War Stories

Trump’s Dictator Envy Isn’t Funny Anymore

It’s tempting to laugh at the authoritarian buffoonery the president displays abroad. But the consequences are deadly serious.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump walk inside the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump walk inside the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea on Sunday in Panmunjom, South Korea.
Handout/Getty Images

It is tempting to chortle over the string of inanities that President Donald Trump unfurled at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, this weekend. Asked about the status of “Western liberalism,” which Russian President Vladimir Putin had just pronounced dead in an interview with the Financial Times, Trump ranted about liberal Democrats in California, apparently thinking that’s what the term was referring to. Asked for his views about busing, which had been a hot topic at the recent Democratic candidates’ debate (and was a hotter topic still in the 1970s, when Trump was a sentient adult), he noted that buses are commonly used to transport students to school.

Yes, our president isn’t very bright; he has little grasp of political concepts, even those that underlie his country’s democratic traditions; he knows almost nothing about history and, worse still, sees nothing wrong with that. But all this has long been clear.

The true significance of Trump’s summit performance—a word that too many journalists invoke, as if they were drama critics—is that it solidified a trend we’ve been seeing for a while: his unabashed emergence as a member of what Daniel Sneider, in Asia Times, calls “the axis of authoritarianism.”

One thing Trump does know is the art of political imagery, so it’s worth examining the images he created in Osaka. As most of the 20 world leaders posed for their group photo, waving at the camera, Trump stood front and center with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom, in a separate meeting, Trump praised as a “friend,” “terrific ally,” and “good purchaser of American products”—saying there was no “finger directly” pointing at the crown prince for the murder of Washington Post columnist (and U.S. resident) Jamal Khashoggi, although Trump’s intelligence directors and a U.N. investigation have done precisely that.

Flanking Trump on the other side was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party recently lost the mayoral election in Istanbul to a leading figure in the democratic opposition.

And, of course, there was Trump’s jolly sit-down with Vladimir Putin, during which a reporter asked if he’d ask the Russian president not to meddle in American elections. The New York Times described what happened next:

Turning to Mr. Putin, he said, with a half-grin on his face and mock seriousness in his voice, “Don’t meddle in the election, President.”

As Mr. Putin smiled and tittered, Mr. Trump pointed at another Russian official in a playful way and repeated, “Don’t meddle in the election.”

So much for the unanimous findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and the Mueller report, as well as the (sometimes reluctant) agreement of nearly every Trump administration official and Republican politician ever asked about whether the Russians did meddle in the 2016 presidential election—all of it dismissed as a joke by the meddling’s beneficiary. And so much for any notion that Putin might fear having to pay a price should he run the same playbook in 2020.

Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News, who was covering the tête-à-tête, also overheard this exchange as the two leaders bonded over their contempt of journalists. “Get rid of them,” Trump said, adding, “Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.” To which Putin replied, in English, “We also have. It’s the same.”

Keep in mind that dozens of Russian journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, many of them on Kremlin orders—and here is Trump, putative leader of the Western world and upholder of the free press and other Western values, all but encouraging the practice and sharing a private moment of mutual cynicism. (“Fake news” is a great term, isn’t it?)

There was another sign of Trump’s increasingly overt authoritarianism on display in Osaka: the presence, at every high-level meeting, of his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, neither of whom would qualify for an intern’s slot in any other White House but who serve as senior advisers in this one.

Watch this excruciating video of Ivanka trying to join a conversation among French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde. Note, in particular, Lagarde’s expression of disdain, as if wondering who let the help in the room.

A generous soul might be inclined to give the first daughter a break: She apparently didn’t know that even the senior-most officials—say, the secretaries of state and defense—are not to intrude on a leadership powwow, except perhaps by invitation. But her ignorance of protocol should be no surprise, as the first dad has clearly given her the impression that she is part of the leadership—that the Trump White House, no less than the Trump Organization, is above all a family business. This is yet another way in which this administration is coming not just to align itself with authoritarian regimes, but to resemble them.

Then came the coup de grace: the visit, on Sunday, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which was a transparent prelude to the real business of the final day—a meet and greet at the Demilitarized Zone with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with whom Trump then took a brief stroll across the border, thus becoming the first sitting American president to step foot in the Hermit Kingdom.

The prelude to this encounter was its own embarrassment. Two days earlier, Trump tweeted:

It put one in mind of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the pathetic stalker in My Fair Lady who hangs out on the street where Eliza Doolittle lives, pining for even a glance of her visage. (“Does enchantment pour/ Out of every door?/ No, it’s just on the street where you live.”) And then he arrived! The two—who, as Trump told a rally soon after their first meeting in Singapore last year, “fell in love”—shook hands, and the impressively canny Kim asked his gullible friend to step across the border, noting he’d be the first president to do so.

We don’t yet know what Trump and the current Kim said to each other. If they agreed to resume negotiations, that’s a good thing. We do know, however, that, despite their bonhomie, North Korea continues to enrich uranium and manufacture ballistic missiles; that they haven’t offered an acceptable definition of “denuclearization,” much less taken a single step toward getting there; and that the North’s main strategic goal, in this diplomacy, is still to sever links between South Korea and the United States. Trump—who, elsewhere in the world, is doing his damnedest to sink the economy of Iran, even though its leaders actually dismantled their nuclear program—doesn’t care about any of this.

Trump has a bad case of dictator envy. He wishes he had their powers, their control of mass media, their coterie of yes men. (He musters at least a simulacrum of this last measure at some of his Cabinet meetings.) But what was once just a show, for his own amusement, is now becoming a reality, to the distress of us all. Trump is running policy and projecting American power like an authoritarian—or at least he’s trying to, the obstacle being that his policy is discordant (because, unlike the other authoritarians, he has no idea what his national interests are) and U.S. power is shrinking (because, sometimes for the better, he doesn’t know how to use it).

Trump brought along no Asia specialists to this summit in Asia, much of which dealt with Asia policy. In part, this was because no such specialists hold senior posts in his administration, but even if there were some, I doubt they’d have been consulted. (There have been, and to some extent still are, staffers with expertise on Russia, the Middle East, and other regions, but he has rarely consulted with them, either.) It’s all about him. His real operative slogan isn’t Make America Great Again, but rather l’état, c’est moi.

Trump may think his move toward authoritarianism will embellish America’s power too, but it’s having the opposite effect. The rest of the world is laughing, though in some cases nervously. It was Macron’s press office that publicly released the embarrassing video of Ivanka trying to act like one of the leaders. Putin must be thanking whatever god he worships whenever Trump pops him a wink and a grin. Chinese President Xi Jinping is slowly, patiently, moving the trade talks in his favor—and nudging America’s allies, which are regarding Washington’s security guarantees with growing skepticism, to cuddle up with Beijing instead.

So, yes, laugh or sigh at those tweets and outbursts that illustrate, yet again, Trump’s crudeness or cluelessness. But watch more closely what he’s doing, which drifts he’s following, and the effect he’s having on what our country is becoming and—as a result of that—our place in the world. That’s the main show.