The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Around the globe, Trump’s style is inspiring imitators and unleashing dark impulses

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet Polish President Andrzej Duda and first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda at the White House in September. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

BUDAPEST — They make a show of putting their own countries first and breezily dismiss concerns about international law or human rights. They seek to bend the rules to their will, excoriating “the deep state” for getting in their way. And when they are challenged by the press or other critics, they have a two-word rejoinder: fake news.

In countries around the globe — from Brazil to the Philippines, and in many less prominent ­places in between — a generation of leaders who resemble President Trump in both style and substance is rising, consolidating power and growing bolder in its willingness to flout democratic principles and norms.

The strongman style of leadership is not new, of course, and it is not always obvious who is inspiring whom. Trump himself climbed to power amid a surge of nativist and nationalist politics worldwide, and his chief campaign guru, Stephen K. Bannon, borrowed themes and phrases from European populists to rally the make-America-great-again faithful. 

But in interviews on four continents, diplomats, rights activists and foreign officials said that after two years of Trump using the world’s most powerful megaphone to cheer authoritarians, bully democratic allies and denigrate traditional American values, the impact on how others govern is becoming clear. 

“While the global decline in freedom didn’t begin with Donald Trump’s presidency, I do think he has been an accelerant,” said Uzra Zeya, a State Department veteran who resigned last spring following a 25-year career that culminated as the nation’s top Foreign Service officer in Paris. 

Trump’s foreign policy approach — which has included praise for figures such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, excuses for the killing of a Washington Post contributing columnist at the hands of Saudi state assassins and a steady stream of vitriol toward elected leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel — has caused allies to recoil. Last month, it contributed to the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis

But despots — and would-be despots — have seen in Trump a model, as well as an alibi.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader, said Trump represents “permission” from “the highest position in the world.” 

To Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, the U.S. president is a barrier-breaker — proof that incendiary comments about women or minorities and a history of trafficking in conspiracy theories don’t need to stand in the way of taking power.

When the Nigerian army opened fire on rock-throwing demonstrators last fall, killing as many as 40 people, it defended itself by citing Trump’s threats to do the same at the Mexican border.

In November 2018, national security adviser John Bolton said Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro was a “like-minded” leader, despite accusations of hate speech. (Video: Reuters)

When the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia criticized ruler Hun Sen for cracking down on the opposition and the media, the authoritarian leader pointed out that Trump had his back — not the diplomats’. 

“Your policy has been changed, but the embassy in Phnom Penh has not changed it yet,” he said, appealing to Trump to rein his embassy in.

And when members of the U.N. Security Council visited Myanmar’s commander in chief in late April to demand explanations for the expulsion of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, he used the phrase “fake news” — the only words he spoke in English — no less than a dozen times, according to people present.

'You're on your own'

The Trump administration has continued its predecessors’ practice of taking a tough line against abuses by long-standing U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Venezuela. 

But in many other relationships, human rights and democracy have been downgraded — or taken off the table entirely.

“When we’re talking about our core values, they don’t change,” said James D. Melville Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia who resigned in protest of Trump’s policies last summer. 

Over a 33-year Foreign Service career — highlighted early on by the chance to witness Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech in Berlin — Melville said he saw himself as a global salesman for the American commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

But under Trump, he said, “it’s a harder product to sell” because the president doesn’t appear to believe in it.

That is not to say the United States has always had such an enviable record, as Trump himself is fond of pointing out. Napalm attacks on Vietnamese villages, torture at Abu Ghraib prison and coddling of friendly dictators are just a few examples that highlight the gap between American rhetoric and reality. 

“You think we’re so innocent?” Trump asked when challenged on why he wasn’t being critical of abuses by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

But policymakers and analysts say it is that willingness to relativize American ideals, and establish an equivalency with countries whose policies are fundamentally at odds with U.S. values, that sets Trump apart from his predecessors.

“We have for the first time in American history an administration that actually prefers authoritarians over democrats,” said Yascha Mounk, a Johns Hopkins University professor who focuses on the erosion of liberal democracy worldwide. “That provides cover for autocrats, because they don’t have to pay any price for what they do. And it encourages others to go in that direction.” 

Mounk was speaking late last year in a forum at Central European University, a Budapest-based graduate school with accreditation in both the United States and Hungary that has long been a critical bridge between West and East. 

Days later, the university announced that it had been kicked out of the country. But rather than blame Orban, U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein — a close Trump friend — pinned responsibility on the school’s founder, financier George Soros. 

That marked a break from what had been a bipartisan U.S. policy of defending the school on the principle of academic freedom.

Cornstein reflected another policy rupture when he insisted that, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he had seen no evidence the Hungarian government was infringing on its citizens’ rights and liberties.

His words came as a surprise to Marta Pardavi, a leading Hungarian rights activist who had spent an hour with Cornstein only weeks earlier painting a bleak portrait: the shrinking space for NGOs as the government cracks down, the monopolization of the media by Orban allies and the concentration of power in the hands of one man. 

The message of the ambassador’s statement, which was gleefully repeated by Hungarian authorities and splashed across headlines in the state-controlled press, was unmistakable.

“You’re on your own,” said Pardavi, who leads the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a group established to push for liberties during the country’s communist era. “Is the U.S. still a beacon of democracy for Europe? Sadly, that light is shining a lot less clearly.” 

Others in Central Europe who have long seen the United States as a champion of freedom and democracy are feeling similarly forsaken. 

On the day last fall that Trump welcomed Polish President Andrzej Duda to the White House, Supreme Court Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf was in her chambers waiting for Duda to force her out, as part of a campaign to consolidate the ruling party’s control over the judiciary.

But Gersdorf’s cause — which was championed by rule-of-law advocates across Poland and the West — went unmentioned by Trump in both public and private. Instead, the two presidents traded easy banter over the creation of a “Fort Trump” for U.S. troops in Poland.

Władysław Frasyniuk championed democracy in the face of Communist rule in Poland in the 80s. Now, he warns the freedom he fought for is starting to slip away. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Piotr Malecki/The Washington Post)

Had there been a U.S. intervention in the Supreme Court takeover, “it would have been different,” Gersdorf said in an interview. “Poles love America. They listen to America.”

Gersdorf was ultimately reinstated after Europe’s top court took her side. But elsewhere, the power grab by strongman leaders continues, with the Trump administration appearing at times to cheer it on. 

In Romania, the government forced the firing of a crusading prosecutor investigating official corruption. It justified the move as a blow against “the deep state,” and Trump’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, even wrote a letter supporting it.

Authoritarians 'unleashed'

Beyond Europe, Trump’s impact has been even more vivid.

In the Middle East, the United States has long allied itself with regimes characterized by troubling human rights records and scant tolerance for democratic expression. It paid lip service to the need for improvement, while tolerating abuses.

But recently, say experts in the region, behavior by governments in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has deteriorated. The killing of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was only the most blatant example, said one former top U.S. diplomat, of leaders feeling “unleashed” to act out their worst impulses because they know Trump won’t challenge them.

“Those impulses were clear and present,” said the former diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. “But the new and brazen arrests, detentions, murders are something we did not see before in friends and partners. It is not a coincidence that it is happening when our own president embraces thugs and dictators while humiliating and weakening our democratic allies.” 

In a major speech in Cairo this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned democracy only in passing and did not say a word about human rights or the 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, though Pompeo later said he raised human rights in private conversations. Publicly, he lavished praise on President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi for fighting terrorism.

“We know what that means,” said Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa advocacy director. “It means a tacit approval of tens of thousands of people swept up under Sissi’s regime in Egypt under the pretext of terrorism charges.”

State Department officials reject the notion that authoritarian governments have been emboldened, saying the administration has imposed sanctions on human rights abusers and denied them visas. Human rights are in the National Security Strategy that Trump unveiled a year ago, and part of American identity.

“Diplomacy is about balancing priorities,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with department policy. “We will not shy away from raising human rights concerns with any country. Human rights may not always be the first or the only point we make in our diplomatic conversations, but neither will it be omitted. This is true now and it was true in the past.”

Trump's priorities

Others who have represented the United States abroad disagree, pointing to Central America as a region where leaders appear to have calculated that they can get away with suppressing domestic dissent if they support the United States on matters of more importance to Trump.

In Honduras, for instance, President Juan Orlando Hernández backed Washington in a vote at the United Nations over U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Then Hernández allegedly used fraud to steal an election, triggering mass protests. Rather than condemn the move, the United States offered its congratulations.

“It was the sort of thing that if Ortega had done it or Maduro or Castro, the U.S. would have come out hammer and tongs, repudiating the results,” said a former diplomat, referring to leftist leaders in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. “Our response was enormously muted.” The former diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss policies being carried out by former colleagues.

Guatemala provides another example. It also voted with the United States on Jerusalem and announced it would move its own embassy to the city.

Months later, in August, President Jimmy Morales declared he was abolishing the mandate of a U.N.-backed commission that had long been known as an effective watchdog in curbing corruption. As he spoke, a column of three dozen jeeps — some with roof-mounted machine guns — that had been supplied by the United States for anti-narcotics operations rolled through Guatemala City, pausing at the commission’s offices and the homes of human rights activists.

“This is a terrible time,” the former diplomat said. “People forming the administration have turned their back on traditional American values, and foreign leaders are taking advantage.”

In many of those places, the United States had once been among the few bulwarks against repression by governments that otherwise wield total control, with few domestic institutions or groups powerful enough to push back.

In the Philippines, local courts have proved incapable of mounting any serious challenge to the thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.

As a former American colony where respect and admiration for the United States still runs deep, the Philippines is particularly susceptible to Washington’s influence. Polls show that Filipinos trust the United States more than any other major country, and about 80 percent of the population believes the United States plays a positive role in the world. 

But rather than rein Duterte in, Trump has seemed only to embolden him with his support. Trump has said he and Duterte have “a great relationship.” Duterte has called Trump “a good friend” who “speaks my language.”

“If a full-blown dictatorship is established in the Philippines, to a large degree, Donald Trump helped that,” said Neri Colmenares, a human rights lawyer and activist.

The Trump model

Perhaps the best example of a leader directly modeling himself after Trump has come in Brazil, where Bolsonaro — a thrice-married champion of “traditional values” who delights in bypassing the mainstream press with provocative pronouncements on social media — was sworn in as president this month.

For years, Bolsonaro, a seven-time congressmen, had been relegated to Brazil’s fringe, viewed as the crazy uncle of Brazilian politics amid a litany of incendiary remarks: A dead son was better than a gay son. Some minorities were fat and lazy. A female political rival was too ugly to be raped.

But Trump’s election, analysts in Brazil said, gave Bolsonaro an opening. The two men were very different kinds of outsiders — one a former military man, the other a real estate tycoon. But they have many things in common.

Bolsonaro has always been hostile to the media. But his verbal assaults on journalists began to mirror Trump down to the specific words he used in his Twitter tirades.

In April 2017, Bolsonaro tweeted the words “fake news” for the first time — a name he used to smear established Brazilian outlets the way Trump had done in the 2016 race and after.

“What happens in the U.S. inevitably influences us,” said Sergio Dávila, the executive editor of Folha de S.Paulo, a newspaper that has been a target of Bolsonaro’s ire. “When Trump says absurd things and nothing sticks to him, and he advances, and he is elected, it has a tremendous world impact.”

Bannon certainly hopes so.

The former Trump adviser and campaign manager said he had met with a group of Bolsonaro strategists, including the candidate’s son, in August, after being contacted by them in July. He found like-minded souls. “We were finishing each other’s sentences,” he said.

Noting the rising number of nationalists winning at the ballot box worldwide, he called Bolsonaro part of a new breed of leaders.

“Brazil is so big, so large, people will realize with Bolsonaro’s election that this populist, nationalist movement is not localized,” Bannon said. “This is going to be the defining characteristic of the 21st century.”

Witte reported from Budapest, Warsaw and Bucharest, Romania. Morello reported from Washington. Mahtani reported from Phnom Penh and Yangon, Myanmar. Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro. Marina Lopes in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

The new autocrats: Leaders are using democracy to consolidate power

‘This is fake democracy’: Hungarians march against government’s autocratic reach

Soros-founded university says it has been kicked out of Hungary as an autocrat tightens his grip

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news