Why the President Praises Dictators

In the pre-Trump era, American support for dictatorships was seldom matched by overt encouragement of authoritarian leaders. Things have changed.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

In February 2016,Donald Trump retweeted a Twitter bot that regularly took quotes from Benito Mussolini and attributed them to Trump. When subsequently asked whether he knew he’d actually been quoting a fascist dictator, the president declined to admit an error. “I know who said it,” he insisted. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

Trump’s affinity for dictators apparently extends beyond an affection for the putative sayings of deceased authoritarians to active support for the behavior of living ones. The president’s praise of dictators such as Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un—as well as of leaders with authoritarian impulses who came into office via elections, such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—is not the stuff of mere diplomatic nicety. In fact, his admiration is frequently directed at precisely those attributes that land these leaders on the lists of the world’s worst human-rights violators. He has lauded Duterte, the Filipino president who has been criticized for the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”; called Xi’s successful efforts last year to abolish terms limits so he could rule China indefinitely “great”; and congratulated Erdoğan on the referendum that gave him near-absolute powers in Turkey. About Kim, Trump said it was an “honor” to meet him, while dismissing concerns about human rights in North Korea, remarking, “It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there.” To make matters worse, the president’s delight for dictators is often paired with public derision of the allies who underpin the Western post–World War II security edifice: He has  praised Putin while lambasting NATO, an organization designed explicitly to help guard against potential aggression from Moscow.

All of which brings us back to Mussolini, whose pronouncements often reflected his vanity and buffoonery, as well as his ruthlessness. “It is blood which moves the wheels of history,” he once said. The quote Trump was fooled into retweeting isn’t particularly memorable: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep,” the fascist leader is quoted as saying (it hasn’t been verified that he actually said this).

It isn’t clear whether Trump knows that more than 30,000 American forces were killed in the campaign to topple Mussolini and liberate Italy. When Trump was asked whether he wanted to be linked to an avowed fascist, he replied, “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes.” Then he added, “It got your attention, didn’t it?”