We typically mock politicians for “paying lip service” to some ideal. The implicit criticism is that whatever they might say, those seeking support and acclaim from their fellow citizens don’t really believe in the grand purposes they are extolling—and are not acting on them either.
This line of criticism is a healthy thing in a democracy. Our would-be leaders say all sorts of things to get elected or reelected. They need to be held accountable for what they do, not just what they proclaim, no matter how lovely or passionate their words might sound.
But “lip service” is also underrated. It matters to the health of a polity that those whose hands are on the levers of power understand the core principles that animate it. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, less than fully sincere expressions of loyalty to an idea can be valuable in themselves because they reinforce a community’s standards of judgment and its core commitments.
This is why one of Donald Trump’s most profound betrayals of democracy is his open hostility to the democratic idea itself.
Every student of history knows that the United States itself has fallen short of the democracy’s standards. The shapers of American foreign policy have at times been willing to ally with dictators to serve what they saw (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) as the nation’s interests. Every reader of this essay can no doubt point to past presidents who misused, abused, or undermined democratic principles.
But Trump is unique among presidents in persistently showing contempt for democratic principles themselves. He has said or suggested—again and again and again—that strongman rule is preferable to self-rule by citizens. This should not surprise us from a selfish cynic. But it is an aspect of his self-involved self-dealing that is even more petrifying than the corruption itself.
In his praise of foreign dictators, he regularly hints (and often says outright) that he would prefer a system in which he could exercise the same degree of absolute power. When called out, he will sometimes back off and claim he had been joking. Such claims are never persuasive.
Whatever the reasons for his near veneration of Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, it’s an attitude he was taking long before the 2016 election—most pointedly when he compared Barack Obama unfavorably to Putin.“Putin has much better leadership qualities than Obama,” Trump said, “. . . he’s certainly doing a better job than Obama is.”
In his book released last month, Trump one-time lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen offered a revealing perspective on how Trump defined “better job.” Trump loved Putin, Cohen wrote, because the Russian dictator had the ability “to take over an entire country and run it like it was his personal organization—like the Trump Organization, in fact.”
There could hardly be a better definition of a dictatorship. And Trump appreciates Putin targeting the full panoply of rights that citizens of republican democracies enjoy. At the 2019 G20 summit in Japan, Trump said to Putin, of the press assembled at a photo op before their meeting: “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.” Trump sees the liberties that democracy underwrites as a “problem.”
The list of strongmen Trump has praised is long: Hungary’s Viktor Orban (“I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man”); Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (“I’m a big fan of the president”); Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (Trump said that he and the authoritarian right-wing Bolsonaro have “many views” in common); North Korea’s murderous Kim Jong Un (“He loves his people”); and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose police have killed more than 7,000 drug dealers, drawing criticism in the State Department’s 2016 human rights report for “an apparent governmental disregard for human rights and due process.” That sounded just fine to Trump. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem . . . what a great job you are doing,” he told Duterte.
The most astounding combination of hypocrisy and dictator-love can be found in Trump’s attitude toward China’s president Xi Jinping. Trump has claimed to be a hard man on China, a resolute defender of American interests and the country’s threat to our security and our jobs. Yet before Xi, he seems to melt. He called Xi as “a very special man” and—the favorite Trump compliment—“a strong man.”
“He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great,” Trump said in 2018, adding, “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
As with Putin, the public and private Trumps matched when it came to praising repression and absolutism. In his book published earlier this year, former national security advisor John Bolton noted that when Xi defended China’s building concentration camps to house up to 1 million Uighur Muslims, Trump agreed with Xi.
“According to our interpreter,” Bolton wrote, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
Trump’s disdain for democracy as an idea makes it easy for him to damage democracy in practice. For example, he has no qualms about delegitimizing mail-in voting—but only for those who oppose him—and threatening not to recognize an election result that goes against him. He has no compunction about asking his supporters to vote twice, and he is preparing them to denounce as fraudulent any vote count that does not go in his favor.
What is not noted enough is that a rhetoric that sees politics as being only about power, reflected in Trump’s praise for autocrats, tells citizens that they should not be concerned about whether authority has been obtained legitimately. The only thing that matters is that their side, and their leader, win.
There is much to argue about when it comes to whether the United States has lived up to its democratic ideals, whether at home or in its dealings with the world. But our country really will lose its soul if it becomes indifferent to the democratic idea as a defining characteristic of who we are.
“Democracy will always be unfinished,” the historian James T. Kloppenberg wrote in his book Toward Democracy, “precisely because it is an ethical ideal as well as a set of institutions and practices.” FDR offered a similarly dynamic crew. “Democracy is not a static thing,” he said. “It is an everlasting march.”
Trump would stop that march cold. He doesn’t care about democracy and he doesn’t like it because it means he can’t treat the country like the Trump Organization.