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Trump’s Strongman Infatuation

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

Frida Ghitis comments on Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for foreign authoritarian leaders:

Since taking office little more than 100 days ago, Trump has reversed course on countless issues, including major matters of foreign policy. But he has remained remarkably consistent in his praise of authoritarian leaders. It has become indisputable that respect for strongmen is a viscerally felt sentiment for the U.S. president, and one that will have major ramifications for American policy during this administration.

While Trump’s embrace of authoritarian and illiberal leaders is not the dramatic departure from past practice that it is sometimes made out to be, he does seem to make a point of endorsing and lauding these leaders. Trump has made a priority of inviting several of them to the White House in a very public display of approval within the first few months of taking office: Sisi, Erdogan, and now Duterte. The trouble isn’t just that he is cultivating closer ties with these leaders, but that he applauds and endorses their power-grabs and abuses along the way. That is, he isn’t simply overlooking their excesses in the name of pursuing cooperation on other issues, but positively approves of these leaders because of their illiberal and authoritarian practices. One reason for this may simply be that Trump fetishizes a crude idea of what “strong” government is, and therefore respects leaders that he deems to be “strong.” Another is that he seems to be personally in favor of illiberal and heavy-handed tactics, and admires other leaders that are able to use them with few or no constraints. Some of it may be nothing more than knee-jerk “anything but Obama” positioning.

Whatever the reason for it, this creates problems for the U.S. in a few ways. When the president is seen to be openly applauding abusive leaders and does so in no small part because they are abusive, that not only gives those particular leaders a green light to continue their abuses, but it signals to other clients and allies that they can do likewise without risking any rift with Washington. That makes the U.S. an enabler of current and future abuses, and it is bound to produce more hostility to the U.S. from the people that suffer them. That both mars our reputation and potentially makes new enemies that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, and that is being done in exchange for having close ties to unreliable security dependents that do little or nothing to make the U.S. more secure. There are sometimes necessary trade-offs in foreign policy, but at the moment the administration is sucking up to abusive leaders without even reaping any discernible benefits.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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