clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump is embracing a new generation of strongmen

Some of Trump’s best friends are authoritarians.

U.S. President Trump Visits China Thomas Peter/Pool/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Over the weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping essentially declared his intention to stay in power for life. He began the process of amending China’s constitution to eliminate term limits for the presidency.

This move, which seems very likely to succeed due to Xi’s influence among the Chinese leadership class, will upend a political system that depended on regular and orderly transfers of power between members of the ruling Communist Party.

In effect, Xi’s new policy changes China from a one-party authoritarian country to one-man rule.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is: Experts and China watchers describe this as a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Under the previous system, a Chinese leader’s power was somewhat constrained. But this new model makes China look like something closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

As such, you’d expect the United States — whose president has long claimed the mantle of “leader of the free world” — to condemn it.

President Donald Trump basically did the polar opposite.

During a Monday afternoon meeting with US governors, he said he had “great respect” for Xi, adding that he had a “very good relationship” with the Chinese leader. When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the term limit issue specifically, she seemed to imply that America was fine with Xi’s power grab.

“I believe that’s a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country,” she told reporters.

This response is more or less what we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration. At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise in key countries ranging from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines, Trump is silent — or has taken the authoritarian leader’s side.

The issue isn’t that a single, strongly worded US statement could change the course of politics in these countries. It’s that the overall American approach of passivity, and arguably mild authoritarian envy, is making it harder for democratic countries around the world and civil society organizations to respond.

“Thirty years ago, with what Xi did ... there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path [to democracy],’ and so on,” Michael McFaul, an expert on democracy at Stanford University and former US ambassador to Russia, told the New York Times. “Nobody is making that argument today ... certainly not Trump.”

Why’s Xi’s power grab is so important

19th National Congress Of The Communist Party Of China (CPC) - Opening Ceremony Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

It’s easy to think, from the outside, that Xi’s abolition of term limits isn’t actually that important. Modern China has always been authoritarian, with no real elections and a vast surveillance system dedicated to shutting down meaningful dissent. What does it matter who’s in charge of this Orwellian system so long as it remains Orwellian?

A lot, it turns out.

Term limits on Chinese leadership were put in place in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China’s authoritarian capitalist system. At that time, China had recently experienced the twin shocks of the Great Leap Forward, an economic “modernization” program, and the Cultural Revolution, a convulsive nationwide campaign that aimed to unify the country around the Communist Party by force, pushed by longtime ruler Mao Zedong.

They were some of the 20th century’s darkest episodes: Millions of Chinese citizens were killed, and tens of millions died of starvation.

Deng decided that the problem was, among other things, the amount of time that Mao had been able to stay in power. Mao could only implement such disastrous policies, Deng reasoned, because he had permanent and unquestioned control over the Chinese political system. So he instituted a one-decade term limit on Chinese leadership; after 10 years, the successor to the current president would be chosen by a Chinese Communist Party meeting roughly akin to a papal conclave. True power would live not in one person, but in the party.

Deng’s system seemed to be working smoothly. His successor, Jiang Zemin, handed over power after 10 years in the presidency to the party’s chosen successor, Hu Jintao. In 2013, Hu handed over power to his successor, Xi Jinping.

Xi, however, decided not to play by Deng’s rules. He strongly repressed dissent from both citizens and members of the party, forcing people he viewed as insufficiently loyal out of high-level positions. China watchers saw this as a sign that even limited experiments with democracy, viewed as a possibility under a system where elites could debate among each other, were becoming less and less likely.

Xi’s decision to abolish term limits is the death knell for the old system. Forget any move toward democracy; experts now fear that China will return to the bad old days of Mao-style purges and policy disasters.

“The fear that has silenced so many voices in Chinese society will keep spreading,” writes James Palmer, the Asia editor at Foreign Policy. “With power now concentrated in a single man, and with nobody willing to challenge him, the likelihood of calamitous mistakes has soared.”

Trump’s authoritarian envy

U.S. President Trump Visits China Thomas Peter/Pool/Getty Images

You’d think that this kind of major shift in China, one of the world’s largest countries and the one most capable of challenging America for global leadership, would be a serious concern for the White House. But Trump has a long track record of fondness for authoritarians.

Vladimir Putin is, of course, the obvious example. But there are several other examples of Trump buddying up to would-be authoritarian rulers, including people who have moved their country away from democracy under his presidency:

  • In April 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed through a referendum granting himself sweeping new powers. Other Western leaders issued statements of concern; Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him. Later in the year, Trump praised his “great friendship” with Erdogan, adding that the Turkish leader “has evolved very strongly” over the course of his time in leadership.
  • In May 2017, Trump praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been engaging in a campaign of extrajudicial killings targeting alleged drug dealers that has claimed thousands of lives. During a phone call, Trump told Duterte that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
  • In July 2017, Trump traveled to Poland at a time when Polish President Andrzej Duda was trying to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary. Trump had nothing to say about Duda’s attack on checks and balances; in his speech, he thanked Duda by name for showing him “the tremendous warmth and kindness for which Poland is known around the world.”

The pattern, at this point, is clear: When a country is in the process of dismantling democracy, civil liberties, or checks on authoritarian power, Trump will have nothing to say. In fact, it seems that he’ll show up only to praise the would-be authoritarian ruler.

It’s hard to know why Trump behaves this way. But there’s a clue in a Sunday Axios article about the president’s view on drugs. Five sources told Axios’s Jonathan Swan that the president outright admired countries where drug dealers get the death penalty and wished he could do the same in the United States.

“He says that a lot,” one source told Swan. “He says, ‘When I ask the prime minister of Singapore, do they have a drug problem, [the prime minister replies,] ‘No. Death penalty.’”

Trump seems to have a genuine, somewhat instinctive disregard for civil liberties and democratic norms — and admires “strong” leaders, like Xi and Erdogan, who simply cast them aside. He doesn’t like constraints on his own authority and wishes he could act like those who don’t have them.

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, told me last 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.”

The US, like it or not, is seen as a model around the world. Defenders of embattled democratic systems and democratic reformers in authoritarian countries alike see its actions as having unique importance, because of both the US’s unparalleled international influence and the sheer symbolism of its actions.

Trump is abandoning this role entirely; in fact, he’s reversing it. The United States, which has historically prided itself on being an example of democracy at home despite its support for some authoritarian regimes abroad, is now acting in a way that’s openly antagonistic toward its own stated values.

We still have no idea what that will do to the international system, as it’s never — ever — happened before.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.