At the root of Trump's praise for the now-executed Iraqi president's handling of terrorists is the fact that he was willing to kill them without worrying about things like due process.
"He was a bad guy — really bad guy," Trump said Tuesday, being sure to add that important qualifier. "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 terrorists — over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism."
This undoubtedly appeals to the Trump supporters who are interested in a strong leader who will just kill the bad guys — no questions asked. And why not? They're bad guys, after all.
The problem is that Hussein's deprivation of due process and willingness to kill people didn't stop at terrorists or even suspected terrorists; he also did this to his political opponents and minority groups.
"For more than 20 years, Saddam Hussein has executed perceived opponents without respect for rule of law," the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor wrote in 2002. "Saddam Hussein silences these alleged dissidents because he believes that their political beliefs, faith, ethnic background, family members or acquaintances are a threat to his power."
The point of due process is that you need it to avoid killing or jailing the wrong people. A leader who doesn't have it can use that absence to suppress the voices of anybody who might oppose him. That's what Hussein did.
But really, this lack of regard for due process is very much in keeping with Trump's rhetoric on a whole host of issues. To wit:
- Trump said last month that Hillary Clinton is "guilty as hell" and "has to go to jail," and he said previously that he would move to prosecute her as president (something FBI Director James Comey recommended against on Tuesday).
- He has said illegal immigrants might not be entitled to due process and has mentioned the brutal 1950s-era program dubbed "Operation Wetback" approvingly as proof that millions of illegal immigrants can be systematically deported.
- Trump suggested he might support banning terrorism suspects on the no-fly list from buying guns. This is a proposal that is opposed by both the NRA and ACLU on due process grounds, even as it has widespread public support.
- His ban on Muslim immigrants also raises serious due process concerns — among others — for opponents.
- He has praised noted strongmen such as Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and the late Moammar Gaddafi for their leadership — or at least for being better than the chaotic alternatives. Each man, like Hussein, has, or had, a notoriously abysmal human rights record.
The common thread here isn't hard to suss out: Trump will protect you, even if he has to step on some toes or toss aside a few legal obstacles to do it. And he likes foreign leaders who do the same.
And in fact, that's something his supporters very much appear to appreciate. A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute recently showed 72 percent of Trump backers want a leader "who is willing to break some rules if that's what it takes to set things right."
The political strategy here is unmistakable. But the details are important, too, and they're not something Trump should be able to skirt. It's one thing to talk about getting tough on terrorism internationally; it's another to suggest things that might run afoul of the Bill of Rights on U.S. soil, where rights are protected.
Does Trump really think decisions to prosecute political opponents, let alone decisions on their guilt or innocence, don't belong in a court of law? Does Trump really think undocumented immigrants might not have the right to due process — something even Bill O'Reilly called him out on?
The Hussein reference raises other questions: Just how sure do you have to be that someone is a terrorist before trying to kill them? Does Trump think Hussein's approach should be used on U.S. soil? Should the United States support leaders who kill terrorists, even if they kill lots of people who aren't terrorists in the process?
Trump has said many controversial things during his campaign, and it can be easy to dismiss his praise of Hussein as just his latest praise for a strongman. He's said this sort of thing before. He's not even the first politician to suggest we would be better off with strongman leaders in the Middle East than what we have today.
Where Trump's comments veer in a different direction is when he again suggests he's not a huge fan of due process. Trump's apparently cavalier attitude toward it — and his praise for those who flout it — is certainly something worth exploring over the next four months.