Trump praises authoritarians, envious of the unchecked power they wield
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.