Donald Trump is reportedly falling in love again. No, not like that! Rather, the website Axios reported this week that the American president “loves” the approach that some of the world’s dictators and despots — including Philippines’ semi-mad strongman Rodrigo Duterte (a Trump personal favorite) as well as China and the surprisingly authoritarian city-state of Singapore — take to their drug dealers. They kill them.
“According to five sources who’ve spoken with Trump about the subject,” reported Axios, “he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty. Trump tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work.”
We’ll put aside for another day the long — and remarkably well-documented — argument that America’s mass-incarceration-backed “war on drugs” has been an utter failure and that the real solutions lie largely in better treatment. Trump’s comments here are particularly alarming because they show — yet again, but even more dramatically this time — that America’s 45th president has a raw contempt for democratic norms and the basic tenets of justice that would shock and appall the 43 men (Cleveland, twice) who came before him.
As long as it’s not a leftist with oil wells, like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tinhorn dictator or dangerous strongman anywhere in the world that Trump doesn’t admire. The list includes not only Duterte, whose violent extra-judicial crackdown has killed at least 7,000 supposed drug dealers, including some that the wannabe-dictator says he’s offed personally, but also Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who’s jailed at least 113,000 various political opponents and journalists in recent years, with whom Trump has “a great friendship” and “gives “very high marks” and Hungary’s rising authoritarian Viktor Orban — the first European leader to endorse Trump in 2016.
You may have heard somewhere about The Donald’s affinity for Russia’s polonium-210-wielding Vladimir Putin. He even seems to regret his missed connections with North Korea’s barbarous Kim Jong-Un, with whom Trump has said he “probably” has “a very good relationship,” when they’re not threatening nuclear annihilation of each other.
It’s easy to laugh about Trump’s fondness for the various Mussolinis and Mussolini-lites of the 21st Century, but there are serious implications, in a world where authoritarianism and nationalistic propaganda — and the military buildups and international tensions that come with them — are shockingly on the rise.
The scariest news yet — which made the front page of the New York Times but nary a dent on cable TV as it chased the latest insane Trump comments — came this week out of China. A benign way to spin it is that the world’s largest nation — and dictatorship — with 1.2 billion people just abolished presidential term limits. More realistically, the news means that Chinese president Xi Jinping — whose government has embraced political repression with the same zeal as rapacious state capitalism — is teeing himself to become a dictator for life.
As the Times noted earlier this week, Xi’s stunning power grab “was the latest and arguably most significant sign of the world’s decisive tilt toward authoritarian governance, often built on the highly personalized exercise of power.” That’s a nice way of saying that the world is entering another not-so-golden age of despots just like the one that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers experienced in the 1930s, the decade after a worldwide financial crisis. (Sound familiar?) As you may have heard, that era did not end particularly well.
This wasn’t supposed to happen again. More of you probably remember 1989 — the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so-called Iron Curtain around Eastern Europe — and the years that immediately followed, when the seeming victory of liberal democracy was hailed by some pundits as “the end of history” and even lauded in a popular song with the optimistic chorus that “right here, right now there is no other place I’d rather be … watching the world wake up to history.”
Then the world went back to sleep. Liberal democracy came with a brand of ruthless capitalism that heavily favored the Top 1 Percent and laid waste to a large swath of the middle class in the name of “free trade” and “outsourcing,” raising mass resentments that too many despots-in-training were all too eager to exploit, often with racism and xenophobia. And a new era of communication on the World Wide Web was a game changer (much like radio had been in the 1930s) that rewarded rulers who knew when to apply the stick of censorship and when to fool the masses with carrots of “fake news” produced in their troll farms. In hindsight, the joyous toppling of the wall in Berlin may not have been as pivotal to the future of humankind as China’s murderous repression in and around Tiananmen Square. Just 29 short years later, the Human Rights Foundation reports that more than half the world — 53 percent — is governed by authoritarians.
Xi’s consolidation of dictatorial powers makes a mockery of the once-popular idea that the opening up of China’s economy would lead to unstoppable pressure for free speech and other civil liberties. To the contrary, Xi’s government has only stepped up censorship of the Internet and repression of political dissidents as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen slaughter approaches. And like every dictatorship before them, the ruthless totalitarianism of the regime in Beijing has brought increased militarism and heightened tensions with its Asian neighbors, many of whom are linked through mutual defense treaties with the United States. The nationalistic lessons absorbed by Xi’s generation could have dire consequences for a planet that has successfully avoided World War III for the last 73 years. .
You know who applauded the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen? Donald Trump, who in 1990 told Playboy (!) that “[w]hen the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.” Although he felt pressure to backpedal a bit from that as a 2016 candidate, Trump’s beliefs in power and strength — and his contempt for basic concepts of human rights — have been a hallmark of his presidency. In his past life as a real estate developer, after all, he not only embraced an autocratic style of C-suite management but had some of his bigger business successes dealing with the despots in Turkey or the Philippines whom he now praises as POTUS.
It’s not just that Trump and his State Department have explicitly dropped human rights as a U.S. foreign policy objective — although that’s also important. What’s worse is that Trump has been something of an inspiration to the world’s dictators and growing list of wannabes, who’ve learned to echo his cries of “fake news” or to brand a free press as “enemies of the … people,” or admire his increasing disrespect for an independent judicial system. The American president and our current moral vacuum have created a hothouse environment for the world’s budding dictators to flourish.
It’s no accident that China’s Xi made his dictator move now, with the knowledge that neither Trump nor his increasingly distanced democratic allies will do or even say anything to stop him. “Thirty years ago, with what Xi did, with what Erdogan has done, there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path,’ and so on,” former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul told the Times. “Nobody is making that argument today, certainly not Trump.”
That’s fueling a vicious cycle that may spin out of control before we can get a handle on it. The downward spiral of dictator envy now has Trump and the Pentagon planning a military parade for this coming Veterans Day, the kind of chest-thumping procession that once seemed a much better fit for the boulevards of Pyongyang than for Pennsylvania Avenue. That worries me, but not as much as the fear of what happens when Beijing, Pyongyang, Moscow or Washington start parading their shiny armies toward each other.