It’s no secret that President Donald Trump loves dictators. Over the course of his presidency, Trump has expressed admiration for a slew of authoritarians, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The latest to receive such praise is Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In closed-door remarks to Republicans on Saturday, Trump celebrated Xi for his recent consolidation of power and for getting rid of presidential term limits, according to CNN, which obtained a recording of the meeting.
“He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.”
If it weren’t for Trump’s history of celebrating such strongmen, it might be easy to overlook his latest swooning over Xi as just a joke. Indeed, that’s exactly what Fox News wants us to do.
But Trump’s obsession with dictators should worry us all — because he’s already started emulating them.
Take the president’s suggestion last week that the United States should use the death penalty on drug dealers, language that is eerily similar to the actions of Duterte, who has targeted dealers and users of narcotics with violent street executions — resulting in the deaths of about 10,000 people in the past two years.
And Trump’s longtime disdain for the media and opponents echoes both that of Putin’s and Erdogan’s. Putin’s political rivals typically end up dead, disappearred, or in jail. And Erdogan has imprisoned about 150 journalists and over 1,000 members of the country’s police force, following his victory in a controversial referendum — for which Trump congratulated Erdogan — that put Turkey on a sure path toward autocracy.
While Trump has not jailed journalists or opponents, the rhetorical similarities between him and the Russian and Turkish presidents should not be overlooked. During his campaign rallies, and even after his win, Trump and his supporters would frequently chant “Lock her up,” referring to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Republican leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), have also begun adopting similar rhetoric. In January, Ryan expressed support for the release of the Nunes memo that claimed to detail FBI surveillance activity, telling Fox News, “Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization,” a statement largely believed to mean that the agency should be replaced with Trump loyalists.
Finally, Trump’s targeted crackdown on immigrants and people of color have been compared to the “divide-and-rule” tactics used by some of the word’s most notorious rulers, such as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who often blamed his failures on immigrant communities.
But the strength of American democracy protects us from the horrors of authoritarianism, right? That’s the hope. However, a recent report by Freedom House found that the United States has seen a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties over the past several years, with the biggest drop in more that 40 years occurring in 2017, due to the actions of President Trump.
The report highlights numerous developments that have weakened democracy in the United States, including the Trump administration’s violations of ethical standards like the president’s failure to divest from his businesses and the hiring of his daughter and son-in-law as senior advisers, dwindling government transparency, and false statements by the president.
Against the backdrop of all these alarming developments, Trump’s praise of Xi, it’s fair to say, is hardly something to laugh about.