President Donald Trump’s unnerving failure to distinguish the free and democratic nation he leads from the autocratic and menacing Russia of strongman President Vladimir Putin has generated two notable sets of concerns – but the implications of Trump’s rhetorical excesses expand far beyond current story lines.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied when Fox’s Bill O’Reilly asked him the other day why he admires a “killer” like Putin. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
In one response, conservatives like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot and The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens noted the hypocrisy of Republicans who are silent in the face of Trump’s U.S.-Russia equivalency, but who disparaged President Barack Obama for dismissing American “exceptionalism” and highlighting U.S. imperfections on the world stage.
While applauding such notable Senate Republicans as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse for denouncing this or earlier such Trump-isms, conservative pundits rightfully noted the silence of too many others.
In another response, foreign policy experts fretted that Trump’s comments will empower Putin to keep imprisoning or murdering his domestic critics; directing Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine; bombing civilians in Syrian markets, hospitals and homes; working more closely with the “death to America”-chanting regime in Tehran; and undermining U.S. interests abroad in other ways.
Indeed, amid Trump’s outreach to Putin of recent days, Russia reportedly reignited the fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s military, and Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza – who urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in testimony last year to extend sanctions on Russia for its human rights abuses – has been poisoned and is now in a coma, fighting for his life.
Our presidents of yesteryear must be spinning in their graves, for Trump espouses views of America with which none of them would be remotely familiar. From Washington to Lincoln, Roosevelt to Roosevelt, Truman to Reagan and beyond, our presidents have lauded America for its unique values and special role.
Lincoln called America the “last best hope of earth.” John F. Kennedy and Reagan echoed Gov. John Winthrop’s image of America as a shining “city on a hill.” Nixon (while vice president) debated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the relative merits of U.S. and Soviet society during their so-called “kitchen debate.” Truman lauded American freedom over Soviet totalitarianism when he enunciated the Truman Doctrine.
And that’s what raises the larger implication of Trump’s comments. About a week ago, in an annual report that never gets the notice it deserves, Freedom House wrote that in 2016, freedom (i.e., political rights and civil liberties) declined for the 11th straight year – the longest stretch since the nonprofit watchdog began tracking the issue in the early 1970s.
“[P]opulist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents,” Freedom House wrote. “All of these developments point to a growing danger that the international order of the past quarter-century – rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – will give way to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints, and without regard for the shared benefits of global peace, freedom, and prosperity.”
That 11-year decline overlaps with the end of the Bush years and all of Obama’s – and that’s no coincidence. At the end of his tenure, Bush lost his enthusiasm for the “freedom agenda” that he had previously enunciated, and he stopped promoting freedom and democracy aggressively on the world stage. Obama never strongly promoted those values, opting instead to seek warmer relations with such rights-abusing leaders as Putin, Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
As we often forget, a president can move the needle on freedom and democracy around the world through the sheer force of his voice. Reagan provided important emotional support for Natan Sharansky and other Soviet political prisoners when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and Bush inspired democratic activists to pursue their color revolutions in nations near Russia’s borders when he promoted freedom and democracy in the early years of this century.
That neither Bush, in his last years, nor Obama, throughout his tenure in the Oval Office, promoted freedom and democracy forcefully was bad enough, for it gave free rein to the dictators in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere to tighten their grip, free of any concern that an American president would inspire the activists in their midst.
That Trump sees no distinction between his free nation and Russia’s authoritarian one is even worse, for that will further embolden the dictators and leave democratic activists largely on their own.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.