Forget the critics, listen to Trump — and consider his role models

“This is genius,” former President Trump declared as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declared it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”

“Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine,” he repeated. “How smart is that? And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper.” 

At a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, the former president could barely contain himself: “I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.”

In his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference last Saturday, Trump belatedly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but he doubled down on his claims that Putin was “smart” and that the leaders of Western Europe were “dumb.”

Trump’s praise of Putin isn’t surprising. Dictators — not small-d democrats — have long been his role models.

Trump knows that Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un possess power that is unchecked by legislatures, courts, and free and fair elections. They jail or kill their critics, are indifferent to the welfare of the people they are supposed to serve, and steal billions of dollars for themselves, their families and their cronies. That appears to be why he envies them.

In 2017, when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly reminded Trump that Putin “is a killer,” the then-president replied, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent? … Our country does plenty of killing also.”

In 2018, despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in U.S. elections, Trump told reporters at the Helsinki summit that Putin “just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” During a photo-op with Putin during the Group of 20 summit in 2019, Trump referred to media criticism. “You don’t have this problem in Russia,” he said. “But we do.”

In 2020, despite substantial evidence that Russian agents had poisoned dissident Alexey Navalny with a nerve agent, Trump toed the Kremlin line: “We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look.”

During his cringeworthy courtship of Kim, the third-generation leader of the world’s most repressive regime who ordered the murder of his half-brother and uncle, Trump praised Kim’s “great and beautiful vision for his country.” When Otto Warmbier died shortly after his release — in a vegetative state — from prison in North Korea on a bogus charge of subversion, Trump said he “did not believe [Kim] would have allowed” the American college student to be mistreated. Trump expressed confidence that Kim would conclude a nuclear weapons treaty with the United States that would fully “realize the great economic potential of North Korea” because “he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump.” Again and again, Trump declared that he “fell in love” after he read Kim’s “beautiful letters” to him.

It’s not a new infatuation.

“When students poured into Tiananmen Square,” Trump told Playboy in 1990, “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.”

In 2018, Trump characterized Xi as “a great gentleman.” Xi is “now president for life, president for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” A year later, Trump was still musing about Xi’s grip on power: “President Xi, who is a strong man, I call him ‘King.’ Xi said, ‘I am not King, I am president.’ ‘No, you’re president for life, and therefore you’re King.’”

Asked why he declined to press Xi to free the 1 million Uighurs in indoctrination camps in the Xinjiang region, Trump indicated, “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal.” According to then-national security adviser John Bolton, Trump told Xi to “go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

Xi is “for China, I’m for the United States, but other than that we love each other,” Trump declared in January 2020. The relationship between the countries has “probably never been better.” That February, Trump said, “Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country.” More recently, as he had when asked about Putin, Trump shrugged off Bartiromo’s comment that Xi “is a killer.”

Trump has denied telling his White House chief of staff (and former four-star Marine general) John Kelly that “Hitler did a lot of good things.” The comment, however, rings true, as does the report that before canceling a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the president — reminiscent of candidate Trump’s assertion that John McCain was not a war hero: “I like people who weren’t captured” — asked, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

Our would-be autocrat is intent on returning to the White House. We should also assume if he succeeds, he intends to put in place the priorities, policies and practices of his role models.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags authoritarian regimes autocrats China Dictators Donald Trump John Bolton John Kelly John McCain Kim Jong Un Kim Jong-un Maria Bartiromo North Korea Presidency of Donald Trump Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Trump 2024 trumpism Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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