Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist at the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

In another time, the President of the United States might have called an urgent press conference on Monday morning – making sure he could command the world’s attention – and issued a stern warning that violent repression of peaceful protesters is intolerable.

Frida Ghitis

After all, what we saw this weekend in Moscow and Hong Kong were alarming signs that a wave of more brutal repression is looming. The regimes in Moscow and Beijing have sent notice that they are about to crush peaceful, popular movements. This should alarm the US president and produce an urgent response.

Instead, President Donald Trump woke up Monday morning prepared to stoke racist sentiment across the United States, tweeting a new barrage of inflammatory messages against prominent African American figures in what has become a familiar pattern: racist tweets from the President, widespread condemnation by the public, doubling down by the President. Trump is making racism his trademark, spending his time energizing racists while decisively removing America from the moral high ground.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is happening at the time when democracy activists most desperately need a show of support. They could use a strong statement from Washington telling the leaders in Russia and China that the world is watching. That their actions could have consequences. That, at the very least, their position on the global stage is teetering. That the American people stand on the side of those demanding justice.

Consider what happened in Russia, where pro-democracy activists have been protesting for the right to vote after authorities brazenly disqualified opposition candidates for an upcoming municipal election. President Vladimir Putin’s approval has been sliding, discontent growing, and the largest protests in years have taken place, even though Russian law now makes it nearly impossible to obtain a protest permit.

This weekend, police sent rows of menacing riot police to break down a peaceful protest, arresting more than a thousand people in Moscow.

Most alarming is what happened to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose very life may well depend on whether the rest of the world makes it clear to the Kremlin that, if he is killed, there will be consequences.

Navalny was arrested earlier in the week after calling for a demonstration. Then, suddenly, on Sunday, he was rushed to a hospital with what the hospital called an “acute allergic reaction.” He does not suffer from allergies. The news immediately brought to mind the fate of other Kremlin critics who have faced, shall we call it, biochemical issues.

Recall the horrific disfigurement of former Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who dared to challenge Putin’s preferred candidate in 2004. He narrowly escaped death after being poisoned with dioxin. He believes the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt.

The Kremlin stands accused of poisoning other Putin critics, even exiled ones, including Alexander Litvinenko, who died from radioactive polonium poisoning blamed on Putin by a UK inquest, and Sergei Skripal and his daughter, poisoned in Salisbury, England. British authorities have accused two Russian men of carrying out the hit, saying they belong to Russian military intelligence. The men say they were simply tourists visiting Salisbury.

Other Kremlin critics have died mysterious deaths. The popular politician and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, shot in front of the Kremlin, former ally Boris Berezovsky, who supposedly killed himself, and many, many courageous journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 28 Russian journalists killed since 2000, the year Putin rose to power.

Navalny’s personal doctor says he has been taken back out of the hospital into prison against her advice. She thinks he has been poisoned. Perhaps it was a warning, perhaps an attempt on his life. Navalny, back in prison on Monday, suggested he may have been poisoned while in police custody.

A well-articulated warning from Washington might just save him and others.

A warning to Beijing is just as urgent. For weeks the people of Hong Kong have waged peaceful protests against a government that is supposed to be independent of China under the “one country, two systems” model agreed when the territory reverted to China from the UK.

Protests started against a bill that would have allowed extradition to China, where the legal system is beholden to the Communist Party-controlled regime. The protests have been massive, bringing out as many as two million people in a territory of just seven million, underscoring how widespread and intense the distrust of China is.

Beijing has been growing impatient, and the signs are nothing short of ominous.

Last week, the spokesman for the Chinese military, Wu Qian, issued a chilling reminder that China’s military forces could be quickly deployed inside Hong Kong if the territory’s authorities request it. Then he described the protests in a way that made very clear Beijing is running out of patience. The protesters’ behavior, Wu declared, “is intolerable.”

That was Wednesday. On Sunday, Hong Kong police clad in riot gear launched a harsh crackdown against demonstrators. CNN’s Anna Coren, in the midst of the mayhem, was visibly horrified. The protesters were completely peaceful, she said.

On Monday, China issued its sternest warning yet, accusing pro-democracy protesters of committing “evil and criminal acts.”

One shudders to think what might come next at the hands of the regime that massacred protesters at Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.

When the tanks rolled in Tiananmen, then-President George H.W. Bush wasted no time publicly condemning the regime, as have other American presidents who spoke firmly and decisively against repression.

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    Sure, America has failed many times, and its own history is far from immaculate, but the words of a credible American president can help draw the moral lines. It may or may not stay the hand of a tyrant, it may or may not prevent a massacre. But at the very least it helps clarify what is and is not legitimate conduct in our time. Even if it fails to stop a catastrophe in progress, it may give second thoughts to another tinpot tyrant watching from a distance.

    How tragic for America and for the world that Washington today is dominated by a President who thinks nothing matters more than his personal fate and believes inciting racist hatreds at home tops the national agenda.