President Trump has a thing for dictatorial, sociopathic strongmen. But last week during his trip to the Far East for the G-20 summit, he took things to a whole new level — bro-ing out with some of the worst leaders, and worst people, in the world and in the process, further degrading America’s already weakened global image.
At the summit, Trump commended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you,” he said. “You’ve done a really spectacular job.”
The crown prince has not only presided over a vicious crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia but is also widely believed to have ordered the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. According to Trump, however, “nobody has directly pointed a finger” at the crown prince for Khashoggi’s death, a rebuttal to the conclusions of the CIA, which determined that he was responsible.
When Trump wasn’t praising the crown prince, he was bonding with President Vladimir Putin of Russia over their antipathy for the news media. Pointing to the journalists covering their meeting, Trump said, “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”
Putin answered, “We also have. It’s the same.” Then the two men shared a laugh.
These hijinks are bad enough. But when you consider that Putin has allegedly had Russian journalists killed, they are downright macabre.
Trump saved his best for last, during his impromptu meeting with North Korea’s totalitarian leader, Kim Jung Un.
When the two men last convened, in Hanoi, their meeting ended badly, with the North Koreans unwilling to budge off their negotiating demands. How has our Master Negotiator in Chief responded? By rewarding Kim with a pop-in at the demilitarized zone last weekend — which included the first steps by a US president on North Korean soil.
He also falsely accused President Obama of “begging” to arrange a meeting with Kim, claimed that North Korea had rebuffed these entreaties, and then boasted that “for some reason, we have a certain chemistry.”
What is remarkable about this is that Trump seems to think that Kim wanting to meet only with him is a good thing.
What is not remarkable is that the two men have chemistry. After all, Trump has repeatedly praised the world’s most ruthless dictators. If it’s not Putin, Kim, or Mohammed bin Salman, it’s been Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping, or Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has presided over a campaign of mass murder as part of the nation’s war on drugs.
Conversely, he’s regularly criticized democratically elected leaders — from Germany’s Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron of France to Sadiq Khan , the mayor of London and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, whom he called “dishonest” and “weak.”
A nation that once prided itself on standing up, albeit imperfectly, for human rights and democratic values, has become a handmaiden to the dregs of the earth — a protector of the disreputable rather than the disenfranchised and dispossessed. At a time when democracy is under global assault by would be authoritarians, the United States has not only abandoned the field, it has joined the other side.
Trump’s shameful Far Eastern trip has more to do with the peculiar psychology of our 45th president.
Trump is obsessed with projections of “strength.” He’s used the word “strong” to describe practically all the nasty leaders above. It is the only human attribute that he values.
It’s also emblematic of Trump’s weakness and his crippling insecurity. Trump praises global thugs, in large measure, because they praise him. Indeed, it seems hardly coincidental that the democratically elected foreign leader with whom he has the best relationship is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has gone out of his way to feed Trump’s limitless need for veneration.
The result is that Trump has reduced American foreign policy to an ongoing melodrama about his fragile psyche. While once, not long ago, America’s leaders traveled overseas with the national interests of the United States front and center, for Trump it’s merely about his personal interest. Praise for the president, even from some of the most awful men on the planet, and the president’s own warped perception of strength are the only metrics that matter. As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, it makes one pine, even more, for a president who speaks for America, not one who constantly dishonors it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.