Two Resident Junior Fellows at the Center for the National Interest explain an intriguing dimension of Donald Trump’s political philosophy.
Despite his Iowa caucus loss last night, Donald Trump’s inexplicably stalwart lead in national and state polling still stands – most notably in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary election and where Trump still leads by a significant margin. Now that he has been proven vulnerable, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for common sense regarding his presidential bid. Thus, now is as good a time as any to remind the American people that Donald Trump’s candidacy represents the potential for an authoritarian leader never before witnessed nor thought possible in the global exemplar of democratic freedom.
To be sure, we are by no means the first to draw comparisons between Trump and prominent global authoritarians. Perhaps the most notable example came in October of last year when The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah jokingly noted that Trump would make a great African president. His seven-minute takedown of Trump, comparing many of his personal traits and public pronouncements to notorious African dictators was brilliant political commentary which hilariously exposed the vacuousness of Trump’s candidacy. Amongst other comparisons, Noah juxtaposed the braggadocious pronouncements of Trump and notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin about being powerful and having “good brain,” Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s assertion that he could cure AIDs and Trump’s association of vaccines with autism, and the “birtherism” and lavish lifestyle of both Trump and erstwhile Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi.
But why stop with Africa? All four corners of the globe are replete with potential touchstones for comparison to Trump and some of them are lesser known but more appropriate than the tired and stolid comparisons to Hitler – unoriginal since the premiere of Chaplain’s The Great Dictator – emanating from the Democratic Party. As Aladdin famously said to Jasmine, “I can show you the world,” and we intend to as well – although we would recommend that those two Arab sojourners bypass Trump’s America, lest the magic carpet be impounded and papers issued for deportation back to the shell-cratered moonscape of Agrabah.
Our first stop finds us in a Venezuela still reeling from the legacy of Hugo Chavez, now three years postmortem. Aside from Weimar-esque inflation levels and cultures of overt criminality in every major city, “Chavismo” also gifted to the country a penchant for rebranding. Proposing El Liberator, Simon Bolivar, as an adequately galvanizing figure, Chavez proceeded to change the name of the national currency from merely the bolivar to the bolivar fuerte (or “strong Bolivar”). He continued by promulgating a new constitution reiterating the nation’s links to said founding father, prefacing the very name of the Republic with the moniker “Bolivarian.” He even exhumed the man’s nineteenth century remains to melodramatically declare before the television cameras, “His flame can be felt! Bolivar lives!” before reinterring him in an even grander mausoleum in downtown Caracas. Yet Chavez at least had enough understanding of proportion to take his writ-large label maker and deputize somebody else’s name; the same cannot be said of The Donald. There are now twenty Trump Towers standing in cities across the globe (the New York location including a unit formerly owned by brutal Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier). And from the hauteur of the line of Trump Fragrances and Trump Menswear (for those desirous of crotch-length neckties); three navigation points off the coast of Florida (appropriately named “DONALD,” “TRUMP,” and “UFIRED”), to even such banalities as Trump Natural Spring Water, Trump Steaks, and Trump Vodka, the eponym’s ventures tend to vivisect many – if not quite all – aspects of modern life.
In that respect, this juxtaposition is perhaps doing a disservice to Chavez, who was at least able to fig leaf his narcissism by embracing the imprimatur of a past military strongman. For the sort of unabashed megalomania more to Trump’s liking, we must visit the Turkmenistan of a decade ago to see the Turkmenbashi’s (i.e., Saparmurat Niyazov – the “Father of the Turkmens”) ego exemplified. Any run-of-the-mill despot can lionize a storied national hero. But not many have the gall to rename months of the year after their family members, as the Turkmenbashi did on behalf of himself and his mother (we could see “Trumptember,” or perhaps “Ivankauary?”). How about encouraging public recitations of the Great Man’s words of wisdom, enshrined in his collection of sayings and aphorisms? Surely the erudition of the Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama is no match for the penetrating insight of The Art of the Deal. And while the 24-karat gold statue of the leader whose eyes follow the trajectory of the Sun in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat might be a bridge too far even for Donald Trump, we can take comfort in the fact that his heavily-gilded Fifth Avenue penthouse could surely provision the requisite element at a moment’s notice.
In fact, we would not be surprised if Trump’s residence featured golden toilet seats, an accusation recently leveled at another authoritarian (if not quite yet dictatorial) figure, President Recep Tayyin Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan was ridiculed within Turkey for his decision to level a park to build a $615 million, opulent presidential palace. And the thin-skinned leader did not miss the opportunity to sue the country’s opposition leader for slander over the toilet seat comment – a move straight from the similarly thin-skinned Trump’s playbook. The Donald would no doubt also approve of the repurposing of land for self-aggrandizement. As Robert Verbruggen cogently reminded us nearly five years ago during Trump’s first flirtation with a presidential run, Trump has long supported using the government for pharaonic endeavors and imposing his will in the form of eminent domain – a position he reiterated recently in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier. As early as 1994, The Donald was seeking to evict grandmothers from their homes in order to build new hotels and casinos, some of which may have been built in collaboration with the mob.
Speaking of Italians, with “Amtrak Joe” Biden’s decision to abstain from running for the Oval Office, we may have lost our last chance to install a tried and tested train-spotter who will ensure the schedules run on time. But Donald Trump could very well channel his inner Benito Mussolini and do just that. While largely apocryphal, that tale draws from a groundswell of truth somewhere below history’s topsoil. According to a 1994 article in The Independent anticipating the rise of yet another absurd Italian, Silvio Berlusconi, Il Duce had a certain talent for standing next to large infrastructure projects begun years before his power grab and taking the credit. But insofar as his obsession with orderliness and efficiency is concerned, the innovator of “the Corporate State” could claim real bona fides. Compartmentalizing the entire expanse of Italian industry into twenty-two separate state agencies to channel labor, Mussolini couched this action in the language of getting more for less. Equally serviceable were his declared campaigns against inanimate objects or concepts such as the “War for Wheat,” which attempted to marshal the full force of the state towards the dictator’s preferred goals. Mussolini, having decided that Italy’s dependence on external grain was concerning, resolved to reverse this trend by imposing import controls to force Italy to grow more. Indeed, the War was a success to the tune of doubling grain production in the decade between 1929 and 1939, but only thanks to a corresponding Truce on Vegetables, Armistice on Dairy, and Respite on Viticulture – all three of which went into predictable decline through neglect.
A quick survey of the diktats and ukases from typical Trump stump speeches recalls the Italian dictator, and not just for their similar bombastic styles of presentation – or as Talking Points Memo described it: “a mix of melodramatic chest-puffing, hands at the waist swagger, hints of humor, hands to the crowd to calm themselves no matter how excited they are.” Indeed, even their economic viewpoints dovetail: both view the state’s economic imperative as not just as the enforcer of efficiency (Trump’s “It’s called good management and it’s called great people…” mantra still remains as unclear as Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women”), but also as a vehicle for a populist form of market revanchism. The billionaire’s speeches feature a litany of enemies foreign and domestic, and The Donald’s mercurial pique, liable to rise at any time, makes it entirely possible that the list can grow still lengthier. In fact, when an earlier wave of economic insecurity in the 1980s cast Japan and West Germany as villains, Trump was quick to rehearse his impression of the hysterical Cassandra, maligning the rising powers in a famous interview with Esquire as having nefarious intentions and recommending the United States remove the aegis of its military protection as a reprisal. And this was in response to the fact that the two allies’ economies were humming along, just as the postwar American policymakers intended when they rebuilt the two war-ravaged economies. Listen closely and the echoes of Mussolini’s quasi-Freudian obsession over his nation’s strength can be heard reverberating past the frizzed orange hair of his natural successor.
Of course, our trip around the world of authoritarianism would be woefully incomplete without a brief look in to the black hole that is North Korea. Trump has routinely praised oppressive regimes around the world, including the world’s sole remaining Stalinist state. He recently expressed admiration for the speed with which “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un consolidated the power he inherited from his father, primarily by ordering the executions of dozens of figures within the existing leadership. So color us unsurprised (but thoroughly amused) that aspects of his massive rallies have come to resemble those of the North Korean state. For example, the horrifying song and dance routine of the three “Freedom Kids” extolling Trump at a recent campaign rally was eerily reminiscent of the poor brainwashed children singing the praises of the North Korean leadership.
But turning inward from North Korea allows us to examine Trump’s rhetoric itself. Indeed, Trump invokes proverbial “bogeymen” like China and Mexico with dogmatism worthy of the “Democratic” People’s Republic. And it is precisely that rhetoric which has contributed to his enduring support from his devoted supporters. There have been countless attempts to explain this apotheosis of Trump, though they have only more recently arrived at the heart of the issue. The New York Times devoted thousands of words to explicating a fairly obvious truth: Trump relies on ominous and divisive rhetoric to invigorate his supporters, much as Mussolini and countless other authoritarian demagogues have throughout history. It is no surprise that his supporters show such a marked inclination towards authoritarianism. They thus sympathize with Trump instead of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, whose forceful removal from a press conference last August Ramos was quick to compare to a similar experience he had with the bodyguards of Fidel Castro – yet another infamous foreign dictator. Trump’s supporters have already shown the contempt with which they regard freedom of speech and religion; would they protest if Trump were to assert greater control over the news media a la Vladimir Putin (still another authoritarian leader Trump greatly admires), or if, as he suggested the other day, he started shooting people on the street?
Unfortunately, any attempt to draw more thorough comparisons of Trump to authoritarian world leaders based on specific policies will be capped for sheer lack of material. The foundation of the entire Trump campaign lies on perpetuating a cult of personality – itself a keystone of most authoritarian regimes – rather than engaging in trivial matters like elucidating specific policy proposals. When pressed for details, Trump’s insistence that he will hire or surround himself with “the right people” sounds eerily reminiscent of dictatorial inclinations. Many of those horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency would seek comfort in this pronouncement with halting optimism that those “right people” would be experienced policy advisors who would competently run the country even as Trump continued to make a mockery of America in the eyes of the world. But as time and opportunities to offer detailed proposals (or even suggestions as to whom those “right people” might be) continue to pass, one must wonder whether those “right people” would amount to little more than obsequious yes-men who indulge the most fleeting whims of their boss – another staple of nearly every authoritarian regime.
We can only hope that in New Hampshire’s primary next week Trump’s “winning” narrative does not ascend to the level of self-fulfilling prophesy and begin a rolling snowball towards a Trump nomination or (God forbid) presidency.