The Trump effect on American politics needs no fancy explanation. He either inspires partisans to staple MAGA hats to their heads or causes them to pull their hair out in paroxysms of frustration. It’s more complicated around the world, but President Trump puts his stamp on the politics of other countries, too, both overtly and subtly. Populists, nationalists and authoritarians look to Trump and know that they may proceed unchecked. Countries more committed to the decades-long liberal international order scramble to respond to scrapped cultural, institutional, diplomatic and policy norms. Will a stray nuke blow them up? Will a carbon-clogged climate fry them? In an upside-down Trump world where friends aren’t friends, enemies aren’t enemies, and yesterday’s deals are today’s kindling, nations must adjust.
Trump’s style can be confusing beyond U.S. borders, as when Kim Jong Un gets a heartier handshake than Angela Merkel. “Never before have we had a president whose approach to dealing with America’s allies and adversaries alike has been so closely tethered to his personal politics, interests, likes and dislikes, rather than to a coherent assessment of U.S. national interests,” says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised the State Department in both Republican and Democratic administrations. That may explain Trump’s tendency to opine about the internal policy choices of other countries: “They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” he tweeted shortly before his election. “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” he tweeted last year in a swipe at Merkel’s refugee policy. “A very talented man who will hopefully remain Prime Minister!” he tweeted in August before Giuseppe Conte retained his leadership in Italy.
Voters, officeholders and policymakers in these countries have noticed — it has been impossible not to. And their nations have changed in response to the changed way the leader of the free world interacts with them. The Washington Post asked 13 journalists and authors to explain the Trump effect on their countries.
An anti-Putin movement goes it alone
One evening in August, Russia’s most popular TV anchor, Vladimir Solovyov, indulged in mocking adoration of Donald Trump. The American president had hinted that he wanted to buy Greenland, and Solovyov said he loved Trump for destroying liberal cliches. This particular cliche appeared to be the belief that in the modern world, strong powers will not engage in land grabs — a topical issue in Russia, which had recently snatched Crimea away from Ukraine. “Strong states will get more lands, weak states will lose them, and Trump is showing that in a crude and vivid manner,” said Solovyov, prompting long applause from the studio audience.
When Russia ditched the communists back in the early 1990s, the triumphant West, led by the United States, beckoned, a shiny role model to pursue. Today, visionless and rudderless, the United States is a laughingstock to Kremlin mouthpieces like Solovyov — and a source of bewilderment, if not disgust, to the country’s liberal critics of President Vladimir Putin. Embodying that disillusionment is Trump, who seems intent on proving decades of Kremlin propaganda about America’s cynicism and lack of scruples. (See: Ukraine.)
For pro-Western Russians, the 2016 election was a reckoning for their past naivete and idolization of the West. Ukraine, currently in the spotlight in the United States for all the wrong reasons, has been a major factor in shaping their disenchantment. Successive U.S. administrations failed Ukraine, which became a victim of Russian aggression after the Maidan revolution in 2014. For Russians seeking change that fit the Western liberal template, Ukraine, being culturally close to Russia, might have served as a test case.
Instead, Ukraine became a cautionary tale. The United States ignored rabid ethnonationalism and did next to nothing to help the country undo its corrupt oligarchic system. Poor and insecure, Ukraine is a perfect scarecrow for Kremlin TV, which devotes a grotesquely disproportionate amount of time to it. “It’s nothing but Ukraine on air,” a popular Russian comedian, Maxim Galkin, lamented in a recent show. “Can you tell us something about ourselves? Seems like everything is so great here, Ukraine is all that’s left to worry about.”
As the debacle led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani unfolded, it felt like a dramatic but logical climax to the tragicomedy of U.S.-Ukraine relations. “Are they even in their right mind there? I am worried,” Solovyov mocked.
All this does not necessarily doom Russian liberals. Their American dream might be shattered, but they grow resilient. The anti-Putin movement, led by Alexei Navalny, is truly organic and independent from Western support. Very slowly but surely, it is gaining ground in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere around the country. Emerging is a healthy feeling that Russians should go ahead and change their country without waiting for the Trumpian West to sort itself out.
Thank you for the epithet, Mr. President
Worldwide outrage followed reports that President Trump had described Haiti and most African nations as “shithole countries” during an Oval Office meeting in 2018. In Nigeria, however, opposition politicians welcomed the comment as a missile targeted at the government of Muhammadu Buhari. “President Buhari laid a very bad foundation for all the bad impressions people have about Nigeria as a whole,” said Diran Odeyemi, a spokesman for the main opposition party, the PDP.
The epithet has remained a weapon in the PDP’s verbal arsenal. “It’s only in a shithole country that you can see this kind of thing,” said Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue state, when threatened with impeachment. Seriake Dickson, governor of Bayelsa state, found the term useful when complaining about national security before the general elections in February: “A country where lives and property are not protected is a failed state. That is a ‘shithole’ country. So, nobody should blame President Donald Trump when he said African leaders were presiding over shithole countries.”
Other Trump expressions have found their way into Nigeria’s political parlance, too. The Financial Times reported that after meeting with Buhari in April, the U.S. president described the Nigerian leader as “lifeless.” This “lifelessness” was a main theme during the hard-fought but failed campaigns to root him out of government in February’s election. Dozens of Nigeria’s more than 70 opposition parties wielded the disparagement to highlight Buhari’s poor performance on the economy and his much-publicized health issues. (The Nigerian government dismissed the “lifeless” comment as “fake news.”)
Not to be outdone, the military justified its use of fatal force against protesters in November 2018 by tweeting a video of Trump suggesting that immigrants could be shot if they threw rocks at U.S. soldiers. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump said in the video. The Nigerian military claimed that its soldiers opened fire because the protesters threw stones. “We released the video to say if President Trump can say that rocks are as good as a rifle, who is Amnesty International?” an army spokesman told the New York Times. “What did David use to kill Goliath? So a stone is a weapon.”
If Trump’s words are popular in this deeply religious nation, the most populous in Africa, the man himself is more so, perhaps because of his blunt, tough-guy image. Almost 60 percent of Nigerians believe he is a positive influence on world affairs, according to the Pew Research Center. And Nigeria is among the top five countries that make up his 67 million Twitter followers.
In the recent election season, some politicians tried to take advantage of Trump’s popularity. The PDP hired as a strategist Brian Ballard, who chaired the Trump Victory organization in Florida. And the campaign of Atiku Abubakar, the party’s presidential flag-bearer, adopted the slogan “Let’s Make Nigeria Work Again,” an obvious echo of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” He lost.
‘Fake news,’ and cover for a brutal drug war
Donald Trump first deployed the term “fake news” a week before he took office. Now he owns it, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rushed to appropriate the term two years ago when he used the label to insult Rappler, the news website I co-founded in 2012.
Duterte’s smear came well into what Trump characterized as a “great relationship” between the two, which included his telling Duterte in a phone call early in his presidency: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
That “unbelievable job” amounted to a violent and generally extrajudicial campaign against suspected dealers and users, often shot dead in the streets: By the government’s own admission, 5,000 were killed in less than three years; human rights groups say it’s at least 27,000. Rappler reported extensively on Duterte’s drug war, publishing a multipart investigation called “The Impunity Series,” and Duterte was no fan. We also reported on meddling by a top Duterte aide (now a senator) in selecting a contractor to build two Navy ships, which is what earned Rappler the epithet “fake news” and a ban on presidential coverage.
Trump is no Duterte, but they share a suspicion of a free and fair press, and an affinity for “alternative realities” that throw citizens off the scent. This connection began before either was elected. Cambridge Analytica, a firm created and run by Trump supporters, not only worked to win Trump the presidency, it also tested its tactics of social media mass manipulation in the Philippines. The whistleblower Christopher Wylie told me that the Philippines was a “petri dish” for the firm’s use of data harvested from Facebook accounts. The United States had the largest number of compromised accounts, but the second-most were in the Philippines, where Facebook essentially is the nation’s Internet.
Duterte began his drug war shortly after he was elected in May 2016. Not coincidentally, that was when Facebook was weaponized, with the social media campaign machinery turned against perceived critics, helping create an atmosphere of violence and fear that let Duterte consolidate power. Press freedom came under attack immediately: Online, journalists and news groups were systematically harassed; offline, Duterte threatened the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest newspaper; ABS-CBN, the largest television station; and Rappler, the largest online-only news site. In 2018, the government tried to shut us down, filing nearly a case per month. (I’ve been arrested and am free only because I posted bail eight times.)
When I asked Wylie in September if Cambridge Analytica’s social media experiments in the Philippines paved the way for Brexit and Trump, he answered: “Filipino politics kind of looks a lot like the United States. You’ve got a president who was Trump before Trump was Trump, and you have relationships with people close to him” in the people who funded Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer and Stephen K. Bannon.
Trump’s praise of Duterte’s drug war and leadership style makes a certain kind of sense. Both men are populist and transactional, with little patience for quibbling over due process and a macho tendency to exaggerate and lie. But while Trump may initially have given Duterte cover for his brutal reign, neither man has invested in the “great relationship.” Both have proved fickle. “The Americans really do not honor their word,” Duterte told a crowd last year after Washington blocked an arms sale to the Philippines. And now he courts Russia and China.
Making far-right nationalism acceptable again
The Nazis were a “speck of bird poop” in the broad sweep of Germany’s “glorious past.” That’s how Alexander Gauland, a leader of the parliamentary group of the far-right political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), dismissed the brand of extreme German nationalism that thrived decades before his own. Gauland helped found AfD almost seven years ago, and in 2017, it became the third-largest political party in parliament.
It had help, or at least inspiration.
Germany’s new far right didn’t need Donald Trump, but he accelerated its rise. AfD owes its rapid advance to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, the fragmentation of the German party system and its own sophisticated use of social media, but Trumpism contributed a template. Other German parties have distanced themselves from Trump; AfD, by contrast, not only openly shares the ideas of the American president, it also emulates his tactics. The party identified and adopted effective components of Trump’s behavior to gain power, including campaigning against the establishment, tweeting disparagingly and lying with impunity.
Like Trump, AfD constantly insists that the media works against it. Gauland said in a 2018 interview that he wanted to banish people, including journalists, who supported the “Merkel system.” Employing Trump’s rhetoric, AfD plays on fear — whether of Islam, immigration or climate activism. In 2018, Gauland talked about the “obvious deadly side effects of migration” and in 2019, about climate rescue as some kind of “substitute religion” for which “migrant flows and billions of expenses can be justified.” The media commonly misrepresents Trump as a “clown” and “naughty schoolboy,” Gauland suggested in a speech to parliament in October, concluding: “After hubris comes nemesis.”
It’s true that the president also exerts an opposite influence. Since Trump’s absolutist view of power means that the United States no longer fulfills its role as a reliable partner, Germany is newly appreciative of — and receptive to stronger ties with — the European Union, a development harshly criticized by the AfD.
Trump has cultivated populists across Europe. The specter of a far-right movement in Germany, however, draws particular attention given the history. AfD members represent a policy that denigrates minorities in a country where a similar development led to catastrophe 80 years ago. But public outrage at the far right’s new place in society and government is already abating. Polls show that moderate Germans are shifting right, polarizing the country’s politics.
The consequences are great. The racism, rage, brutality of manners and anti-scientific attitude that characterize the far right have gained ground, and Trump has helped restore social acceptance to a mind-set that always has been and forever will be with Germans: nationalism.
Look who helped Xi cement his power
Across China, reformers within the Communist Party and “Trump fans” in the freedom camp cheered Donald Trump’s election: He would help loosen the grip of the party and check the unfettered arrogance of President Xi Jinping.
Trump indeed exerts influence on China’s domestic politics. Most significantly, he forced Xi to jump-start economic reforms that screeched to a halt after Hu Jintao handed over power almost seven years ago. But thanks in part to Trump, Xi’s autocratic rule has strengthened, not weakened; social fragmentation has grown; nationalism thrives; and the Chinese Communist Party sits pretty, secure in its future.
During the Hu era, motivation for economic reform slowed, and after Xi took office, most efforts essentially stopped. Manufacturing continued to open up, but only under certain conditions. This year, economic expansion is of a breadth and depth rarely seen over the past decade. This is especially so in the financial sector, where regulations limiting foreign investment were lifted, making financial reform a defining feature of 2019. Trump’s ever-expanding trade war placed extreme pressure on the economy, causing Xi to take steps to entice foreign investment while also satisfying negotiating conditions with the United States.
One could say that in making it impossible for China to continue down the road to self-reliance, Trump has been the “hero” of the new economic reform.
But there’s a flip side. From May 2018, when the trade war began in earnest, to this October, when the Central Committee held its four-day Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress, many outside China predicted that Xi’s power would be shaken. But as the Trump administration’s posture toward China took shape, it became clear that the United States was using the trade war to try to keep China down. After the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, an executive of the technology giant Huawei, which the United States accuses of violating sanctions against Iran, the Central Committee understood that U.S. motives went beyond a trade balance: They aimed to stifle China’s development through backdoor measures. So whatever concessions Beijing might give, Trump could and probably would change his tune, asking for more and at a higher price. Xi took advantage of this realization. He exercised internal party discipline to limit differing views on the trade war, and in May, he demonstrated his power when he threw out the trade deal that he and Trump had settled on. (Who knows what will become of the more recent deal?) The plenum doubled down, packaging Xi’s strategies into a “modernization of national rule” — the Communist Party playbook for the next dozen years.
Chinese Trump fans and reformers alike at first thought he’d drive Xi down the reform path that Deng Xiaoping began almost four decades ago. But then people began to see that Trump’s trade war was only about America — and Trump himself; that it was not really concerned with human rights in China; that it was designed to stunt both the country and the party. The Chinese people have had a change of heart. Disappointment grows, as does nationalism. The Communist Party has seized the opportunity to cast itself as the protector of the national interest. Trump, paradoxically, helped.
No longer blinded by a benign ally
Delhi received President Trump as an American version of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump’s malice toward Muslims endeared him to reactionaries among the Hindu majority. When a fringe group calling itself the Hindu Army hailed Trump as a “hero” ordained to “save humanity from Islam and Islamic terror,” it reflected the mood that predominated among the powerful in the capital. Trump had enthralled well-heeled Indians long before he became president. India, as home to the greatest number of Trump-branded real estate projects outside the United States, sends big paychecks to the Trump Organization for using its name. Ties like these prompted Indians to regard Trump as the ideal president: He would deepen the partnership forged by George W. Bush and intensified by Barack Obama while being uniquely sympathetic to the prejudices of India’s new masters.
Things did not go as planned. Far from being elevated, the U.S. relationship with India was downgraded: Washington did not have an ambassador in Delhi for the first 10 months of Trump’s presidency. Nothing he said could be relied upon.
The president’s florid proclamations of affection for India could not compensate for his threats to raise tariffs, his ultimatums to Delhi to cease importing Iranian oil, the spike in denials of visas for Indian workers and his abandonment of India during a border standoff with China in 2017. The Hindu-nationalist fantasy of an anti-Muslim alliance never properly materialized. Even the fundamental assumptions that helped generate a pro-American consensus in India after the Cold War — mutual respect, democratic solidarity, appreciation of core interests — were upended by Trump. Modi’s carefully crafted image at home as a hugely respected colossus on the world stage was bruised by reports of Trump’s derision, in private, of the prime minister’s trouble with English.
In September, desperate to bolster support for India in the United States, Modi abased himself to gratify Trump at an event in Houston. “He has achieved much for the United States and for the world,” declared Modi, who had announced a huge corporate tax cut to soften the Americans just before the meeting. Pictures of the two men walking hand in hand were splashed on the front pages of every major Indian newspaper. Exactly a day later, Trump appeared next to Imran Khan, the prime minister of India’s bitter rival Pakistan, and offered to mediate the dispute in Kashmir — a proposal so inimical to India’s position that it repudiated every ounce of investment Modi had just made to stroke Trump’s ego.
Trump remains a beau ideal of Hindu extremists. But his presidency has also shattered the perception of Washington as a benign force. Though they are vastly different men, Trump and Modi belong in the same pantheon of strongman rulers. And an America that is governed by Trump can scarcely restrain India’s slide into authoritarianism. The excesses of Modi — from the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy to the introduction of a sinister law that disqualifies Muslim refugees from Indian citizenship — have finally provoked nationwide protests to reclaim India. When the country recovers from the ravages of the Modi era, the attitude of many Indians toward the United States will be less euphoric, more realistic. The lofty rhetoric of shared values and fantasies of superpower status that once beguiled political elites into a tight embrace of America will probably make way for a healthy skepticism of Washington and a reassertion of India’s fiercely independent streak.
Forgotten by an indifferent savior
For a brief, shining moment this year, Venezuelans dared to dream. After 20 years of intensifying authoritarianism in the country and then a wholesale economic collapse, the world had made up its mind. And the head of the last remaining superpower was leading the way.
When opposition leader Juan Guaidó cited an obscure constitutional provision to declare himself interim president of Venezuela on Jan. 23, after the disputed 2018 election left Nicolás Maduro in power, the Trump administration took less than an hour to recognize him, upstaging the group of 14 countries from Canada to Peru that had been working behind the scenes to bolster Guaidó’s claim. Days later, Trump dramatically upped the ante, launching a broad ban on U.S. trade of Venezuelan oil. This was the nuclear option; Venezuela depended on the United States for the vast bulk of its currency revenue. Trump was all in: The United States was finally using its leverage to bring change to Venezuela.
Venezuelans desperate to unseat the dictator Maduro reveled. Venezuelan Twitter was full of speculation about which Caracas avenue or plaza we’d end up renaming after Trump when it was all over.
But the gambit was risky. The United States had played its Trump ace. If it didn’t work, then what? There didn’t seem to be a Plan B.
Because there wasn’t.
Over the following weeks and months, Venezuelans watched despondently as Trump’s push petered out and the president turned his fickle attention elsewhere. Maduro learned to do more with less — more violence with fewer dollars, which now came mostly out of a mindlessly ecocidal drive to power-hose gold deposits out of sensitive ecosystems in Venezuela’s southern jungles and savannas. The gold was laundered through Turkey, where one of Trump’s fast friends, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turned it into cash that Maduro could use to pay off his goons.
Trump rarely mentions Venezuela anymore. And Venezuelans stopped fantasizing about renaming plazas after him. He’d seen us, we recognized, as a potential “quick win” — and when it turned out we weren’t, he lost interest. But oil sanctions remain in place, choking Venezuela’s economy and fueling the flood of destitute Venezuelan refugees now streaming throughout South America.
Trump’s gambit failed. But it wasn’t Trump who paid the price.
It was us.
The proud land of the ‘anti-Trump’
Vogue wrote that New Zealand’s young and modern prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, was “the Anti-Trump.” Prominent Americans talk about moving to New Zealand to get away from President Trump; the latest, former FBI director James Comey, joked about relocating if Trump is reelected in 2020. The editor of a popular news site wrote that “our humble South Pacific nation has become a recurring reference point in the mud pit of American politics.”
But of course, like every country, New Zealand has been affected by the Trump presidency.
Even before his election, one article asked, “Is Donald Trump infecting New Zealand with his awfulness?” A Muslim community leader spoke of his “giving people with reprehensible attitudes” the confidence to say what they think. Such people largely inhabit online comment sections and social media, and felt empowered to voice vicious anti-immigrant and anti-women views. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission warned in 2016: “Racial intolerance is on the rise overseas and closer to home.”
Many New Zealanders started following Trump-era politics with a fascinated horror. But some local politicians have been attracted by the potential benefits. “One person’s misinformation is another person’s fact,” the opposition party leader Simon Bridges said. When he accused Ardern of being a “part-time prime minister” — she has a baby — a TVNZ political writer called it “garbage tainted with a nastiness that is not that far removed from the kind of sick politics in which Donald Trump loves nothing better than to wallow.”
At the same time, Trump’s effect on New Zealand can be viewed as positive. It is hard to overstate how unpopular he is. He has become a symbol, for many, of what they do not want their country to be.
This was demonstrated graphically in March when, authorities say, an Australian white extremist killed 51 Muslim worshipers in two Christchurch mosques. A 74-page manifesto linked to the gunman called Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
New Zealand’s response was to unite: a remarkable outpouring of care and compassion followed. Citizens were proud. Within weeks, the government banned military-style semiautomatic weapons, a much-noted contrast to the “thoughts and prayers” excuses and resistance to stronger gun laws seen in the United States after gun massacres. The terrible day could have inflamed intolerance. Instead, it strengthened a positive view of national identity. Of wanting to be different.
An unfinished buddy movie, with peace in retreat
Giant gold letters spelling T-R-U-M-P appear on a sign. Little else exists yet at “Trump Heights,” the future site of an Israeli town to be named for the American president. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated the site in the Golan Heights in June, a token of his appreciation for President Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territory — a territory that international law considers Syrian land occupied by Israel since 1967 and annexed since 1981.
Netanyahu has much to thank Trump for. He may be under indictment on corruption charges, and his political future is in doubt (something his American counterpart can appreciate), but Trump’s presidency has brought one victory after another for Netanyahu in the form of major U.S. policy shifts favoring the Israeli government’s wishes over those of its neighbors and the international community.
First, in December 2017, Trump announced his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinians protested across East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The day the new embassy opened, Israeli armed forces killed more than 50 people, with more than 1,400 wounded, as the authorities said direct live fire was necessary to prevent mass infiltration of the border.
Then the Trump administration cut aid to Palestinians as punishment for their refusal to cooperate with his peace plan, which he calls “the deal of the century.” The cuts included U.S. funding for the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA — which Netanyahu has called “the refugee perpetuation agency” — even after Israeli security chiefs told Washington a number of times that any dramatic cuts in Palestinian aid could lead to a humanitarian crisis.
Finally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Israel’s West Bank settlements were not “inconsistent with international law.” In the administration’s confusing effort to bring peace to the Middle East, this most recent step was seen by many Israelis and Palestinians as a major boost to Israel’s annexation plans, undermining hopes for any future two-state solution.
Trump’s kinship with Netanyahu extends beyond issues of war and peace. Back when Trump was still mostly known in Israel as the rich boss on “The Apprentice,” the political rhetoric and messaging approach now associated with him was central to Netanyahu’s style. Campaigns assailing the media, the justice system and the opposition were part and parcel of Israel’s vibrant political scene as guided by Netanyahu. But in recent years, like Trump, Netanyahu has taken to social media as a more direct, blunt channel to voters. The two also share donors, strategists and pollsters, and now, as Trump investigates his investigators, Netanyahu is considering the same over his own “witch hunt.”
But it’s the free rein Trump has afforded Netanyahu that accounts for by far his greatest influence on the internal politics of Israel: Annexation is now Netanyahu’s main campaign promise; “land for peace” — the desire for two states, Israel and Palestine, to coexist — could dwindle to nothing.
Empowered to build an ‘illiberal democracy’
President Trump may have promised to “build that wall,” but Prime Minister Viktor Orban has in fact built that fence — a 200-mile, 20-foot-high barbed-wire border barrier to keep the “Muslim invaders” out of Hungary. After all, as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon once put it, Orban was “Trump before Trump.”
Orban, in power since 2010, had indeed begun his campaign against immigration and so-called liberal elites by the time Trump rode down his Trump Tower escalator with similar messages in 2015. Trump’s presidency, however, still has had a significant impact on Hungary, mostly because it has left Orban unchecked. Having a kindred spirit in the White House has clearly emboldened him in pursuing what he calls an “illiberal democracy.” It lets Orban be Orban, and that’s no small thing.
Orban has sped up his crackdown on independent media, with his business allies taking over hundreds of outlets and turning them into propaganda machines. He labels independent journalism outlets “fake news,” using the original English expression. In 2017, the U.S. State Department announced a grant to support press freedom in Hungary. The Hungarian government protested loudly. The United States pulled the grant.
This was not the only instance of American criticism on an important issue fading away. Consider George Soros, boogeyman of the Trump base.
In 2017, Orban’s government introduced a law that put the Budapest operations of Central European University in jeopardy. Soros, born in Hungary but viewed as an enemy by the Hungarian right, had founded the university. The first reaction from the U.S. government was to vehemently oppose the law. Keeping CEU, which is accredited by the United States, in Budapest seemed to be a priority. But once the new ambassador, David Cornstein, a personal friend of Trump’s, arrived in Budapest, opposition softened. In interviews, Cornstein began to play down the significance of the issue to U.S. interests. It was a conflict between Orban and Soros, he said, and “it doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom.”
As the U.S. position wavered, and facing a hostile legal environment in Hungary, CEU moved its primary campus to Vienna.
While the United States still occasionally criticizes Hungary’s government for its closeness to China and Russia, Trump awarded Orban a coveted visit to the White House (the Ukrainian president is still waiting for his). At their meeting in May, the personal chemistry between the leaders was clear. Trump praised Orban for having done “a tremendous job in so many different ways.” Orban, he added, is “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”
A special ally, affronted by a caricature come to life
Most Brits reacted to Donald Trump’s ascent with both horror and relief. Horror because of his character, relief because we’d just voted to leave the European Union and were quietly glad we weren’t alone in embarrassing ourselves.
For the political class, though, the response was strategic chaos. British foreign policy focuses on Europe and America. Now it was cut off from both. It gave up on the former, and the latter had gone nationalist.
The full extent of what that entailed soon became clear. The British government was not used to seeing an American president lambaste it in public. None before Trump had, in modern times. But in the years that followed, the president would launch brutal online attacks on the British prime minister and the mayor of London. It was simply unheard of to be treated by an ally in this way, and especially one with whom we were supposed to have a special relationship.
The far left seemed quickest to see the political opportunity in a Trump presidency. They hated him, of course, but he’d managed the seemingly impossible feat of turning the Republicans into an anti-free-trade party. If that was possible, all sorts of radical policies were now on the table. Jeremy Corbyn, who had dragged the opposition Labour Party significantly to the left, seemed vindicated. His policies, like the nationalization of trains, energy and broadband — unthinkable a few years earlier — now seemed as if they might suit a time of political upheaval and populism.
A strategic opening appeared as well. Trump is powerfully unpopular in Britain. Associating him with your opponent can boost your own position. In the recent British election, the Labour Party mentioned Trump every chance it got. Its health message warned of “a sell-out toxic deal with Trump.” Its energy message accused the government of “an extreme ‘frack-at-will’ policy imported from Trump’s USA.”
It didn’t work. The recent election saw Labour roundly beaten. But the general dislike of Trump offered Corbyn one of his few electoral advantages. Tory leader Boris Johnson made sure he met Trump only in private, away from the cameras, during the campaign period.
On the right, Trump served to degrade the standard of debate and the manner in which politics was conducted. Johnson copied his “people vs. the elite” message wholesale, portraying himself as the defender of the public against a corrupt establishment. He tried to illegally suspend Parliament. He told lawmakers who attempted to scrutinize his Brexit plan that they were surrendering to a foreign power in the form of the European Union. And his election campaign maintained a blacklist of independent journalists who were considered to have slighted him.
Trump’s administration has had a depressing impact on the way Brits think of America. For decades, there’s been an instinctive, sneering condescension toward the United States — a stereotype of Americans as ignorant, boorish and self-absorbed. It’s nonsense, of course, but it serves to alleviate our own insecurities about our declining role on the world stage. Once Trump arrived, it was as if he’d been built from the parts that made up the stereotype. A caricature of that personality. This was the real tragedy: a seeming vindication of people’s worst suspicions about the American character.
In the land of the Arab Spring, ‘my favorite dictator’ unbound
No American president has ever wrapped an Egyptian leader in such a tight embrace as President Trump has given to Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — and the results have been disastrous for my country and those who believe the people should govern it.
Some degree of closeness is to be expected: The United States and Egypt share intelligence and strategy. Washington has sent about $1.5 billion in foreign aid every year since the 1979 Camp David Accords. These sums flow even though Egypt’s modern history is not exactly a parade of democratic triumphs. Except for a few brief years after the Arab Spring, strongmen have run my country for a half-century. But U.S. presidents deplored the ugliest authoritarian excesses. The administration of George W. Bush grasped that government repression here had accelerated radicalism, and he argued for a softer approach. President Barack Obama delivered his famous 2009 pro-democracy speech in Cairo. “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” he said, urging “a spirit of tolerance and compromise.”
These utterances did not unwind Egyptian autocracy (Sissi, the former defense minister who now calls himself president, seized power in 2014, on Obama’s watch), but they probably held its leaders somewhat in check: With all of that foreign assistance on the line, an open slaughter of dissidents would embarrass the White House, so it didn’t happen, even while Cairo practiced many forms of quieter oppression, such as secret arrests and torture of supposed political enemies.
Now, though, the gloves are off. Trump is delivering a no-questions-asked policy for Sissi at the exact moment Sissi is consolidating power. (At a Group of Seven summit in September, the president called Sissi “my favorite dictator.”) Meanwhile, Egypt’s leader is jailing, torturing and even executing those who disagree with him and labeling them terrorists; some 60,000 political prisoners exist inside Egypt’s gulag. With Trump’s blessing, there’s no reason he couldn’t double that number. Any hope the Arab Spring reforms may have harbored is now gone, quashed by a president who feels unshackled by praise emanating from the White House.
A ‘Trump tamer’ trying to contain the risk
When he became prime minister, Shinzo Abe was seen inside and outside Japan as a right-leaning populist. Today he is viewed as a comparatively centrist politician and global leader who has contained populism rather than stoked it. He can thank President Trump for the brand update.
Abe now stands out in a world surging with populism. And that makes his close relationship with Trump a little different from those the president has cultivated with other leaders. Abe has earned a reputation as a “Trump tamer,” which in turn has positioned Tokyo as a stabilizing actor on the global stage, with Abe the seeming beneficiary: He led Japan’s drive to complete a second Trans-Pacific Partnership after the United States left the agreement, as well as Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union.
All this has strengthened Abe within Japan, for now. But his skill with Trump (this “unnatural intimacy,” as the American diplomat and historian George Kennan once described U.S.-Japan relations) also reflects an uneasiness in the prime minister’s administration toward the president, whose transactional and unpredictable approach to allies poses a fundamental risk to Japan and Abe.
For instance, Trump has widened the perception gap between Tokyo and Washington regarding North Korea. Trump doesn’t seem to care about Pyongyang’s missile launches, and he has proved himself overly eager to strike deals with Kim Jong Un, even while reducing Japan’s leverage against North Korea. Despite his “Trump tamer” status, Abe has thus far proved unable to cope with this challenge.
The risk Trump poses to Japan will become even more pronounced if he secures reelection next year. Japan would face dual threats of entrapment (enmeshed in an intensified confrontation between the United States and China) and abandonment (as the president continues to agitate against America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific, leaving U.S. allies in the region even more exposed).
This predicament would be felt more acutely by Japan’s “deep state,” which had been accustomed to managing the alliance through a “2+2 framework,” with Japan’s foreign and defense ministers and their U.S. counterparts focused on foreign policy and national security. The Japanese bureaucrats managing ties through this arrangement have grown increasingly concerned with the president’s handling of the relationship, which is now almost exclusively centered on Trump and Abe. This fundamental change in the maintenance of the alliance means that — to the dismay of many Japanese — summits between the leaders will play a greater role in determining their country’s future.