File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Kyodo via AP Images

Trump seems a little too fond of China’s authoritarian model

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump announced his plan to circumvent Congress with an emergency declaration on a border wall, but during his remarks, the president also decided to talk about the benefits of executing drug dealers.

As Trump put it, “When I asked President Xi, I said, ‘You have a drug problem?’ No no no. I said, ‘You have 1.4 billion people, what do you mean you have no drug problem?’ No we don’t have a drug problem. I said, ‘Why?’ Death penalty.”

The Republican added, apparently imitating the Chinese leader’s English, “We give death penalty to people who sell drugs. End of problem.”

To the extent that reality matters, the prospect of the death penalty for drug dealers did not, in fact, “end” China’s drug problem. In fact, there’s evidence of the number of Chinese addicts growing, not shrinking.

But that’s hardly the only point of concern. In a modern, free society, the idea that the state would execute drug dealers is obviously excessive, inhumane, and wholly at odds with a society that values civil liberties. What the American president sees as “tough” is actually evidence of an authoritarian model of governing – which for Trump, too often seems like a selling point, not a criticism.

All of this came to mind again yesterday, when Trump spoke to the nation’s governors, and, after repeating the executions story, told a related tale about asking China’s Xi Jinping to release three American college athletes, who’d been arrested in China for shoplifting. The story rambled a bit, but Trump eventually got to the point:

“I said, ‘Would you do me a favor?’ I was having dinner with him at this incredible show that he put on in a ballroom, the likes of which few people have ever seen…. And I said, ‘Mr. President, could you do me a favor? Could you let the three basketball players out?’

“He didn’t know about it. He called over to his people. He’s got 10 people standing behind him; every one is a central casting. Central casting. Glasses, pad – boom. He went over – he came back. He reported within two minutes, explained, “Basketball players…” Bom. Bom. And I said, ‘It would be a great thing if you could possibly let them out.’ He goes, ‘So be it. They’re out.’

“I thought – I said, ‘Is this different than our country?’ Huh? It’s just a little bit different.”

And by “different,” Trump seemed to mean “better.”

The Republican described a system in which an unelected leader can unilaterally dictate the terms of a criminal-justice system – and Trump seemed to think that sounded terrific.

It’d be less alarming if this president hadn’t spent so much of the last few years expressing admiration for dictators and strongmen, not despite their authoritarian practices, but because of them.

The House Intelligence Committee is holding an open hearing today on “the rise of authoritarianism around the world, autocratic regimes and their practices, the decline in democratic governance and faith in liberal democracy, and the threat these trends pose to the United States.”

It’s a shame Trump will miss it.