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Donald Trump just tripped over the media’s rules for praising dictators

Putin in Sochi.
Putin in Sochi.
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Donald Trump has drawn open scorn from the media after he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and seemingly endorsed Putin's oppressive rule. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough raised this with Trump, pointing out that Putin "is also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?"

Here is the response from Trump that launched a thousand angry tweets: "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."

Indeed, Trump's praise of Putin is ridiculous — the Russian leader is in fact doing a quite poor job of running his country — and his statement shrugging off Putin's violence against dissidents and journalists is outrageous.

But I have to admit that I am a bit put off by the media's reaction here. Not because I disagree with their outrage, but rather because it is applied so selectively. The media has unwritten rules for when American political figures are or are not allowed to praise a human-rights-abusing dictator. And they don't have much do with actual dictatorship or with human rights.

Here, based on past experience, are those rules. It is acceptable to praise a foreign dictator if one or more of these apply:

  1. The dictator is a nominal American ally.
  2. The dictator's victims are primarily Muslim or, ideally, Islamists.
  3. The dictator is popular within the political establishment or within one party's establishment.

You will notice that this list has little or nothing to do with the foreign dictator's actual performance on human rights or democracy, even though we like to pretend that it is those values that set the acceptable norms of our discourse. If you don't believe me, consider the fact that for the past year, Republican leaders, to no real media backlash, have been lavishing praise on another dictator: Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

If anything, Sisi has been even more violent than Putin in his crackdowns on political dissidents and journalists. And a number of prominent Republicans have been far more effusive in their praise of Sisi than Trump was toward Putin. Yet for some odd reason, the media has deemed Republican praise of Sisi acceptable while lambasting Trump's praise of Putin.

Sisi came to power in a 2013 military coup, which he followed by executing one of the largest mass atrocities of the 21st century, killing at least 817 civilians who had gathered for a peaceful Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, many of them women and children, in a single day. He has followed this with two years of mass imprisonment and violence against political dissidents and journalists, a still-worsening campaign that goes significantly beyond even Putin's.

While the Obama administration briefly punished Sisi for the 2013 massacre, it ultimately made the cynical decision to overlook his crimes and partner with his regime. That decision has, deservedly, been heavily criticized by human rights organizations. But a significant number of prominent Republicans have gone a good step further, actually praising Sisi as a hero — and often not despite but because of his violent crackdowns.

"You've acted bravely here on the front lines," Rep. Michele Bachmann, flanked by Reps. Louie Gohmert and Steve King, said in a bizarre statement from Cairo just three weeks after Sisi's massacre, which she praised as a blow against "great evil."

Sen. Ted Cruz announced in a recent Republican debate, "We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt's President el-Sisi, a Muslim, [did] when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world."

When Cruz praised Sisi for "calling out radical Islamic terrorists," to be clear, he was referring to Sisi's campaign of terror and violence against peaceful members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which claimed many hundreds of civilian lives.

"Thank God for President al-Sisi in Egypt," Mike Huckabee said in a TV appearance this February.

Jeb Bush said that Sisi "should be rewarded" for his actions, and criticized Obama for not cozying up to Sisi further. And so on and so on.

But whereas the media heavily (and correctly) criticized Trump for praising Putin, other candidates' much louder and clearer praise of Egypt's Sisi has drawn no real media backlash. If anything, it has been encouraged by some, with for example Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens lauding Sisi as "Islam's improbable reformer" in a flattering profile.

So what you are seeing is this: Donald Trump praises a foreign dictator and shrugs off that dictator's abuses, and the media treats this as outrageous. Meanwhile, multiple Republican presidential candidate praise a different foreign dictator, explicitly citing that dictator's worst abuses as the cause of their praise, and the media treats this as acceptable.

What's the distinction here? For one, Sisi is an American ally whereas Putin is not. That is certainly part of what makes Trump's statement outrageous. But the media has not criticized Trump for praising an adversary but rather has criticized him for praising a human rights abuser. So either that criticism is not really about human rights abuses or it privileges the human rights of Russians above the human rights of Egyptian Islamists, or, perhaps, both.

There is also a certain trend here whereby the media feels comfortable criticizing Trump but will not criticize the other Republican candidates when they do the same thing. You see this, for example, in the media's practice of rightly lambasting Trump's Islamophobia while meanwhile ignoring Islamophobia from the other Republican candidates, for example when Cruz or Bush suggests privileging Christians refugees over Muslims and even barring refugees based on their religion. True, Trump goes further, and he is more overt. But even still, it is difficult to ignore the sense that the media is a lot more comfortable calling out Trump than calling out other Republican candidates.

My suspicion is that this is at least in some small part because Republican Party leaders have denounced Trump's more outrageous statements, meaning that the media can safely criticize them without fearing accusations of partisanship, and because this allows the media to pretend it is purely a Trump problem.

Calling out several Republican candidates, including establishment-backed candidates, would mean implicitly criticizing the Republican party, and the media is clearly far less comfortable doing this. By the same token, criticizing Republican establishment candidates for praising Sisi would also mean at least implicitly criticizing the Obama administration for partnering with Sisi.

Norms of media behavior make many reporters uncomfortable staking out these sorts of positions — so what you have is an effective double standard whereby supporting authoritarian crackdowns and encouraging Islamophobia is deemed acceptable or unacceptable based on the speaker's proximity to the political establishment, rather than on the actual merits of those statements.