Trump praises au­thor­i­tar­i­ans, en­vi­ous of the unchecked power they wield

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - EDI­TOR'S NOTES

PLENTY OF TALK OF about Don­ald Trump’s first 100 days as pres­i­dent of the United States, most of it un­flat­ter­ing. De­spite all his bom­bast, very lit­tle of sub­stance has been done.

This week, much of the fo­cus has been on Trump’s re­gard for au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers, with words of praise that have ex­tended be­yond his de­sire for closer ties with Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin. Along with call­ing North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jung Un a “smart cookie” who he’d be “hon­ored” to meet, Trump ex­tended an in­vi­ta­tion of an of­fi­cial visit to Pres­i­dent Rodrigo Duterte of the Philip­pines, an au­thor­i­tar­ian who’s ac­cused of ar­rang­ing the killings of hun­dreds or even thou­sands of drug users, sell­ers and other al­leged crim­i­nals, along with a range of hu­man rights abuses.

Then there was his quick-off-the-mark con­grat­u­la­tions of Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan fol­low­ing his nar­row vic­tory in a referendum that con­cen­trates more power in his of­fice and sets the stage for a dic­ta­tor­ship. The vote it­self was fraught with ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, with many re­ports of bal­lot­box stuff­ing, un­counted votes, theft of bal­lot boxes in pre­dom­i­nantly “no” dis­tricts.

Trump has praised Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi, who’s ac­cused of killing op­po­nents and cur­tail­ing free­doms, say­ing he’s do­ing a “fan­tas­tic job.” As with Duterte, Trump ex­tended an in­vi­ta­tion to visit the White House to Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thai­land, who took power in a coup and sub­se­quently cracked down on dis­si­dents.

Trump has had kinds words for Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping of China, an­other au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler op­posed to democ­racy and hu­man rights.

Any­one see a pat­tern here? More than a few peo­ple have.

“In an un­de­ni­able shift in Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, Trump is cul­ti­vat­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers, one after an­other, in an ef­fort to re­set re­la­tions fol­low­ing an era of os­tracism and public sham­ing by Obama and his pre­de­ces­sors,” writes Phillip Rucker in Monday’s Wash­ing­ton Post.

“Ev­ery Amer­i­can pres­i­dent since at least the 1970s has used his of­fice at least oc­ca­sion­ally to cham­pion hu­man rights and demo­cratic val­ues around the world. Yet, so far at least, Trump has will­ingly turned a blind eye to dic­ta­tors’ records of bru­tal­ity and op­pres­sion in hopes that those lead­ers might be­come his part­ners in iso­lat­ing North Korea or fight­ing ter­ror­ism.

“In­deed, in his first 102 days in of­fice, Trump has nei­ther de­liv­ered sub­stan­tive re­marks nor taken ac­tion sup­port­ing democ­racy move­ments or con­demn­ing hu­man rights abuses, other than the mis­sile strike he au­tho­rized on Syria after Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad al­legedly used chem­i­cal weapons against his own cit­i­zens.”

The White House claims Trump’s re­marks are de­signed to cul­ti­vate bet­ter re­la­tions with these coun­tries. There’s a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on win­ning al­lies for deal­ing with way­ward North Korea, which would ex­plain Trump’s about face on just about ev­ery cam­paign-trail state­ment about China, for in­stance.

There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made, how­ever, that Trump sees in those au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers the kinds of strong­man qual­i­ties he’d like to have as pres­i­dent. Not nec­es­sar­ily in the fas­cist vein many fear from him, but in the sim­ple ego-feed­ing way of be­ing in charge.

Born into priv­i­lege and long used to be­ing the boss, sur­rounded by courtiers and bask­ing in his celebrity, Trump may feel he de­serves more say in how gov­ern­ment is run. Hav­ing ar­rived on the scene with ab­so­lutely no ex­pe­ri­ence, he was com­pletely un­pre­pared for how lit­tle day-to-day power his of­fice ex­er­cises. Worse still, he ap­pears to have no grasp of his­tory or the ba­sic struc­ture of gov­ern­ment, leav­ing him very much un­pre­pared for work­ing with oth­ers and the com­pro­mises that come with that re­al­ity. Pin­ing for the ab­so­lute pow­ers of the dic­ta­tors he’s praised makes sense in that con­text.

It’s a dif­fer­ent con­text from re­marks by Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, who’s drawn scorn from some cir­cles for his past praise for the late Fidel Cas­tro and China’s lead­ers. Trudeau is, out­wardly at least, no would-be strong­man, pre­fer­ring instead to be the em­brac­ing type.

Iron­i­cally, Canada’s sys­tem of gov­ern­ment places far more power in the prime min­is­ter’s hands than it does the U.S. pres­i­dent’s. With a ma­jor­ity, a PM can es­sen­tially gov­ern as he or she sees fit, within the con­fines of the law. The U.S. checks and bal­ances of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the Se­nate and a more ac­tivist court sys­tem prove a ma­jor hur­dle to pres­i­dents, whereas the prime min­is­ter es­sen­tially con­trols the House of Com­mons, the Se­nate is un­elected and has lit­tle power, and the courts tend to be a less-fre­quent re­course.

Prime min­is­te­rial pow­ers would be more to Trump’s lik­ing, but would not let him be the take-charge, get­things-done leader he may have imag­ined of the job.

Not an ide­o­logue, or even a tra­di­tional par­ti­san, Trump adores the power – or the thought of it – and the celebrity of the job. That’s pretty much it. To him, be­ing a leader may equate with be­ing strong ... or a strong­man.

As po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, pro­fes­sor, and au­thor Robert Re­ich notes, au­thor­i­tar­ian is the la­bel most ap­pli­ca­ble to Trump.

“Viewed through the lens of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, Trump’s ap­proach to gov­ern­ing is log­i­cal and co­her­ent,” he writes this week in his blog.

“For ex­am­ple, an au­thor­i­tar­ian wouldn’t fol­low the nor­mal process in a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy for dis­put­ing a ju­di­cial de­ci­sion he dis­likes – which is to ap­peal it to a higher court. An au­thor­i­tar­ian would instead as­sail judges who rule against him, as Trump has done re­peat­edly. He’d also threaten to hob­ble the of­fend­ing courts, as Trump did last week in urg­ing that the 9th Cir­cuit (where many

of these de­ci­sions have orig­i­nated) be bro­ken up.

“Like­wise, an au­thor­i­tar­ian has no pa­tience for nor­mal leg­isla­tive rules – de­signed, as they are in a democ­racy, to create op­por­tu­ni­ties for de­lib­er­a­tion.”

Cer­tainly nei­ther pol­ished or states­man­like, Trump can be ex­pected to de­liver up a few gaffes – he’s not dis­ap­pointed on that front so far – but his praise for au­thor­i­tar­ian fig­ures is a pat­tern that can’t be writ­ten off as any­thing less than dis­turb­ing.

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