President Trump is responding to terrorism the way demagogues and dictators do
The terrorists behind the attack, he said, need to be “rubbed out.” “Law and order” must be preserved. The courts are “against the country” and “the media should not have unlimited freedom.” “I will allow the military to try you,” the president warned terrorists, “and put you to death.”
You could be forgiven for thinking these were the words of President Trump reacting to Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York City that killed eight and wounded 12. It’s all there: The familiar Trump bravado. The call for swift justice. The indictment of other institutions — the courts, the press — that are said to be too weak or unwilling to help safeguard the nation.
But each of the quotes above are from authoritarians who have exploited terrorist attacks to undermine rule of law in their own countries and for whom Trump has breathlessly professed admiration. And this week, he has also sought to emulate them.
It was Vladimir Putin, who as Russian prime minister in 1999, said terrorists who bombed apartment buildings in Moscow, killing hundreds, needed to be “rubbed out” — fueling Russia’s brutal second war on Chechnya and Putin’s rise to the presidency. As for Putin’s suffocation of Russian democracy since, and the killing of journalists, Trump once replied, “at least he’s a leader.”
It was President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — the military dictator of Egypt — who signed a law this year banning nongovernmental organizations from work that undermines “law and order,” part of a crackdown that has jailed tens of thousands of political opponents and led to widespread torture and extrajudicial killings. “He’s a fantastic guy,” Trump said after welcoming Sissi to the Oval Office. “He’s done a good job.”
It was Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who railed against judges and journalists during his ongoing assault on the courts, civil service, media and civil society. He’s earning “very high marks,” said Trump.
And it was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who threatened Islamist militants with military trial and death, has waged a war on drugs that has left thousands of Filipinos dead and likened himself to Hitler. Trump has praised him for “fighting very hard” for his country and will soon meet with him.
For the first 10 months of his presidency, the implications of Trump’s unapologetic embrace of autocrats and his own authoritarian tendencies were, for the most part, a matter of conjecture — fear of what he might say and do in a crisis. Earlier this year, I warned that a terrorist attack under Trump would be “a demagogue’s dream and a uniquely dangerous moment for our democracy.”
With this week’s atrocity in New York — the deadliest attack in the city since 9/11 — that moment is here. As if on cue, Trump has broken out the authoritarian’s playbook and delivered his own shameful performance, chapter and verse.
He could, it seemed, barely wait to get started. Police say the attacker in New York, Sayfullo Saipov, drove his rental truck onto a bike path in Lower Manhattan and started mowing down cyclists and pedestrians at 3:04 Tuesday afternoon. Trump was tweeting within 90 minutes (“NOT IN THE U.S.A.!”) and condemning the Islamic State (“Enough!”). Eventually, in his third tweet, he remembered to extend condolences to the victims. Before the night was over, he called for more “extreme vetting” of immigrants, even though initial reports say Saipov was radicalized after he immigrated to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010.
Like any good demagogue, Trump moved quickly to find a villain: Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who nearly 30 years ago supported the creation of the diversity visa lottery program under which Saipov entered the United States. In his tweets and remarks, Trump seemed to go out of his way to say it repeatedly — “diversity program,” “diversity visa” — clearly eager to tee up a false choice between diversity and security. “No more Democratic Lottery Systems,” he tweeted, misrepresenting a program that was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
Most alarming, Trump resorted to the oldest trick in the demagogue’s book — dehumanizing the enemy. The perpetrator is not simply a terrorist, he is, Trump said, an “animal.” While few Americans will disagree about the accused attacker, specifically, such language is particularly ominous given Trump’s habit of conflating terrorists with the broader Muslim American community. Sure enough, when asked by a reporter whether the suspect’s family could also be a threat, Trump, without missing a beat, said “they certainly could.” And so-called chain migration should end, he tweeted, because some immigrant family members “can be truly evil.”