1955 noted that Peale “promises quick, painless, and complete ‘solutions’ to problems which may be deep and complex, and which may require real discipline and professional treatment.”
- Respect for Facts
- According to Trump, Norman Vincent Peale “thought I was his greatest student of all time.” Since Peale once wrote, “Attitudes are more important than facts,” are we to believe that facts don’t matter to Trump? It seems so, if one looks at the months of fact-checked information that whirled about the Internet during his election campaign. In fact, he rose to political prominence by supporting the “birther” conspiracy theories about Barack Obama—the lie that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not qualified to be President. However, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law has said that Trump “didn’t really believe that stuff.” If he didn’t, then he was certainly lying. It was astounding to hear him deny things he said, even in the face of video and audio evidence.
Talat was noted for being a liar. “The editor of the Turkish newspaper Sabah wrote that ‘Talat lied like a machine.’ … His closest friend, Hüseyin Cahit, remarked that Talat ‘would lie in both state and political matters.’ According to Falih Rıfkı Atay, Talat’s private secretary, Talat was a person ‘who did not view lies or cruelty as immoral’” [Taner Akçam, Review: Guenter Lewy, p137]. And we know from numerous well-documented sources, he had a system of double-correspondence; he would send one telegram with a particular order or statement, followed by another refuting it.
- Sense of Shame
- Trump did not pay fair wages to some of his workers, did not pay some of his debts, conspired not to rent to African-Americans, and bragged about groping women. Yet when asked about seeking forgiveness, he said “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness if I am not making mistakes?” Talat told Morgenthau similarly, “Yes, we may make mistakes, … but … we never regret.” When Trump issued a statement following his remarks about groping women, he “shifted responsibility from himself to us, saying he was sorry ‘if’ he offended.” When Mrs. Morgenthau begged Talat to stop the persecution of Armenian women and girls, he responded with “All this amuses us.” [Bryce & Toynbee’s The Treatment of Armenians, p339]. A sense of shame for wrong doings seems to be missing from both men.
- Dangerous Language
- As I mention in a previous post, generalization is lazy and dangerous talk. To Talat, “all” Armenians were potential enemies because “those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow.” Reports from Urumia about Assyrian massacres, which proved to be true, Talat dismissed as “wild exaggerations.” Trump frequently speaks in extremes and generalizations. “Everything” is either “disastrous” or “great.” He uses simple language that is often insulting, repetitious, and pessimistic. He has been likened to Archie Bunker, and his use of this kind of hyperbolic, nasty language seems to have given licence for some people to let loose with hate speech.
Though Talat tried to remain calm and courteous when annoyed, he would be reduced to “short, snappy phrases.” A speechwriter who analyzed the structure of Trump’s language noted that his sentences “work the way punchlines work: short (sometimes very short) with the most important words at the end.” In this age of sound bites, this pattern works well for him.
But the most worrying thing is Trump’s dehumanizing language. Examples are the objectification of women, and the equating religious and ethnic groups with terrorism, murder, drug trafficking, and other ills of society. The continued use of this kind of language inexorably leads to “unrestrained violence without guilt”. Glenn Beck, a conservative talk show host, was so concerned about Trump’s derogatory language that he “warned Republicans against going for a candidate who would forfeit constitutional freedoms for safety”, and that “the country is headed for massive troubles. ‘When you dehumanize people, you’re one step away from the jungle,’ he said.” As we now know, dehumanization is a characteristic of genocide.
Of course I’m kidding about the “separated at birth” quip. The differences between the two men are many. Talat came from humble beginnings, starting his working life as a letter carrier, becoming a telegraph operator and gaining political power through the Young Turk revolution. Trump, on the other hand, was born the son of a wealthy business man and worked his way up within the family real estate business. Talat remained modest in his possessions, home and home furnishings, whereas Trump is famous for his love of opulence. Talat had little schooling but could converse in Turkish and French. Trump graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but can only speak English. Talat had one wife, and to date, Trump has had three. Undoubtedly there are hundreds—of differences—more.
Repeating the Past?
While he was Minister of the Interior in 1915, Talat masterminded and ordered the implementation of the genocidal policies against the non-Turkish subjects of the Ottoman Empire, specifically Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. His orders were carried out by thousands of supporters. Trump has millions of supporters. He came to power by mining the “political gold in the racial resentments buried in a vein of the Republican base far away from the party mainstream.”
Let us hope and pray that Trump really is separated from Talat, that his future will be more positive, and that society—both domestic and international—will not be harmed, as was the case a hundred years ago.
Photo of Trump: Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia. Photo of Talat from Wikipedia.