And, instead of declaring elections crooked before they were even held and striving to disenfranchise citizens likely to vote against them— Trump even flat-out admitted just a few days ago that he wants to slow the mail to retard the delivery of ballots— previous presidents respected the structure of fair elections that has served us well, and abided by the results even if they spelled defeat. They’d get their presidential library either way.
There is no obvious explanation for the behavior of Donald Trump. And as BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes in this Boomer Opinion piece, we simply might never get one.
Dictators are a dime a dozen. I’ve covered plenty of them myself. Typically they aren’t the first tyrants to oppress their nations. Usually they won’t be the last.
So I can understand how China’s President Xi shows little ambivalence about cracking down and turning Hong Kong into little more than a concubine of his communist country. Xi grew up in a culture of crackdowns. Censorship, mass surveillance, curbs on human rights, legislating a “presidency for life” come as no surprise. The son of a Communist Party official and himself a rising party star since he was young, this is what the man knows. This is what he knows how to do.
Likewise I can understand how Russia’s President Putin has slowly but surely revoked rights that briefly flowered after the Soviet Union crumbled into dust: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, proliferating political parties, dissenters in the media. These were what the Soviet people had yearned for— they furtively told me as much when occasionally I covered the country— but in the long span of Russia’s sad history, they only enjoyed their newfound liberties for a nanosecond. No surprise here either. A longtime agent of the iron-fisted KGB, Putin was shaped by the repressive practices of the Soviet state. This is what the man knows. This is what he knows how to do.
Same story in Egypt. Once I happened to be covering something there that coincided with an election in which President Sadat claimed more than 90% of the vote. People I spoke to on the street said, “Are you kidding me?” But their voice couldn’t rise above a whisper. Then Sadat was shot and Mubarak moved in with a show of democracy, but the show was a farce. Powerful protests replaced him with Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, but after only a year he was forcibly overthrown and left in a prison cell to rot to death by the general who then replaced him as president. Now, President el-Sisi has further corrupted Egypt’s constitution so he can command the military and the judiciary and stay in office for at least another 14 years. Why would he act otherwise? He grew up in the system. It’s all he knows how to do.
There are countless other examples of 21st Century dictators, some of whom I also covered, who put self-interest above national interest. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. They treated their countries as personal fiefdoms. They treated their detractors as mortal foes. By and large, that’s how they got to power. It’s what they learned from the tyrants who preceded them. It’s all they knew how to do.
What I learned covering dictators is, they will stop at nothing to stay on their thrones because they know that if they lose their power, they won’t go off to build presidential libraries and retreat to well-appointed homes with Secret Service protection. Rather, they will be put in chains, or escape into exile, or get hunted down like dogs.
But how do you explain Donald Trump?
He grew up in liberty’s leading light. If he was paying attention, he saw primarily presidents who were decent and democratic. Presidents who treated their detractors as opponents, not enemies. Presidents who became richer after leaving the White House, not while still living in it. Presidents who, while not always honest, at least weren’t serially dishonest.
Donald Trump could see all that. But it didn’t take.
Whether that’s because he never learned, or because his instincts run the other way, or because he is just so sick and cynical that he will do anything to perpetuate his power, we might never know. But what we do know is, he is taking more cues from a procession of despots than from principled presidents who preceded him.
That’s why he’ll sic troops on citizens, and augment aid to “friendly” states, and overrule duly decided judicial verdicts, and call elections rigged so he can rig them himself. It’s why he’ll condemn everyone who’s not a lapdog as “losers” and “lowlifes,” from judges to journalists to allies who’ve turned critical, and often, threaten punishment and revenge.
Even if Trump is re-elected, he will never realize his dream to be remembered in the company of popular presidents who came before. Because he’s nothing like them. Or of world leaders whose names are synonymous with democratic ideals, from Thatcher to Merkel, from Roosevelt to Churchill. Because he’s nothing like them either.
What I think history ultimately will remember of Donald Trump is how he crassly craved membership in a pantheon of 21st Century dictators.
At least, though, they are a dime a dozen. Wannabes like our pathetic president aren’t worth even that much.