Donald Trump has said lots – and lots – of controversial things since he started running for office almost three years ago. But, something he said over the weekend – at a party fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago resort – struck me as particularly tone-deaf and dangerous.
Speaking about China’s President Xi Jinping, who led the charge to repeal the country’s term limits law last month, Trump said this:
“He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
It’s not totally clear to me whether Trump was half-joking or not. Trump’s speech was behind closed doors. (CNN obtained a recording of his remarks.) And, in the news story on the speech, CNN’s Kevin Liptak notes that it was “upbeat, lengthy, and peppered with jokes and laughter.”
But, it is not obvious – at least to me – that Trump was joking about Xi’s power grab. Because, well, he almost certainly wasn’t.
It’s no secret by this point in the Trump presidency that he is someone who tends to heap praise on authoritarian dictators. Leaders from Turkey, Thailand and Egypt have all won plaudits from Trump. And then there is, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump has treated with kid gloves even as the US intelligence community unanimously confirmed that Russia was behind an elaborate attempt to meddle in the 2016 election.
Trump, throughout his life in politics and in business, has generally adhered to the “might makes right” view of the world. From urging attendees at his campaign rallies to “knock the hell” out of protesters to focusing on the need for America to be more feared than loved around the world, Trump has demonstrated that his governing theory is largely centered on taking as much as you can until someone stops you.
That worldview is what makes Trump’s thought on Xi all the more chilling. Here’s the key bit: “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great.”
“He was able to do that.” The moral question – should the most powerful person in a country be able to decide how long he or she serves – is entirely lost on Trump. The only thing that matters is that Xi was able to make it happen. If he was able to do it, that makes it right in Trump’s world.
On a micro level, Trump’s willingness to give president for life “a shot some day” should be very concerning to anyone who is a fan of democracy. There’s a reason, after all, that we have the 22nd Amendment in the Constitution. It’s not to protect the chief executive. It’s to protect the people. To ensure that the most powerful person in the country is not only subject to a performance review after four years – a little thing called the “election” – but that, no matter how beloved they are or how much more they want to get done, they simply can’t serve more than eight years in office.
On a macro level, Trump’s praise for Xi and interest in his move on term limits is in keeping with a broader lack of concern he has demonstrated in the idea of president as moral leader.
His reaction to the race riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer was the leading example of the moral vacuum in the White House at the moment. Trump’s decision to endorse Roy Moore’s Senate campaign amid a series of allegations about sexually inappropriate behavior against the Alabama Republican was another. And now, this.
Trump’s redefining of the presidency takes all sorts of shapes and forms. Some are good molds to break. Others have little long-term impact.
But Trump’s willingness to engage in moral relativism and to stoke the notion that you take as much as you can until someone stronger stops you are the sorts of things that will likely echo well beyond his four or eight years in office. And not in a good way.