Despots and dictators around the world are celebrating the era of Trump. Why? Because they live in an time when the president of the United States praises strongmen — while mimicking some of their tactics and rhetoric in the White House.
On Monday, a court in Myanmar sentenced two journalists to seven years in prison. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are, not so coincidentally, the same journalists who helped expose the genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar’s government against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group.
Or, to put it differently, a regime that has previously called the press “the enemy of the state,” and referred to its own slaughter of the Rohingya as “fake news,” has now jailed two reporters for doing their jobs.
The Trumpian echoes are obvious, as is the lingering voice of John McCain, who, if he was still alive, would still be holding hearings and condemning Myanmar’s government. On July 9, McCain tweeted: “Journalism is not a crime. . . . The bogus charges should be dropped [and] these journalists should be released immediately.”
McCain was right. The journalists were the victim of a cynical setup: Two police officers approached the reporters, offered them documents related to their investigation into a recent spate of killings, and then arrested them for possessing the documents that had just been handed to them. The sting was designed not only to silence the two men, but also to muzzle press freedom in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, more generally.
We shouldn’t allow their tactics to work. Myanmar’s brutal regime doesn’t want you to read this reporting the now-imprisoned journalists filed for Reuters, which puts names to places, and holds mass murderers accountable for their barbaric crimes.
In a larger sense, though, the journalists’ imprisonment is just the latest piece of evidence that the Trump era is producing dire consequences for global democracy, for human rights and for press freedom. Not surprisingly, there are consequences to having a thin-skinned, wannabe despot roaming the West Wing, his Twitter fingers itching while deciding whether to attack the press, undercut rule of law, or scapegoat religious and ethnic minorities for every problem under the sun.
Those clinging to power in lavish palaces from Myanmar to Zimbabwe have taken notice — and they are growing more emboldened, partly because of President Trump.
During my studies on how authoritarian regimes function, I have interviewed a number of former and incumbent autocrats. Off the record, they all admitted looking to the West — and to Washington, most of all — to figure out what they can get away with. If they cross the line, autocrats fear they will lose the international legitimacy they so crave, along with all the associated economic, political and psychological benefits it confers on them.
The risk of an international backlash and the prospect of becoming an international pariah is, therefore, one of few forces that constrains strongmen from embracing their darkest demons. Sure, they would love to just be able to have a free-for-all. Jail every journalist who bad-mouths the junta. Scapegoat minorities to deflect blame for their own failures. And when someone is foolish enough to run against the president, well, it is then time to “lock them up.”
When dictators and despots behave that way, they used to risk facing a call from the State Department or the White House. Admittedly, the United States hasn’t always behaved in a principled way. (Saudi Arabia has to do a lot more to face repercussions from Washington than, say, Madagascar.) Nonetheless, the threat of international isolation was a real factor in the decision-making of those who would commit genocide, abuse their people, or kill or jail journalists.
Under Trump, authoritarian regimes no longer see the American president as a schoolteacher who could blow the whistle on their egregious behavior. They see him as a schoolyard bully who is a kindred spirit and a potential ally.
After all, Myanmar’s junta used the phrase “enemy of the state” before Donald Trump called the press the “enemy of the people,” but Myanmar’s government borrowed the term “fake news” from him and has used it to shield themselves from accusations of genocide.
The 24-hour Donald Trump show that dominates breathless cable-news coverage and empties ink supplies with large-print bold-face headlines in U.S. newspapers has buried important stories about the effects of Trump’s presidency abroad. This is one such story. But Trump is also partly to blame for the chilling narrative more directly, as his behavior, his rhetoric and his transactional foreign policy have made despotic abuses of power more likely.
Trump doesn’t care. Show Myanmar’s government that you do. Read their reporting about Myanmar’s grisly genocidal killings. Call your elected officials. And vote for candidates who will put not just the slogan of America — but also American values — first.