Trump was referring to Xi Jinping, who is currently orchestrating a power grab in Beijing that hasn’t seen its like since the days of Mao.
You don’t need a lot of imagination to guess what happened next. It’s just another one of the president’s jokes, his loyalists assured us: Once again, they sneered, those liberal idiots can’t take a bit of fun. They quickly laid into the press for even discussing it.
Trump loves to play the troll, and we don’t always need to rise to the bait. But this is one case where we shouldn’t let him get away with it.
First, it wasn’t some sort of isolated prank. Over and over again Trump has lavished praise on strongmen around the world: Putin, Erdogan, Sissi, Duterte. He’s spoken again and again about how he admires them. And they surely haven’t missed the fact that Trump had harsher words for Nordstrom when they pulled Ivanka Trump’s clothing line than the praise he has lavished on dictators and despots.
Second, autocrats and aspiring despots often use “jokes” as trial balloons to gauge public reaction to abuses of power as they flirt with implementing them.
In 2015, I was in Bangkok when the military dictator joked about executing and jailing journalists. Hilarious! Except for the journalists in Thailand who are languishing in prison for doing their jobs or those who have fled to avoid wondering how much of the joke was a threat. (Trump rolled out the red carpet and invited Thailand’s military dictator to the White House in late 2017.)
Third — and unfortunately this has gotten the least attention — Trump’s remarks legitimize China’s worsening authoritarianism in ways that will damage U.S. influence and undermine Western support for democracy across the globe.
With Trump, context matters. This joke fits a systematic pattern of the president’s authoritarian instincts and impulses alongside a deep disdain for checks and balances that could constrain him. Trump’s defenders previously said he was also joking when he said Democrats were “treasonous” for not clapping loudly enough for his State of the Union address.
Was Trump joking when he called the media “the enemy of the people” and threatened to revoke licenses from critical media outlets? Was it stand-up comedy when he scapegoated minority groups with a racist broad brush as rapists and criminals? Are we supposed to snicker as he surrounds himself with unqualified family members and cronies at the highest echelons of power? Were lifelong public servants grinning when Trump asked them to pledge loyalty to him rather than the Constitution? Should we be laughing off his calls for jailing political rivals while pardoning a political ally?
These authoritarian actions have been enabled to a shocking degree by a new caucus of Banana Republicans — chock-full of cynical, dishonest opportunists such as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who will gladly act as willing accomplices in Trump’s efforts to drag the United States closer to banana republics abroad by politicizing rule of law. “Lock her up!” they chant. “Purge” the FBI of “deep state subversives!” And bring on the military parade!
With American democracy under threat, there are few members of Trump’s own party who put their loyalty to the democratic republic above their spineless fealty to a man who attacks its institutions and gleefully shreds the norms that hold it together.
And now, yet again, they will laugh this latest comment off as a joke.
The president’s words matter. Everyone in the world is listening. When the White House legitimizes China’s authoritarianism, it provides political cover to every autocrat and abusive despot across the globe to do the same.
And that’s why we shouldn’t — not even for a second — buy in to the absurd notion that Trump’s quote about Xi’s consolidation of power was a harmless amusement.
The United States used to be the world’s referee, blowing the whistle on dictators, demagogues and despots while modeling a commitment to democratic norms and institutions. We didn’t always call the game perfectly, but it made those autocrats think twice when they were deciding whether to jail opponents or shut down media outlets. Now we’ve got a demagogue in the White House who is not only modeling some of those same behaviors but also has swapped the referee whistle for a pair of pom-poms as he cheerleads for some of the world’s worst regimes. We should not be entertained.