The Republican nominee’s rhetoric at the debate was more dictator than leader of the free world.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Experience in Vietnam.”
It was both fitting and chilling that the centerpiece of the second presidential debate was Donald Trump’s threat to imprison his opponent. That is the kind of act normally associated with autocrats like Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych (who jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011), Myanmar’s military junta (which put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest even before her party won the 1990 election), Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who overthrew and imprisoned President Mohamed Morsi in 2013), and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who in 2003 arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a wealthy political adversary).
Trump’s apologists tried to claim that he wasn’t threatening to jail former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for being his political opponent but, rather, for supposed “felonies committed in office.” But this is exactly the kind of thing that dictators always say; no one ever admits to jailing the opposition for political reasons. The essence of democracy is not to criminalize political differences. That’s something that Trump does not seem to understand. It seems appropriate, then, that during the rest of the debate — while desperately trying to deflect attention from the “pussygate” scandal that has crippled his campaign — Trump alternatively expressed his admiration for dictators and emulated their “Big Lie” techniques for winning and keeping power. If we needed any more evidence, the debate showed just what an unprincipled power-seeker Trump is — how he is willing to say or do anything, to cross any line, to violate any norm of civilized behavior, in order to feed his insatiable ego. He came across as the kind of unscrupulous demagogue that has imperiled other democracies and that the United States has not seen since the heyday of Huey Long and George Wallace.
His sympathy for tyrants was most clearly evident when moderator Martha Raddatz asked him what he would do about the siege of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin are pummeling this city so relentlessly, killing countless civilians, that Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a war crimes investigation. While admitting that Aleppo is a “disaster, humanitarian-wise,” Trump failed to offer a plan to stop the killing. Worse, he failed to offer a single word of condemnation for Assad and Putin’s brutal actions. Actually, he seemed to approve of what the two are doing: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS,” referring to the Islamic State. He went on to say, “We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved,” and, “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS.”
Not quite. There is no Islamic State presence in Aleppo. Yet this is the area where the Russian and Syrian governments are concentrating their firepower. This is part of a general pattern whereby the vast majority of their attacks are focused on more moderate rebel forces, not on the Islamic State. Trump has been entirely taken in by the disinformation line put out by Assad and Putin that they are fighting “terrorists,” a name that they apply to all opponents of Assad’s brutal regime. And Trump appears to fully approve of the war crimes they are committing — perhaps not so surprising from a candidate who has threatened to commit war crimes of his own, such as torturing terrorists, killing their relatives, bombing indiscriminately, and stealing Iraq’s oil.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has a better appreciation of the horrors being perpetrated in Syria. In the vice presidential debate, he denounced the “barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo” and said that the “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” He called for the establishment of “safe zones” to protect “vulnerable families” and said the United States “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.” On Sunday night, however, Trump disassociated himself from Pence’s view: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree.” (Perhaps the next debate should feature Trump vs. Pence?)
Thus Trump continues his pattern of not saying a single negative thing about Vladimir Putin, an anti-American dictator he has praised for being a better leader than President Barack Obama. While freely insulting political opponents, reporters, and entire ethnic groups, Trump has never had one bad word to say about Putin, and that didn’t change Sunday when Trump was asked about the cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and other American targets. Last Friday, the U.S. intelligence community formally charged Russia with responsibility for the hacking, stating, “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” In other words, Putin is responsible.
Trump had already been notified of this “high confidence” finding by his intelligence briefers. But Trump, who in the last debate suggested that the hacking could be the work of some 400-pound coach potato, continued to deny the Kremlin’s responsibility, suggesting, in essence, that Clinton was guilty of “Russophobia” (a charge the Kremlin has leveled against the Obama administration). “I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia,” he said.
The only true part of that statement was Trump’s admission that he knows nothing about Russia. He went on to claim: “I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.” But given Trump’s unwillingness to reveal his taxes or his business records, there is no reason to believe his protestations — especially when there actually is evidence, even based on the scant public record, that Trump does do business with the Russians.
As a general proposition, whether talking about his business dealings or anything else, the Republican nominee does not exactly inspire confidence as a truth-teller. Politico already determined, based on analyzing all of Trump’s statements for a week in late September, that he averages “one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds.” He did better — or worse — than average on Sunday night by uttering, according to Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, a total of 33 false claims during his 40 minutes of speaking time.
The most egregious lies are the ones that he has repeated often in the past and keeps on repeating despite numerous attempts to point out that what he is saying is not true. For example, in response to a question about how the candidates would help American Muslims deal with rising Islamophobia in the United States, Trump once again repeated his canard that lots of people knew ahead of time about the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California: “Many people saw the bombs all over the apartment of the two people that killed 14 and wounded many, many people.… They’ll never be the same. Muslims have to report the problems when they see them.”
There is, in fact, no factual foundation for this claim; it is based entirely on hearsay and rumor repeated by the far-right media. But Trump will not stop repeating this anti-Muslim smear no matter how many times he is corrected. Apparently his answer is that he will respond to Islamophobia with more Islamophobia.
Just as egregious are Trump’s continuing claims to have opposed the Iraq War. In fact, there are numerous statements from him favoring regime change in Iraq before the war and not a single statement on the public record opposing the war until August 2004 — i.e., 17 months after the start of the conflict, by which time it was clear that it was not going to be a “cakewalk.” A year ago, the fact-checkers at the Washington Post awarded Trump “four Pinocchios” for his unfounded claims about opposing the war. Yet here he was again on Sunday night, when challenged by Clinton on his Iraq War lie, indignantly saying: “That’s not been debunked.” To make his falsehood even more offensive, he suggested that if he had been president in 2004, Capt. Humayun Khan, the Muslim American war hero whose family he defamed, “would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq.”
Trump has the temerity to blame Clinton not just for favoring the war in Iraq but also for favoring a pullout. In the debate, he said: “I mean, her and Obama, whether you like it or not, the way they got out of Iraq, the vacuum they’ve left, that’s why ISIS formed in the first place. They started from that little area, and now they’re in 32 different nations, Hillary. Congratulations. Great job.” What Trump doesn’t mention is that he himself favored the pullout from Iraq as early as 2006, when he told CNBC, “I would like to see our president get us out of the war [in Iraq] because the war is a total catastrophe.” Trump professed himself to be unconcerned about what would happen after the U.S. pullout: “Somebody will take over Iraq, whether we’re there or not, but probably when we leave, will take over Iraq.… He will make Saddam Hussein look like a baby.” So Trump actually foresaw what a mess Iraq would be after the American pullout, but he was in favor of it just the same. Now he is attacking Clinton for taking the very same positions — in favor of the Iraq War and in favor of a pullout — that he himself advocated for.
There is a word for someone who lies as repeatedly as Trump does and continues doubling down on his lies no matter how many times he is called out on his behavior: pathological. Trump can’t distinguish right from wrong, truth from fiction. He has shown that he will say anything that pops into his head regardless of its veracity — and he refuses to be corrected by any fact-checking. There has never been anyone remotely like him who has been a serious presidential candidate before; the only analogues are in the ranks of dictators abroad. And although it now appears that he will not win the election — “pussygate” seems to have been the coup de grâce for his disgraceful campaign — it is nevertheless terrifying that so many millions of Americans are thrilled by his irresponsible rhetoric and extremist positions.
It is particularly appalling that even now, after all his lies and gropes, his racism and sexism, his general craziness has been exposed, a substantial section of the Republican electorate continues to stand by their man. Many of the Trump die-hards are furious at the few Republican politicians who have had a sudden outbreak of conscience in recent days and have decided to unendorse him. The grass-roots fervor for Trump suggests that the Republican Party may be beyond salvation — and that the republic itself could be in peril if in the future we see some demagogue who is smoother than Trump and devoid of his debilitating personal flaws. It could happen here — and almost did.
Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images