Once upon a time, George W. Bush made a joke. It went like this.
"If this were a dictatorship," he said to Republicans on Capitol Hill shortly after being elected in 2000, "it would be a heck of a lot easier — just so long as I'm the dictator."
Bush was joking (though that quote came back to haunt him many times over the next eight years). One might be forgiven for assuming that the man who hopes to be the first Republican to follow Bush agrees with the sentiment — but not the tongue-in-cheek nature of it.
During a campaign stop in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday night, Donald Trump repeated an argument that he's made in the past: Saddam Hussein should be praised for killing terrorists.
"Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Right? He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists," Trump said. "He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights — they didn't talk, they were a terrorist, it was over."
This isn't new for Trump. He appeared on Fox News Sunday on May 1 and was asked about the foreign policy speech he gave at the end of April. In that speech, Trump argued that the wars in the Middle East failed in part because of the "dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western Democracy."
Fox's Chris Wallace asked Trump about that claim. "The question is if we're going to disengage from that part of the world, how do we promote stability?" he asked. "You talk about in your speech the futility of creating democracies. Do you — would you like to see a return to strongmen in the Middle East, people like Mubarak and Saddam Hussein?"
"Isn't it too bad that we knocked them out in the first place?" Trump replied. Later, he added another strongman to the mix: "If we would have left [Moammar] Gaddafi, you wouldn't have that."
There's no question that Trump embraces the idea of a strong leader who can act without any checks to his power. The leaders he's praised constitute a sort of legion of doom in American politics.
Trump approves of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said last year is "getting an 'A' in terms of leadership." Putin, Trump says, is a strong leader. In December, Trump defended Putin's murder of journalists by saying that "at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."
Of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Trump told Fox News that "personally, I've been looking at the different players, and I've been watching Assad and I've been pretty good at this stuff over the years — because deals are people — and I'm looking at Assad and saying, maybe he's better than the kind of people that we're supposed to be backing" in the conflict in that country. ("Yeah," Fox's Bill O'Reilly replied, "but he's a mass murderer.")
In January, Trump praised how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had consolidated power. After calling Kim a "maniac," Trump called his ascent "amazing."
"Even though it is a culture, and it’s a cultural thing," Trump said, "he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games."
During a debate in March, Trump explained his past praise of the Chinese government's response to the Tiananmen Square protests as being "a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength." He insisted that it was a "horrible thing" and that, as with his praise of Putin, he wasn't "endorsing" the crackdown. He was just saying that the Chinese government was admirably strong.
So that's Hussein, Putin, Assad, Gaddafi, Kim and the anti-democracy leaders of China. We could probably throw in Trump's praise of the "Persian" negotiators in Iran who he claims out-maneuvered Barack Obama, but that's just gilding the lily.
The common theme of this legion of doom? Strong leaders doing what they had to in order to hold power. Sure, they broke a few eggs. But how about those omelettes!
Last month, Bloomberg released a poll in which it asked what sort of qualities respondents were looking for in a president. About 3-in-10 said they were looking for a strong leader — fewer than those who wanted someone who would share their values.
When CNN/ORC polled on which presidential candidate was seen as a stronger leader, the results were close. Forty-seven percent of voters said Trump; 43 percent said it was Hillary Clinton.
It's true that being a dictator would make it a lot easier to get your way, as the above examples demonstrate. Bush's point in 2000 was that he wasn't a dictator, and that his peers in the legislative branch should remember that "there were going to be some times where we don't agree with each other."
Trump's praise for the tactics of dictators seems somewhat less rooted in an embrace of the separation of powers.