President Donald Trump hates checks on his authority, believes the press has too much freedom to criticize him, and thinks the FBI director — the head of America’s state security service — should be loyal to him personally.
These qualities have led a number of observers to compare him to strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It turns out, according to a new report in the Washington Post, that these comparisons are more appropriate than we think: The president appears to semi-openly admire these authoritarians.
The money quote is buried in the middle of the Post’s piece, a long and worthwhile investigation into Trump’s view of Russia. It’s from an anonymous Trump adviser, talking about which foreign leaders the president respects. Amazingly, all three of the people listed are authoritarian leaders.
“Who are the three guys in the world he most admires? President Xi of China, Erdoğan and Putin,” the adviser told the Post. “They’re all the same guy.”
This quote confirms a longtime sense among reporters who cover Trump’s foreign policy, like yours truly, that Trump is demonstrably more comfortable with authoritarian leaders than with his nominal peers in liberal democracies. He’s bragged about his “great chemistry” with Xi and called meeting Putin in July an “honor,” while his interactions with elected leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Japan’s Shinzo Abe have been defined by awkward photo-ops and weird displays of dominance during handshakes.
It’s not exactly clear why Trump likes authoritarians so much: Maybe it’s the value he places on the appearance of strength and masculine virility. But the big takeaway, what this quote from the anonymous Trump adviser helps underscore, is that Trump is really different from the American presidents who came before him.
Typically, leaders of the US and other democracies have a strong ideological commitment to democratic principles. They develop working relationships with authoritarian leaders, maybe even friendships, but never openly “admire” them in the way that Trump seems to.
Trump “has what you might think of as autocratic tendencies, which were probably perfectly normal in the business world but are very problematic in the political world,” Sheri Berman, a professor at Barnard College who studies authoritarianism, told me earlier this year. “What he would like to do is eliminate all sources of opposition to him — indeed, even sources of criticism of him — and he’s willing to do pretty much anything to do that.”
It’s all a little worrying.