President Donald Trump’s penchant for praising strongmen around the world can be alarming until you consider that he, too, wishes he could be one. Should Americans truly be perplexed by Trump’s praise of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has used his national police force to target drug dealers and users in a campaign that has left an estimated 13,000 people dead?
Before winning the presidency, Trump never had to answer to anyone except for his father, whom he worked for before taking over the family business after his death. Being the singular decision-maker in a high-profile real estate company for more than 30 years certainly leaves little patience for concessions to and caucusing with colleagues who are required to be treated as equals.
Trump’s recent complaint that he wishes he could have more influence on the Justice Department further reveals his disdain for the limitations of power. Consequently, his love of strongmen around the world who can rule with abandon makes sense. While he has complimented many strongmen around the world, three stand out the most.
Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines
Why Trump admires him: Supports police brutality, uses crude language, has no filter.
Analysis: Like Trump, Duterte encourages police brutality, but the Philippines leader takes it to an extreme. Trump has gone on record telling police officers to rough up people taken into custody and has considered sending the feds to Chicago, which essentially would make them an occupying force that does nothing to reduce crime. Back in the mid-1980s, he ran ads in major New York City papers calling for five black men to be executed after they were wrongly arrested for raping a white woman in Central Park. Of course, racism was a driving force behind all of this, but it also fuels his desire to use over-the-top government policing.
Another quality Trump shares with Duterte is his lack of a filter. Duterte once compared himself to Hitler. He later apologized. In October of last year, Duterte told then-President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” just as the United States and the Philippines began joint military exercises. The following month, Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore.” Of course, since Russia and China are closer geographically, it would make sense for the Philippines to forge strong ties with them, but the United States and the Philippines share a defense treaty that states they would protect each other if attacked by an external force.
It’s probably not a smart idea to piss off the world’s most powerful military that could protect you when the time calls for it. But Duterte isn’t one to think through things. Neither is his buddy Trump.
But Trump apparently likes Duterte’s ability to do and say as he pleases. Duterte is not a dictator per se, and he enjoys widespread support, despite his abuse of police power. Trump probably wishes he could abuse his powers and have widespread support, too, but U.S. rule of law would not allow it.
Guess Trump has to admire those who can.
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Why Trump admires him: Authoritarian, leads a kleptocracy, answers to no one.
Analysis: The obvious reason for this is probably the fact that the U.S. intelligence community believes that the Kremlin worked to get Trump elected. Not to mention Russia’s alleged ties to WikiLeaks, which, according to a recent report in The Atlantic, was in contact with Donald Trump Jr. But there are personality reasons why Trump would find Vladimir Putin to be an aspirational leader.
For one, Russia is a kleptocracy. That’s a fancy political science term that means those in power use the state primarily to steal resources from the state. Or, more directly, rule by thieves. Putin’s estimated net worth is in the billions of dollars. PBS’s Frontline aired a documentary in which Putin is accused of using his political position in the early 1990s to steal land from the Russian state and sell it for personal gain.
Trump’s White House very much functions as a kleptocracy. He has openly acknowledged that his resorts and golf courses have generated tens of millions of dollars since he took office in January. His properties Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, and Bedminster, in New Jersey, have gotten free advertising during his estimated 58 visits so far as president. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a senior adviser who takes on major foreign policy roles, even though he has no foreign policy experience. In her role as White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway once promoted Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump’s clothing on live television in what some considered a violation of federal ethics rules. Ivanka also received lucrative Chinese patents the same day she dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. The list goes on and on.
Another reason Trump may find Putin appealing is his suppression of freedom of expression. Artists, film directors and journalists have all felt the strain (and, in some cases, been killed) under Putin’s restrictive regime. Trump cannot control media here and has long referred to the press as “fake news” because of its fair reporting of his administration. In October he even threatened to challenge media organizations’ licenses. He really can’t do that, but Trump’s desire to do so is the stuff of authoritarian states.
Trump wants to be a strongman, but because the United States is a functioning democracy, he can’t. But that doesn’t stop him from adoring men like Putin who can be.
Kim Jong Un, Leader of North Korea
Why Trump admires him: Unpredictable, runs a totalitarian state.
Analysis: Given that Kim Jong Un has consistently vowed to wipe the United States off the map, it really doesn’t make sense for Trump to find the North Korean leader likable. But this is Trump, and nothing makes sense in his world. Back in May, he complimented Kim for, apparently, taking out his adversaries to assume power of Pyongyang.
“A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else,” Trump said. “And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
During a campaign rally last early year, Trump made similar remarks, according to ABC News:
“How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden ... he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss,” Trump said. “It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him.”
Of course, Trump has called Kim “Rocket Man” and the North Korean leader has returned the insults. But Trump’s complimentary remarks toward Kim do reflect the president’s perverted understanding of strength. North Korea is a totalitarian state, meaning that the people are completely submissive to the rule of the dictator and the state. This is actually worse than either Putin’s Russia or Duterte’s Philippines because at least people in those nations can protest, albeit with limitations, in the case of Russia.
But perhaps Kim’s appeal to Trump has to do with the North Korean people’s worship of their leader. Official events in the country often show people expressing such adulation for Kim and its past leaders that they are left in tears. While many analysts argue that these celebrations are forced, one could say that Trump’s own healthy ego yearns for such attention—even if it is not sincere.
Here in the United States, Trump gets nothing like the public support that Kim, Putin and Duterte receive in their own nations. None of those nations, though, are model democracies, and all lack certain degrees of the rule of law. What is troubling is Trump’s desire to erode the rule of law in his own country. Whether it’s his frustration over not being able to unleash the Justice Department on Hillary Clinton or how the media operates, Trump has no real appreciation for democracy.
It makes sense, though. He doesn’t truly believe in it anyway. And neither do his buddies in Russia, North Korea and the Philippines.