Dictator Envy

One of these weeks I would love to write about a subject that includes no reason to mention Donald Trump. – Maybe something about inspiring developments in the world of science. Or a local story about young (or old) New Trier people engaged in positive stuff. Or, perhaps simply some thoughts on an important subject like friendship or aging.

But once again, not this week. Certainly not with all the media noise about President Trump’s meeting with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

Was it a major diplomatic breakthrough? It depends on who’s judging. Trump Administration spokespersons are positioning it as a major diplomatic event in the Trump presidency. His strongest supporters have hailed it as an unprecedented and courageous act of diplomacy that no past American president had the guts to initiate.

On the other hand, people who make up Trump’s political and philosophical opposition see what he started during his few hours with Kim in Singapore as, at the least, a self-serving and reckless international initiative. They fear it may damage our relationship with long-time allies like Japan and South Korea for years while it strengthens China’s geopolitical leverage and prestige worldwide.

And neutral observers (is it possible to be “neutral” in the world Trump is shaping?) – former career diplomats, academics and authors who have spent years observing far eastern politics – pretty much agree that the odds are high North Korea will not live up to whatever promises Kim Jong Un might yet make to President Trump and the U.S.A. They base much of their pessimism on the past behavior of both Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il.

However in my opinion, beyond the historic evidence cited, there’s another specific reason that we should remain skeptical. Any agreement worked out personally between Donald and Un will never hold up because both men are unscrupulous, egotistical liars with track records full of deceit. Neither of them possesses a sense of shame. 

I suppose one could say that with such qualities in common, there is little doubt the President and the Supreme Leader do “get” each other. Probably more than either one of them will ever “get” leaders like Canada’s Trudeau, France’s Macron or Germany’s Merkel.

Watching Donald Trump operate as our president over the past 18 months, one unusual quirk in this presidency especially stands out. It has become increasingly clear that our president seems more comfortable dealing with authoritarian leaders than with leaders of democracies. He seems to admire dictators. I don’t mean he admires them as people. I imagine Trump personally thinks Kim Jong Un is a short, fat, guy with a weird haircut who could never attract a real “babe.” (Unlike The Donald.)

I think Trump admires the way dictators operate, with no limitations on their actions. Maybe “envies” is a better word. President Trump has to suffer the frustration of living in a democratic republic. He has to put up with legislators, the free press and outspoken individual citizens who often oppose his actions. But not Kim Jong Un.

CNN reported that since Un came to power he has ordered the execution of 340 people. One hundred forty of those killed were senior officers in his government, including Defense Minister Hyon Yong Choi who was shot to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun in front of an audience at a military school. (That Kim Jong Un sure does have a flair for drama.)

Yes, I know there have been U.S. administrations in our past that have played footsies with dictators – Tito in Yugoslavia , Diem in Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile. The Cold War created strange bedfellows. But compared to the presidents involved in those past relationships – Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, – the mutual admiration dance going on between Trump and Kim seems unique.

Also, as far as I know, the approach that past U.S. presidents have followed when dealing with foreign leaders has almost always included some level of pre-planning with input from knowledgeable advisors. President Trump notoriously shuns detailed briefings and any reading-up on the issue at hand. In fact, he brags about it.

So will President Trump prove the millions of skeptics like me wrong? Will his ability to establish a rapport with an international pariah result in a more secure world in the future? – I sure wish I was commenting on one of Trump’s fake “reality TV” scripts. But unfortunately, the very real reality show our President is handing us is not going to be fun to watch.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973