After Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, a foreign ambassador accosted one of my deputies at the State Department, where from 2014 to early this year I served as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. “You must be so sad!” the man, a representative of a Central Asian government, said, grinning widely. “All this talk of elections being important, of democracy being important, and now look at you! Now even your new president says there were 3 million illegal votes in your election! … You must all feel so stupid these days.”
Since then, the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump. Sudan’s dictator Omar al Bashir praised him for focusing “on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei thanked him for showing “America’s true face” by trying to ban Muslim immigration. The Cambodian government justified attacks on journalists by saying Trump, too, recognizes that “news published by [international] media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
Trump, as they’ve seen, takes no interest in pestering them about their domestic issues. They’ve heard him echo their propaganda that America is too crooked and corrupt to preach moral standards to others. This makes me sad. But something in the dictators’ delight also makes me a little proud—it’s an unintended tribute to what America has stood for, until very recently at least. Those cheering a hoped-for demise of the American idea remind us how much that idea has mattered to the world.