As a regular critic of Donald Trump’s on social media, I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the responses my comments prompt from his defenders. When confronted with evidence of his contempt for democracy, disregard for the rule of law or basic corruption, rather than address the actual charge, they’ll instead attempt to argue a point I didn’t make: “Yeah I agree his tweets are terrible” or “of course he’s vulgar and crass”, “but…” etc.
Why do Trump supporters focus only on Trump’s tweets and inappropriate comments as the flaws in their man, as though that is the real problem? I suspect it’s because those things are ugly but defensible. If you can point to real policy achievements (and certainly most Israelis and others who care about Israel can), Trump’s character flaws can be dismissed as ultimately unimportant. If on the other hand, Trump’s supporters have to admit that they were backing someone who has shown himself – on multiple occasions – to be an enemy of the most fundamental values that America is supposed to held dear, it would be far harder to justify.
Democracy scholar Larry Diamond makes the distinction well in a recent book:
…we must distinguish boorish and erratic statements from undemocratic ones – and bad policies from authoritarian and illegal actions.
“We can survive sleaze and vulgarity in a president. We can challenge and reverse bad policies. But the threat that Trump poses to America’s democratic institutions and norms is unprecedented… he is, in the words of Madeleine Albright, ‘the first anti-democratic president in modern US history.’
Trump is not like any other President. This cannot be said enough. It is impossible to imagine any President in modern times welcoming foreign interference in US elections, or standing next to Vladimir Putin and publicly taking the word of Russia’s autocratic leader over those of his own intelligence services. It’s impossible to imagine any other President joking with Putin at a press conference about the Kremlin’s treatment of critical journalists (they’re intimidated and sometimes killed); or telling the press that he’s “fallen in love” with Kim Jong-Un – the leader of the world’s most repressive state.
And of course, there has never been a President who has deliberately and consistently attempted to sow mistrust in the electoral system and publicly hinted that he will not accept the results of the election if he loses. (As I write this, the full extent of Trump’s massive voter suppression effort is being reported in the American media.)
I am writing this as a non-American, a citizen of a country that has benefitted from many Trump decisions. For me, the danger of a Trump second term is what it means for America’s role in the world. “Leader of the Free World” sounds a bit silly these days, but during the Cold War, it really meant something. The US made its fair share of mistakes during that period but, no one should dispute the irreplaceable role that American leadership played in the ultimate victory against Soviet communism. The US has been the essential guarantor of ‘the West’ (which also includes non-western democracies like Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia etc.) not only because of its economic and military muscle, but because of its values. It’s easy to be cynical, but the US was founded on an idea that has inspired countless nascent democracies and was the beacon of hope for freedom fighters against communist regimes.
Trump doesn’t care about any of that. He is driven entirely by self-interest, by his desire to enrich himself and his family. Asked by one journalist after his election win in 2016 why he ran for President, he replied that he wanted to be the most famous man in the world. The man who now occupies the position of ‘Leader of the Free World’ has threatened to withdraw from NATO; he routinely lauds dictators and despots while trashing democratic allies. According to his former National Security Advisor John Bolton, he offered to do a deal with China’s Xi Jinping to help him win re-election (whilst voicing his approval of the communist leader’s herding of Muslims into concentration camps). Thanks to the impeachment hearing, we know that he conditioned aid to Ukraine on their assistance in digging up dirt on Joe Biden.
I could have written an entire article just on his empowering of white nationalists. His nativist rhetoric and disgraceful dog whistles date back to before his first presidential campaign, when he obfuscated in response to former Klan leader David Duke’s support for his candidacy, pretending not to know who Duke was and refusing to disavow the KKK before he had “looked into” who they were.
Yes I’m Israeli, and I welcome many of Trump’s policies in the Middle East (though not all – Syria has become an Iranian/Russian outpost on his watch; Islamist Turkey has been shamefully appeased with Trump showering praise on President Erdogan – yet another authoritarian he’s mysteriously drawn to). But in the longer-term, Israel and the world needs a liberal democratic West, led by a strong and committed America. Biden is by no means the perfect alternative, but he’s an old-fashioned ‘Cold War’ Democrat, still attached to the notion of a liberal world order with the US at its head.
Biden has values; Trump has only his childish craving for praise and fame. Biden believes in the best of America; Trump inspires and incites the worst. The tweets are dreadful, and tell us what sort of a man he is – a lying, bullying, infantile narcissist. But they are merely a hint of why he is completely unfit to be President of the United States.