In 1991, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam Karimov was elected Uzbekistan’s first – and heretofore only – president. His transition to the presidency was seamless: Karimov, a long-time communist apparatchik, had served as first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic since 1989, and the 1991 election, like every election that would follow, was a rigged process that forbade the meaningful participation of opposing parties.
Backed by military might and a vast surveillance system inherited from the Soviet KGB, Karimov maintained dominance as Uzbekistan transitioned from communism to “democracy,” from enforced atheism to a narrow but heavily promoted vision of Muslim cultural identity. The repressive Soviet power structure, glossed with a nationalist sheen, was easy to preserve. More difficult was making Uzbeks believe in the legitimacy of the new nation and assuring them that the chaos they had endured would have a happy ending. By 1992, Karimov had found it: a slogan, ubiquitous, recited in schools and plastered on billboards throughout the country:
“O’zbekiston – kelajagi buyuk davlat!” “Uzbekistan – a state with a great future!”
In other words, Karimov was making Uzbekistan great again.
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.
In 2010, Laura Adams, a sociologist who conducted extensive fieldwork in the nascent Central Asian states in the 1990s, published The Spectacular State, an analysis of Uzbekistan’s nation-building through massive public spectacle.
“A spectacular state,” writes Adams, “is one where, more than in other countries, politics is conducted on a symbolic level, promoting the state’s domination over the shared meaning of concepts such as heritage and progress.” The ultimate goal of the spectacular state is the restriction of the public sphere, where all ideas of culture and heritage are either filtered through – or respond to – the narrative of the state, ruled by a dictator who has developed a cult of personality. The nation becomes a brand; the dictator, a brand ambassador; the people, a captive audience.
In January, shortly before he began sweeping the primaries after months of hate rhetoric, Trump staged a rally in which three girls–called “The Freedom Kids”–lip-synched a pop song praising the brutality of their incumbent leader. “Enemies of freedom face the music/ C’mon boys, take them down/ President Donald Trump knows how to make America great/ Deal from strength or get crushed every time!” they sang, dancing in their red, white, and blue outfits before an enthusiastic crowd. Many Americans found it baffling. For those familiar with the decadent patriotism of Central Asian national performances, which commonly feature declarations of loyalty from dancing children, it was disconcerting in its familiarity.
Adams notes that “spectacle enables elites to close opportunities for input from below, but without making the masses feel left out.” Spectacle soothes the masses while distracting them from their suffering. Trump, a master of the American reality TV genre which has made a spectacle of human suffering – he made “You’re fired!” a beloved tagline during one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history – knows how to make an audience feel included through the theatrical exclusion of others. This tactic carries over into Trump’s rallies, where protesters are booted — and sometimes beaten — with fanfare. It also carries over into his policies, which are structured around exclusion: a wall against Mexico, banned entry for foreign Muslims, a database for U.S. Muslims, and a media denied access unless they acquiesce to Trump’s demands.
Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state – and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.
The most obvious corollary to Trump is Turkmenistan’s deceased leader Niyazov, also known as “Turkmenbashi”, or “Leader of the Turkmens.” Before he died in 2006, Niyazov was best known for the monuments and dictates bolstering his personality cult. They included building a giant golden statue of himself which rotated to face the sun; renaming the months and common words, like “bread”, after his relatives; and the Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” a collection of autobiographical anecdotes, Turkmen “history” (loosely defined), and parables which all citizens were required to read. (A giant electronic version of the Ruhnama blared Niyazov’s wisdom from its perch in the capital.) Like Trump, Niyazov was an avowed isolationist, proclaiming a policy of “permanent neutrality” while focusing his efforts on social control disguised as public spectacle.
“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets, but it’s what the people want,” explained Niyazov when asked about his ubiquitous visage. It is easy to imagine Trump making similar claims, given his deflection to “the people” when confronted about his sometimes violent and overtly racist fan base. It is also easy to imagine a “Trumpmenbashi” building a giant golden statue of himself that revolves to face the sun.
Niyazov is not the only Central Asian leader to promote spectacle from a position of insularity. Uzbekistan, particularly after a military massacre of over 700 protesting civilians in Andijon in 2005, has similarly withdrawn from the outside world; but as in Trump’s rhetoric, disavowal is framed as strength. In 2005, Karimov published a book called The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone, partially in response to criticism over the Andijon massacre. The book bragged of Karimov’s independent power in the face of threat — “Deal from strength or get crushed every time”, from the Trump campaign anthem, neatly summarizes his philosophy – while taking shots at his favorite targets: traitorous journalists, terrorists disguised as devout Muslims, and “outside enemies.” In other words, many of the same targets as Trump.
Karimov, a bureaucrat at the core, is masterful at sloganeering and spectacle but never gained the iconic status of Niyazov – or Trump. (Although prior to her house arrest for prompting an international criminal investigation of the swindled family fortune, Karimov’s daughter, pop star Gulnara Karimova, maintained a glamorous profile similar to that of Ivanka Trump.) Karimov’s neighbors in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, however, are heirs to the Niyazov mold – and the Trump brand. Like Trump, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev is fond of naming institutions after himself, most notably Nazarbayev University, located in Astana, the spectacular Vegas-like capital of Kazakhstan. (The national holiday “Astana Day” is Nazarbayev’s birthday.) It is a searing indictment of the U.S. educational system that Nazarbayev University, which boasts a large international professoriate, is a more legitimate institution of learning than Trump University, the target of lawsuits for fraud.
Until recently, Kazakhstan was known for its relative prosperity compared to its impoverished Central Asian neighbors. Though as politically repressive as other states, Kazakhstan allowed its citizens relative economic freedom, and profited from the oil boom of the past two decades. By promoting himself, in the Trump vein, as business-friendly while simultaneously shutting down dissent, Nazarbayev obtained genuine popularity among Kazakhstani citizens. As the oil crisis eviscerates Kazakhstan’s economy, this popularity may cede to dissatisfaction – a lesson for Americans not to stake state stability on the dictates of an allegedly pro-business autocrat.
In Tajikistan, long one of the poorest Central Asian states, President Rahmon has failed to deliver the prosperity of Nazarbayev or the strict organizational control of Karimov but shares his fellow leaders’ penchants for pomposity. As he travels the country, Rahmon has been greeted with a red carpet, gifts of flowers, and lines of citizens declaring: “Oh Rahmon, you are the great leader of our age. In politics, you are like the sun that gives us light.”
If you think it can’t happen in America, consider Trump’s daily life, as reported by the New York Times: “’You can always tell when the king is here,’ Mr. Trump’s longtime butler here, Anthony Senecal, said… As Mr. Trump made his way through the living room on his way to the golf course, Mr. Senecal called out ‘All rise!’ to the club members and staff. They rose.” The Times describes Trump’s home as a lavish estate that would fit in perfectly with the presidential palaces of Central Asia, down to the gilded portrait of Trump hanging in the halls.
There are vast differences, of course, in the spectacle of Central Asian presidents and that of Trump as an elected leader. It is hard to envision him receiving the adulation to which he – and Central Asian leaders – are accustomed in the U.S. Congress, or managing to get his punitive and persecutory policies passed into law. But the motto of dictatorship is “It can’t happen here.” Time and time again, it has happened – Trump’s likely GOP nomination being only but one recent example of the formerly unthinkable put into practice.
It is irresponsible to rule out his rule. The greatest and perhaps most depressing difference between the Central Asian and Trump models is the latter’s rise to power. When I asked an Uzbek friend to compare Trump to the Central Asian leaders, he replied: “Dictatorship is something that was done to us. But you – you’re doing this voluntarily?”
What would a Trump presidency look like? It is difficult to imagine given Trump’s preference of spectacular rhetoric over specific policy objectives – yet another trait he shares with Central Asian leaders. The best corollary for America under Trump may be Kyrgyzstan, the most restive of the Central Asian states. Like its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan shares an affinity for pageantry, spectacle, and proud displays of national heritage, but its population is far more likely to publicly air their dissatisfaction. Kyrgyzstan used to be called an “island of democracy in Central Asia” – democracy, here, used as a relative term – but it is more accurately described as a place of unrest, whether expressed in sudden acts of mass violence and protest (as in 2005 and 2010) or simply by citizens venting the daily frustrations of life. The latter has become harder to do, as Kyrgyzstan becomes increasingly authoritarian.
But it is likely that, if Trump rises to the top, America will not go down easily. With the largest unfavorability rating of any presidential candidate, he faces at least as many detractors as he does admirers. The question is what kind of tactics he will use to silence the former. So far, his greatest asset has been the U.S. media – financially desperate, hungry for ratings, and eager to embrace a potential dictator to rescue their corporate model, subjecting their countrymen to unprecedented over-coverage of a single candidate in the process.
America, like the countries of Central Asia, is a spectacular state. As news and entertainment converged in the 1990s, never to part, it became a tabloid state, and Trump has always triumphed as tabloid fodder. He is good for bad business. From a platform of media power rivaling that of any dictatorship, he vows to “make America great again.” Let us not forget how the leader of Uzbekistan, and the leaders of many other impoverished authoritarian states, have made the same promise. Let us also not forget how that turned out.
Sarah Kendzior is a scholar of Central Asia who has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a journalist who has written for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Politico, and many other publications. She tweets @sarahkendzior