Donald Trump is often criticized for behaving like a tin-pot autocrat from a backwater country. And it’s not for nothing.
Since stumbling into the presidency, Trump has waged a relentless assault on our country’s democratic norms, restraints, and traditions. With his signature blend of ignorance and narcissism, Trump has attacked the free press, bullied union leaders, scapegoated minority groups, threatened political opponents with criminal investigations and jail time, and hand-picked some of worst people in the country to weaken government institutions from the top down.
But Trump’s brand of despotism doesn’t travel. Whenever the president goes abroad, Tough-Talking Trump becomes Deferential Don. And when Trump is in the presence of real strongmen leaders, he tends to wilt like a nervous middle school transfer student who’s afraid of sitting alone in the cafeteria.
That’s what happened last week in Asia, where Trump tried so hard to befriend other authoritarian leaders that he ended up behaving like a “lap dog,” according to Sen. Chuck Schumer. The U.S. president kissed up to China’s Xi Jinping, sucked up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and cozied up to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Trump even tweeted a pathetic friend request to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
In fact, the only tough talking Trump managed to do on his Asia tour was directed at U.S. intelligence “hacks” and…you guessed it…Hillary Clinton.
Here’s a quick rundown of things Trump got wrong in Asia, and how a real strongman would have handled the situation differently.
1) On trade inequality with China
What Trump said: “I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
How a real strongman would handle it: The instinct to play victim is good, but Trump’s execution was all wrong. A real strongman would never credit an adversary for taking advantage of his country. Instead, he would frame injustice in historical terms, tracing the roots of the problem back centuries to a distant and fabled time that nobody remembers. It’s why Fidel Castro used to give speeches that lasted for hours—epic jeremiads that swept through 500 years of history, starting with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and continuing on through the various phases of 19th and 20th century U.S. interventionism. It’s a lot of history to cover, but that’s a strongman’s job— to right ancient wrongs. Commending an adversary only weakens a leader’s position and casts doubt on the urgency and infallibility of his mandate.
2) On asking Putin about U.S. election meddling
What Trump said: “He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
How a real strongman would handle it: A real autocrat never ends a sentence with an eroteme, unless it’s to ask a rhetorical question to elicit confession. A strongman NEVER asks a question to let someone off the hook.
Trump blew his exchange with Putin on multiple levels. First of all, questioning a foreign leader about something that happened in your country is a sign of supreme weakness. But repeating that question and then accepting the answer that you’re given is desperate and borderline treasonous. A strongman’s word is his only truth, especially as it pertains to events in his own country. Answers about questions of national security should never be outsourced to foreign adversaries.
3) On taking press questions aboard Air Force One
What Trump said: It doesn’t matter because a real strongman never takes questions from independent media. What are you even doing letting journalists on your plane in the first place?
4) On gushing over his red carpet treatment in Asia
What Trump said: “We very much appreciate it… red carpet like, I think, probably nobody has ever received.”
How a real strongman would handle it: Red carpet treatment is something a strongman should always expect, take for granted, and never acknowledge publicly. Talking about the extravagance of red-carpet treatment implies it’s an honor you’re unaccustomed to. Thanking others for honoring your presence is an undignified sign of infinite weakness.
5) On whining about unreciprocated friendship with a younger man
What Trump said: “I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”
How a real strongman would handle it: Perhaps the saddest moment of Trump’s trip was when he cried on Twitter about Kim Jong-un’s unreciprocated friendship. Real strongmen never ask other people to be their friends. Real strongmen don’t even have friends—just temporary alliances, which end with the other person being thrown into a volcano when they’re no longer needed. Alliances forged by strongmen should always come naturally; you should never have to “try so hard”—and certainly never admit to it.
6) On avoiding the topic of human rights in the Philippines
What Trump said: Nothing.
How a real strongman would handle it: An autocrat doesn’t avoid the topic of human rights, he owns it. Muammar el-Qaddafi had his own eponymous international human rights award, which he gave to other recognized leaders, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Rather than avoiding the topic of human rights during his trip to the Philippines, Donald Trump should have come up with a Trump-brand, gold-plated human rights plaque and given it to President Rodrigo Duterte for “his tireless work raising international awareness about the issue of extrajudicial killings.”