On June 12, President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made history in the first-ever summit between an American and North Korean head of state. The two met in Singapore to discuss the North Korean nuclear weapons program and, according to President Trump’s account, got along splendidly.
Reactions to the meeting were mixed, but even many of Trump’s harshest critics acknowledged an air of cautious optimism following the summit. Getting along with another country, even one as brutal and oppressive as North Korea, is undeniably preferable to a global nuclear war. Yet there’s a big line between reaching a détente with North Korea and propping their dictatorial cult state up as a model for the world. Trump crossed that line repeatedly in statements he made after the meeting.
In an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump said of Kim, “He’s got a very good personality, he’s funny, and he’s very, very smart.” When pressed in a later interview on Kim’s miserable human rights record – including the execution of political rivals and the imprisonment of his people in gulags – Trump brushed the criticism aside, praising Kim’s toughness and ability to assume power at such the young age of 27. Trump also praised the obedience of Kim’s “people,” adding, “I want my people to do the same,” and expressed envy at the wall-to-wall positive coverage of North Korea’s state-run media.
Trump’s comments reveal a great deal about the way he wishes he could run America. Kim is far from the only authoritarian leader Trump has publicly praised. When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an end to presidential term limits, effectively making himself president-for-life, Trump said, “Maybe we’ll give that a shot.” Trump suggested that America should emulate Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of executing drug dealers. His praise for Vladimir Putin is legend, and admiration between the two strongmen is mutual. Meanwhile, Trump is straining relationships with democratic allies like Canada, France and Germany.
There’s a reason Trump likes dictators so much: he’s lived his entire life as one. The Trump Organization is privately held. Unlike a publicly traded corporation, there is no Board of Directors and no shareholders. Trump has never been answerable to anyone in his adult life. He gives an order and either it’s obeyed or somebody loses their job. When Kim Jong-un gives an order, either it’s obeyed or somebody loses their life. Trump has a much easier time relating to that than he does accepting the constraints of American democracy.
Recently, reports revealed that President Trump regularly rips documents to pieces, from memos to newspaper clippings that he’s scribbled on. In order to comply with the Presidential Records Act, which requires all documents the president handles to be preserved as historical records, staffers in the White House diligently tape these shredded documents back together. Those staffers are the only people ensuring that Trump, who cannot be bothered to file his records properly, complies with the law.
For someone who lies as casually as he breathes, the idea of permanent records or following protocol are surely foreign to Trump. He ran his businesses completely without ethics or accountability, regularly stiffing contractors and leaving employees without work after his many bankruptcies. Unlike every president and major party nominee since Jimmy Carter, Trump has never voluntarily released his tax returns. He has never had to explain himself truthfully or had anyone look into his affairs too closely.
The accountability of public office is far less attractive to Trump than the unquestioned authority of a dictatorship. That is the mode in which he has always operated. He is flailing wildly against the restrictions put on him by the Constitution, American laws, and the press. It remains to be seen just how many of our civic institutions are eroded by the end of his presidency. Backed by relentlessly positive coverage on FOX News and Breitbart that would be the envy of any dictator, he is in the process of inflicting unprecedented damage to the rule of law and our already-limited democracy.