Saturday 17 November 2018

The US president who envies a dictator

'The New York Times' carried a stinging commentary on the front page of its international edition yesterday. It is reprinted in full below

US President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, at Capella, Singapore. Photo: PA
US President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, at Capella, Singapore. Photo: PA

Roger Cohen

I've just watched footage of Donald Trump saluting a North Korean general - and it occurs to me that what's really going on here is that the president is envious of Kim Jong-un, who has the absolute authority to execute his uncle with anti-aircraft machine guns, consign tens of thousands of people to the gulag, and rule through a personality cult based on ruthless indoctrination.

This, the last hangover of Stalinist totalitarianism, must be the society for which Trump yearns as, remote control in hand, he wanders the corridors of the White House searching for Melania or a late-night burger. It's one in which prostration to the leader is the norm, critical thought is punishable with death, and the whole tedious apparatus of American constitutional democracy - checks and balances, the rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary - has been relegated to history's trash heap.

The real enemy, you see, is not the North Korean general Trump saluted, or Kim himself, the erstwhile "rocket man" turned "great personality" and "very smart guy". No, it's the forces within American society working to limit Trump's power and so keep the Republic. As he tweeted upon his return from the summit with Kim in Singapore, "Our country's biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools."

Biggest enemy! A monstrous regime, still armed with nukes, gets a pass because Trump dreams of building condos on its deserted beaches and seeing a Trump Boulevard in Pyongyang, but no pass for CNN or The New York Times if they refuse to kowtow. A Russian attempt to subvert the last election also goes ignored.

The evidence is now overwhelming that Trump cannot resist a dictator. Kim is "funny". (You read that right.) Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, is doing "an unbelievable job on the drug problem" through mass arrests and extrajudicial killings. Xi Jinping is just "great". Vladimir Putin's human rights violations are not worth a mention because: "What do you think, our country's so innocent?"

By contrast, America's democratic allies are a bunch of losers. Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is "dishonest and weak". Germany refuses to pay up and is "bad, very bad". Trump even seems to have lost patience with his one European buddy, President Emmanuel Macron of France. The trouble with these wimpy leaders is they don't starve their citizens or execute troublemakers with anti-aircraft guns.

Trump acknowledges the North Korean general
Trump acknowledges the North Korean general

Asked by Greta Van Susteren, in an interview with Voice of America, what he would like to say to North Korean citizens, Trump said: "Well, I think you have somebody who has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them, and we got along really well. We had a great chemistry - you understand how I feel about chemistry."

We understand. Chemistry supplants facts and is an excuse for laziness. Trump has no interest in reality. When allies, the leaders of democratic nations, try to speak to him about reality, his eyes glaze over.

Dictators can make up their own worlds. They can make words mean the opposite of what they were intended to mean. They can turn "fake news" into propaganda that's impossible to contest.

This is what makes Trump so envious. He wants a country where everyone succumbs to his make-believe, a nation where everyone, without exception, would pound the sidewalk in inconsolable grief if he had the extraordinary temerity to die.

The United States now has a president who would have told East Germans in 1961, as the Berlin Wall went up, that the Soviet and East German leaders were to be congratulated for walling them in because they were concerned about their people's safety, happiness and well-being.

Trump, in Singapore, saluted evil. That's a pretty ignominious way to bring down the curtain on more than seven decades of American stewardship of the world after the defeat of evil in 1945.

Of course, history is not our esteemed leader's strong point. Trump also tweeted that the nuclear threat from North Korea is over - abracadabra, just like that! He urged Americans, in this light, to "sleep well tonight". This recalled nothing so much as the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, on his return from Munich in 1938, declaring "peace for our time" and saying: "Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."

A year after Chamberlain's "ultimate deal" with Hitler, the Nazi leader invaded Poland, igniting World War II. North Korea, whose recent history does not encourage trust, still has its nuclear arsenal. In Singapore, it committed only to "work toward" denuclearisation.

That could mean anything. But Trump insists, "We're going to denuke North Korea" - less than a year after he threatened to nuke it!

This was an unserious summit, cobbled together in haste by an unserious man, and summed up by the video fantasy of a glorious shared future, shown by the Trump administration in Singapore just after the meeting. This was billed as a 'Destiny Pictures Production', but it was in fact produced by the National Security Council, as the council later sheepishly admitted.

You can't make this stuff up.

© New York Times

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