Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Trumpmenbashi:" Parallels in Spectacle-Based Authoritarianism

Sarah Kendzior in The Diplomat:
The rise of Donald Trump has spurred a resurgence of the study of comparative dictatorship. Most comparisons emphasize the West's famed fascists: Adolf Hilter, whose command of the crowd and proposed persecution of ethnic minorities prompt obvious parallels with Trump (with cable news taking on the role of propagandist Leni Riefenstahl); and Benito Mussolini, whom Trump approvingly cited in a retweet of a Gawker-run Mussolini fan account, "IlDuce2016." Others have noted parallels between Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who similarly capitalized on ethnic tension; Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for whom Trump has expressed admiration, and the authoritarian dictators of the Middle East.

Left out – as always – have been the dictatorships of former Soviet Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and (to a lesser degree) Kyrgyzstan. Of the five republics, only two have had a change in leadership since the 1990s: Kyrgyzstan, which beginning in 2005 experienced a series of uprisings culminating in the election of Almazbek Atambayev in 2011, and Turkmenistan, whose Soviet-era dictator, Saparmarat Niyazov, died in 2006 and was replaced with his dentist. (Seriously.) The dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, remains in power ten years later. Like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has been ruled since 1989 by its Soviet-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Tajikistan, meanwhile, has been ruled by former communist apparatchik Emomali Rahmon since 1992, when he replaced former First Secretary Rahmon Nabiyev, who resigned when civil war broke out in the country.

Central Asia's complex history and international media obscurity often lead to its omission in discussions of authoritarian states. As a region which has so dramatically ditched and switched ideologies and identities, it fits no academic paradigm well. Social scientists trained to categorize the world with Western terminology – liberal, neoliberal, conservative, neoconservative – find these terms have little application in former Soviet Central Asia. A vestige of communist colonialism, Central Asia is not the "other" but the other's "other." It is Russia's orient, an insular region which has spent 20 years blocking its inner machinations from international view while internally promoting perpetual propaganda. The Central Asian states are dictatorships. They are also spectacular.

And it is by examining this–dictatorship as spectacle–that the parallels to Donald Trump emerge.

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