The horrendous details of the case are a gift to conspiracy theorists. Why did Khashoggi go to the Saudi consulate when he knew the extent of the ruthlessness of his government? Did someone guarantee him security and sell him out at the last minute? How come there were recordings from the consulate where the alleged murder and dismembering of his body took place? Why, all of a sudden, were the mainstream Turkish newspapers, known for acting as mouthpieces for the Turkish government, embraced as the most trusted references for global news networks?
But one aspect goes beyond the immediate issue of what happened and who ordered the killing: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s newly discovered role as a die-hard fan of journalists and his determined occupation of the moral high ground. The truth is that for Turkish critics and devotees alike, this sudden transformation comes as no surprise. Highlighting the inconsistencies in Erdoğan’s public statements has been a popular social media sport in Turkey for a few years. It gives the opposition a bitter, exhausted laugh. Even the global audience no longer requires in-depth political knowledge to see that Erdoğan is a great pretender. However, it is important to look at how much the Turkish president has in common with other populist leaders on the right.
Consider the words of Donald Trump after pipe bombs were sent to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and CNN: “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it … Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as morally defective.” Yet Trump has previously called Obama a “founder of Isis”, Clinton a “crook” and accused CNN of propagating “fake news”. The clumsy master of hostile political rhetoric was as audacious as Erdoğan in claiming the moral high ground.
The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, seemingly morally outraged by the Khashoggi affair, summoned the dead journalist’s son to express his condolences. During a speech the next day he sounded no less heartbroken than Erdoğan when he called the murder a heinous crime and said those responsible should be punished.
The astonishment felt by the remain-voting British people who marched through the streets of London last weekend when they hear lectures about democracy from Nigel Farage is not dissimilar to our reaction in Turkey when we are lectured to by those who damaged democracy in the first place.
Having studied the global rise of rightwing populism for more than a year, I am quite confident in saying that, despite the dramatic differences between countries, there are common patterns. One is populist leaders’ claim to a monopoly on moral behaviour and the difficulty of challenging this claim through political means. Although populists often owe their so-called success to the very act of destroying the moral consensus, they manage also to play the role of moral pillar for their supporters. There are several reasons for their audacity, but the biggest one is that they do it because they can.
Populist leaders not only mesmerise their opponents with relentless vulgarity and use brutal suppression to silence resistance, but they withstand the challenge from critics by pointing to the overall decay in global political morals. After all, who is morally pure enough to throw a stone at the populist in a neoliberal world where we are all in some way tainted by the dominant moral codes?
It is a pity that the moral issue at the heart of the rise in rightwing populism comes to our attention only when we are all appalled by the bluntness of these leaders as they start teaching us how to be responsible citizens. Sooner or later we will have to talk about what constitutes good morals and discover a new way of doing politics that doesn’t make Machiavelli look like Forrest Gump. Because if he were alive today he would – Machiavelli’s “politics have no relation to morals” maxim must sound like rightwing populism 101 to today’s shameless princes.