In the category of small mercies, let us file this one: As strongmen go, President Trump has proved to be blessedly weak.
It isn’t, apparently, for lack of ambition. The president, who has never been stingy in praising the world’s dictators, engaged in that favorite pastime again Saturday night before a friendly audience in what was supposed to be a private event at Mar-a-Lago.
The object of the president’s affection this time was China’s president, Xi Jinping, whom Trump hailed as a “great gentleman” who treated Trump “tremendously well” during Trump’s recent visit. In Trump’s glowing assessment, Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader “in a hundred years.”
One hundred years! How now, Mao?
Trump particularly admired Xi’s successful move to abolish term limits. “He’s now president for life — president for life — and he’s great,” Trump said at the closed-door fundraiser, audio of which leaked to CNN. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” His audience cheered and applauded.
There has been debate about whether Trump was joking. But why? Trump’s tastes (and those of his followers) have long skewed toward the authoritarian. A couple of days earlier, Trump casually proposed suspending the Constitution to deal with shootings: “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
And Xi is just the latest of Trump’s strongman crushes. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is a “smart cookie,” Saddam Hussein was good at killing terrorists, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is “very close to me,” and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan won Trump’s congratulations on a power-seizing referendum. Trump has a “great relationship” with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and laughed when Duterte called journalists “spies.” Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in Trump’s view, is “very much of a leader” and has escaped punishment for meddling in the U.S. election.
Now Trump is bromancing Xi, calling him a “very good man” and giving China “great credit” for taking advantage of the United States in trade.
But here’s the good news: Though Trump may admire the world’s authoritarians, he has proved to be a singularly incompetent one himself. Certainly, he has the requisite bluster and demagogic instincts for the job, but he’s been too undisciplined to be a self-respecting autocrat. He talks like Mussolini but governs like Mr. Bean.
Being a dictator is hard work, after all, and Trump, who has more than once remarked on how difficult his job already is, needs his executive time. Being a dictator requires discipline, and Trump thrives on chaos, his White House lurching between scandals and beset by constant turnover.
I’m not complaining about Trump’s lack of autocratic aptitude or encouraging him to do better. If he were more effective in emulating those he admires, he’d be imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents and journalists, banning religions and imposing censorship. He’d also be banning, as China has, bitcoin, online dating, Dr. Seuss (Ted Cruz would never allow it), video games, the word “Jasmine,” Snapchat, Pinterest and Facebook.
But can anybody imagine Trump doing the difficult spadework needed to become a dictator? Xi didn’t just pronounce himself president for life last week. He protected his standing by barring all mentions of Winnie the Pooh (apparently people think they look alike), Disney, “my emperor,” “great men sent from heaven” and, briefly, the letter “N” (don’t ask). Surely Trump would benefit by banning many of the same words and phrases China blocked last week, including “shameless,” “personality cult,” “I oppose,” “disagree,” “incapable ruler,” “1984,” “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World.”
There’s another reason Trump couldn’t be a Xi-style autocrat, and it has nothing to do with constitutional restrictions.
The Chinese government has banned “oversized” and “bizarre architecture.” Trump specialized in that.
China bans gambling. Trump made billions from it.
China outlaws action that “publicizes the luxury life.” Trump built his brand on that.
China shuts down sites that cover celebrity gossip. Trump made his name with it.
China forbids sensationalizing criminal cases. Trump’s tweets routinely do that.
China prohibits disparaging members of the army, police or judiciary. Trump has disparaged all three.
China bans the defamation of national heroes. Trump has attacked John McCain.
China bars the display of “unhealthy marital values” and prohibits reference to sexual assault. Trump has “Access Hollywood” and Stormy Daniels.
China forbids speech that it says confuses “truth and falsity.” Such speech has been the basis of Trump’s presidency.
China bans Twitter. Trump makes it his main method of communication.
And this is why we’re safe. For Trump to emulate Xi, he would need to ban all things excessive, brash, licentious and crude. He would have to outlaw himself.