Trump Didn’t Make the Storm, but He’s Making It Worse

The president didn’t put any of the globe’s authoritarians in office, but he’s encouraged their worst instincts.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Updated on August 16 at 9:43 a.m.

Over the past few nightmarish hurricane seasons, climate scientists have sought to draw a fine distinction: No particular hurricane is the result of climate change, they say, but climate change is making storms worse and more frequent.

Global warming, it turns out, can serve as a useful metaphor for global affairs. The past week has offered a range of examples of authoritarian nationalism on the rise. In each case, from Hong Kong to Kashmir to Israel, it is impossible to lay the blame directly on President Donald Trump, as the leaders involved have their own long-standing motives. But the American president’s impassive responses to, and sometimes open encouragement of, such actions have made the world a safer place for authoritarianism.

Heading west from Washington, the tour of the damage starts in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters have been in the streets for days. The Chinese government is sending signs that it may crack down on the demonstrations, including military exercises in Shenzhen, just across from Hong Kong on the mainland.

Yet in a dispute between protesters seeking civil liberties and a democratic voice and the autocratic Chinese government, Trump has been extremely reluctant to warn President Xi Jinping against a brutal response or to defend the protests, despite pressure from aides and conservatives. On Thursday, the president finally weighed in on Twitter, but his comments were perplexing. They were heavily caveated, and also suggested a surprisingly naive view of the tensions between Hong Kong and the Chinese government:

I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a “tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting? … If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!

If Trump is serious, he could—and can—offer a more forceful statement. Of course, Trump has interests to balance. He’s in the midst of trying to renegotiate trade relations between the United States and China, but he has shown no reluctance to antagonize Beijing with tariffs. Trump has, however, repeatedly shown that he has little regard for a free press, detests dissent, and fears protests, making his silence unsurprising. Beijing hardly needs encouragement to repress demonstrators—it’s been doing that, in one way or another, since the Communist Party took over, but Xi can also guess there won’t be much pushback from an American president who, in 1990, said that the violent 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen, though “vicious,” “shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

Continuing west on the tour takes us to Kashmir, the region of India that is roiled at this moment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abrogation of a constitutional provision granting the province some autonomy. Once again, this isn’t Trump’s fault in any direct way. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has long sought to cancel Kashmir’s special status. But Trump has fumbled the situation, both by his general approval of authoritarian actions and, in this specific instance, by claiming in July that India had invited him to mediate between Pakistan and India over the conflict, a claim India promptly shot down.

Heading another 2,400 miles west, we arrive in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said Thursday that it would not allow Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Democrats, to make their planned visit to Israel, including Palestinian territories, starting Saturday. The Israeli government initially signaled it would likely approve the trip, but on Thursday, Trump tweeted:

It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!

Within an hour, the Israeli government announced it would not approve the trip, citing the congresswomen’s support for boycotts of Israeli products. As my colleague Emma Green writes, Trump has consistently enabled the Israeli leader’s most antidemocratic instincts. Netanyahu already bristles at critics such as Tlaib and Omar, but once Trump had tweeted, the prime minister scarcely had a choice: He wasn’t going to let the trip go forward and risk incurring the ire of his most essential ally. Yet denying entry to two American citizens—to two members of Congress!—at the effective behest of the American president, who sees it as a way to gain domestic political advantage, is an astonishing move. (On Friday, Israel said that Tlaib would be allowed to visit her grandmother as long as she did not engage in boycotts while visiting, but Tlaib responded that she would not visit “under these oppressive conditions.”)

Neither a Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong nor Modi’s move in Kashmir nor blocking Omar and Tlaib would have been unimaginable without Trump as president, but each incident shows how Trump’s indifference to democratic norms, and his sometimes open antagonism toward them, shapes world leaders’ behavior. These recent examples are part of a much longer record. Trump implicitly endorsed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s antidemocratic power grab. He has lifted up Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he cracks down on dissent and centralizes power. He has ostentatiously refused to blame Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of the journalist (and U.S. resident) Jamal Khashoggi, citing the importance of American arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump has declined to speak out against abuses and outrageous statements like those of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He has coddled Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish President Andrzej Duda as they crack down on dissent.

Trump didn’t put any of these men in office, and he didn’t create their authoritarian impulses. But his disdain for a free press, free speech, and basic democratic protections means that they feel freer to act on their worst impulses, knowing that the U.S., traditionally a guarantor of freedoms, isn’t interested. Trump didn’t make the storm, but he’s making it worse.