Does Trump have “dictator envy”?

Philip Rucker of the Washington Post claims that President Trump is “open[ly] embrac[ing] totalitarian leaders around the world.” Rucker also tries to persuade us that Trump’s “embrace” is rooted in a desire to be a dictator himself.

Rucker is one of the most persistent and intellectually dishonest Trump-hater among the Post’s squadron of “resisters.” However, I don’t deny that Trump went overboard in praising the odious Kim Jong Un. Thus, we should consider Rucker’s assertions.

In my view they are over-the-top. First, Trump isn’t embracing totalitarian rulers around the world. To the extent he’s praising such rulers, his praise is directed to rulers he’s seeking something from and who are in a position to inflict great harm on the U.S. All three of the leaders Rucker cites — Kim, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin — fit this description.

Second, Trump hasn’t “embraced” Xi or Putin. We’re moving into a trade war with China. And Trump has taken a series of hostile actions against Russia.

Third, Rucker presents no persuasive evidence that Trump is praising Kim because he envies his dictatorial power. The best he can do is to collect quotations to this effect from folks who hate Trump.

It’s possible that Trump is motivated by dictator envy, but the more plausible explanation for his praise is that he wants to induce Kim to denuclearize North Korea or, at a minimum, bring U.S. relations with that nation to a point where war is highly unlikely.

This explanation is the more plausible one precisely because Trump is not praising dictators around the world. He’s not praising Assad, the Iranian mullahs, Castro, Maduro, or (to my knowledge) any dictators other than those he wants important concessions from.

Again, I don’t deny that Trump is going too far in praising Kim. I don’t like hearing our president call Kim “very talented” or commend him for the fact that when he speaks North Koreans “sit up at attention.” Nor do I believe that statements like these will cause Kim to denuclearize his country. In the unlikely event North Korea denuclearizes, it will due to some combination of pressure and bribery.

But what counts here is Trump’s motivation, not my beliefs. Trump seems to believe that flattery will work with Kim. This belief, not envy of Kim’s power, is the most plausible explanation for the flattery.

Rucker points to Trump’s statement that he wished “his people” paid him the kind of respect Kim gets. It’s pretty plain that Trump was referring, half-jokingly, to the trouble he has had controlling his staff (which, among things, seems to leak without compunction to enemies of the administration like Philip Rucker).

When it comes to evidence that Trump has conducted his presidency in a remotely authoritarian way, Rucker comes up short. He points to the president’s harsh criticism of the press, but to no instance in which Trump has taken action to curb a free press. Trump, of course, has every right to to criticize the press. Rucker also fails to cite any instance in which the administration has gone after a political enemy.

Rucker also points to Trump’s exercise of his clemency power on behalf of “loyalists.” The clemency power is, of course, expressly granted the president by the Constitution.

Rucker must be referring to the pardon Arizona sheriff and to Dinesh D’Souza. That’s a mighty slender reed on which to accuse Trump of dictatorial instincts.

Indeed, the D’Souza case is one in which the Obama administration did what the Trump administration has not done (at least not yet) — prosecute an administration critic. There’s more latent authoritarianism in that than in anything Trump has done.

Speaking of Obama, he’s entirely absent from Rucker’s hit piece, even though Rucker purports to be discussing presidential history (with assistance from the relentlessly lame and biased presidential historian Douglas Brinkley).

Obama did not usually praise dictators, but he embraced some through his policies. Castro was one. The Iranian regime was another. Obama enriched that regime with billions of dollars, including a massive shipment of gold. Before that, he effectively backed the regime when opponents tried to bring it down, or at least induce reform, through mass protests.

There is also Russia. Obama tried, through concessions, to “reset” relations with the authoritarian Putin regime.

And let’s not forget that Obama identified Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan as one of a small number of leaders whom he considered a buddy. He also bonded with Angela Merkel who, though not a dictator, seeks to exercise a vast and undue amount of authority over Europe, to the detriment of democracy in some European nations.

Finally, Obama tried to accomplish, through an executive order on immigration, that which he once conceded only a dictator could do. Rucker must have forgotten about that.

Trump may have some authoritarian tendencies. He wouldn’t be the first president to have them; indeed, he would only be the most recent by a day. We should be vigilant in this regard.

But over-the-top, agenda-driven pieces like Rucker’s cannot be taken seriously.

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