The United States has long had a history of supporting dictatorships for strategic reasons. Ronald Reagan propped up the authoritarian regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s. Richard Nixon backed Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Even Jimmy Carter initially turned a blind eye to rights abuses at the hands of the military junta in Argentina.
But no U.S. president has expressed so much admiration for dictators as Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s recent trip to Asia was marked by praise for authoritarian leaders, speaking about them as if they were his role models.
It should come as no surprise that Mr. Trump is impressed by dictatorships. Dictators possess certain attributes that remind him of himself. He believes himself to have super-human qualities, boasting about everything from his intelligence to his communication and negotiation skills. As such, Mr. Trump admires leaders who are strong, decisive and overly confident. Rather than being repelled by the narcissism of other dictators, he instead appears to be awe-struck.
And because Mr. Trump is so narcissistic himself, he is easily flattered and manipulated. While the president was incredibly tough on China while on the campaign trail in 2016, after a few encounters with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, Mr. Trump completely changed his tune. Gone the man who had once claimed that China was “raping” the U.S. with its trade policies.
After China rolled out the red carpet treatment for Mr. Trump during his recent visit to Beijing, the president claimed that the Chinese people were “very proud” of Xi Jinping, noting the great “chemistry” between the two leaders. Instead of pressing China on its human rights violations, Mr. Trump was easily impressed.
And no one knows more about how to flatter or manipulate the American president than Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin early on made a good impression on his counterpart by saying the right things to woo him. Mr. Trump referred fondly to visits with Mr. Putin in Russia, claiming he “could not have been nicer.”
And more recently, in spite of the intelligence community’s clear warning that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump publicly took Mr. Putin’s word over the warnings from his own government. He has made it clear that flattery will get you far, stating of Mr. Putin, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”
But it is not just that these leaders are telling Mr. Trump what he wants to hear. He expresses genuine admiration for dictators and other tough leaders. He reveres leaders who are able to exercise great control over their societies. He further illustrated his admiration for the Russian president’s leadership skills. “I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader…..he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. … he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters….”
Mr. Trump is also impressed by leaders who are not regulated by the judiciary and the rule of law. He early on expressed admiration for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. In spite of a host of human rights abuses that caused tension between Duterte’s regime and the international community, Mr. Trump offered praise to the Philippine leader. Mr. Trump claimed that the two leaders have a “great relationship.” He has yet to question the Philippine leader on his support for extra-judicial killings of alleged criminals, choosing to ignore the divisive issue.
Mr. Trump is also supportive of leaders that rule by decree. He is used to running corporations where he can make decisions more or less unilaterally. He has found it difficult to work with a legislature, finding it to be a nuisance. Though the president referred to himself as the greatest deal maker, over a year has elapsed and not one major piece of legislation has been passed.
Instead of creating deals, Mr. Trump has found stumbling blocks, even coming from his own party. Leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have earned the respect from Mr. Trump for ruling more decisively. The legislature in Turkey acted as a rubber stamp passing more than 500 laws during his first two years in office. Recently, Mr. Erdogan engineered the passing of a referendum that gave him unlimited powers and allowed him to rule until 2029. Rather than being alarmed by this, Mr. Trump was impressed and became the only Western leader to congratulate him.
Mr. Trump has also supported leaders who attack civil liberties. Leaders that infringe upon media freedoms are not criticized but instead are revered. Though Egypt has cracked down on civil liberties such as freedom of speech, Mr. Trump gave his full support to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He claimed, “we agreed on so many things…..He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Mr. Trump has famously attacked and tried to delegitimize the U.S. media, referring to it as “fake news.” He shares this distaste for the free media with other strong leaders. During the recent Asia trip, Mr. Duterte of the Philippines jokingly referred to the journalists questioning him and Mr. Trump as “spies.” Mr. Trump laughed along at the joke in spite of the fact that the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with 78 journalists killed there since 1992.
When Mr. Trump was questioned about the fact that the Russian president has killed journalists, he replied, “he’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader.” And instead of criticizing Mr. Putin he made excuses claiming, “I think our country does plenty of killing, also.”
Mr. Trump has been impressed by those who rule by the politics of fear. And in spite of his privileged upbringing, Mr. Trump is drawn to leaders that speak in plain language and avoid conventions of political correctness.
He is also easily captivated by those who have immense power and wealth, explaining his awe of the Saudi royal family. Mr. Trump’s views on dictators go far beyond the strategic support that dictators have received in the past from the U.S. administrations. Mr. Trump doesn’t just support them; he looks up to them. For the moment, they are able to get away with what he can’t.