President Trump has given us another reminder that even as he belittles and insults America’s staunchest allies, his admiration for dictators — precisely because of their willingness to oppress and abuse their people — is stronger than ever. While we have plenty of disagreements about what “American values” really are, up until now there has been a consensus that America, particularly when it goes out into the world to deal with other countries, stands for certain fundamental things such as democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.
That is no longer true. “America First” has turned out to be not just Trump’s intention of putting our needs above the needs of others. It’s a declaration that we will no longer be guided by any moral principles at all.
Given that Kim Jong Un runs what may be the most oppressive totalitarian state in the world today, many people were shocked to see how Trump heaped praise on the North Korean dictator during and after their summit in Singapore.
- “He’s got a very good personality, he’s funny, and he’s very, very smart,” Trump told Sean Hannity.
- “His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor,” he told George Stephanopoulos.
- “He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country,” Trump said about Kim in another interview. “He wants a lot of good things and that’s why he’s doing this.” Asked about Kim’s human rights abuses, Trump said, “Look, he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it.”
Then on the way back from Singapore, Fox News’s Bret Baier interviewed him and they had this exchange:
BAIER: You know you call people sometimes killers; he is a killer. He’s clearly executing people.
TRUMP: He’s a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at 27 years old, I mean that’s one in 10,000 that could do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.
BAIER: But he’s still done some really bad things.
TRUMP: Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Trump believes that taking over a family business is so extraordinarily difficult that only 1 in 10,000 people has the talent to do it. But he’s clearly using “tough” as a compliment here. He isn’t saying that Kim’s brutality — executions of dissenters, people sent to labor camps for the slightest lapse in revolutionary fervor, mass starvation — is something unfortunate that needs to change but that right now we have a higher priority. He isn’t asking us to ignore or overlook Kim’s atrocities, or put them in some kind of context that would make them more understandable. He’s saying that Kim’s brutality is admirable.
The fact that this kind of statement has become familiar from Trump should not for a moment lead us to stop being appalled at it.
Whenever Trump is confronted with the human rights abuses of the dictators for whom he expresses admiration, he has two defenses. The first is whataboutism, in which he counters that we can’t criticize others because the United States has also done terrible things. For instance, in 2017 he was challenged by Bill O’Reilly for his affection for Vladimir Putin; when O’Reilly said “Putin’s a killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
The second defense is to praise the abuse of human rights itself. For example, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has engaged in a campaign of extrajudicial terror in the name of fighting drug abuse, in which thousands of suspected drug dealers or drug users have been killed, often simply shot down in the street. When Trump spoke with Duterte early in his term by phone, he said:
“I just want to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
Trump has praised the Chinese government for the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square massacre — a peaceful protest Trump referred to as a “riot” — in which as many as 10,000 people were killed. In 2016, he lauded Saddam Hussein for not being constrained by pesky judicial procedures. “Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Right? He was a bad guy, really bad guy,” Trump said at a rally. “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights — they didn’t talk, they were a terrorist, it was over.”
During that campaign he also advocated bringing back torture and murdering the families of suspected terrorists. As president, when viewing video of a drone strike in which the operators waited until the suspect left the house his family was staying in before killing him, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?”
You might argue that whatever Trump’s contempt for the ideals of democracy, liberty and human rights, the country has often turned its back on those ideals as we pursued goals like the containment of Soviet influence, or that we’ve been indifferent to suffering when doing something about it was not convenient for us. That is indisputably true. You can also argue that at times we have used concern over human rights as an excuse for actions we wanted to take for other reasons, sometimes in the process bringing unspeakable misery down upon countries too weak to resist us, as happened in the Iraq War. You’d be right there, too.
But it matters that the United States is a voice in the world for those principles, just as it matters that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were powerful documents proclaiming universal rights, even if we failed to live up to them in many ways. Every president before now, both Republican and Democrat, has at the very least said that the United States would advocate for those values. “It matters because the entire human rights infrastructure set up after WWII is weakening worldwide,” said one official from Human Rights Watch. “The notion that democracy, while flawed, is the best form of government that exists, is under assault.” And we don’t care. Our president has sent a message to the world: Do what you want. We won’t object.
Our domestic policies are also being shaped by Trump’s indifference — or even active hostility — toward human rights. His Justice Department put an end to the consent decrees that in the past have been used to reform local police departments that showed a pattern of abusing citizens, making it clear that Washington will no longer concern itself with such abuses. Civil rights enforcement has been scaled back. Trump wanted to bar all Muslims from entering the country, then settled for just banning people from a set of majority-Muslim countries. When the administration proudly announces a new policy to separate immigrant children from their parents, then declares that domestic and gang violence generally will no longer be accepted as grounds for asylum, it sends a clear message to the world about what our values are.
That message is that we really have no values at all, only whatever we perceive to be in the most crass version of our self-interest as we perceive it at any given moment. That is what Trump has turned America into. And we can’t begin to understand the damage it will do by the time he’s finished.