When I was in Liberia three years ago covering the ebola epidemic, I was amazed to discover the depth of antipathy many locals felt towards their leader. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is, after all, hailed in the West as Africa’s first female president and was awarded the Nobel peace prize for her work rebuilding a country torn apart by civil conflict. Yet several people told me they would prefer to see the return to power of Charles Taylor, currently languishing in a British jail for war crimes.
Johnson Sirleaf has been plagued by swirling criticism of corruption and nepotism, centred on top jobs handed to her sons. Pressed on this by The Observer, the Liberian president fired back an instant response. “My sons,” she said dismissively. “Ask Trump!” This is, of course, a simple defence when the supposed leader of the free world runs the White House like a family firm, even letting his daughter sit in his place alongside world leaders at this month’s G20 gathering in Germany.
But Johnson Sirleaf is far from the worst offender using Trump as cover for dubious deeds. Look at Rwanda, ruled by the West’s favourite despot Paul Kagame. Human Rights Watch recently exposed how his security forces are executing petty crooks to keep the streets clean. The group identified at least 37 victims in a report, carefully-compiled despite the brutal clampdown on civil society. Justice Minister Johnston Busingye reacted by tweeting that the news was “clearly fake”, saying: “HRW is so desperate for attention. They have been duped, yet again. It’s high time these organisations grew up and became professional.”
Other regimes have latched on to Trump’s combative media criticism. Cambodia’s government has been accused of abusing the justice system and using security forces to silence critics. Earlier this year Phay Siphan, the cabinet spokesman, threatened outlets criticising human rights abuses with closure, warning that free expression had to reflect national interests. He referred to how the US President believed news published by mainstream media “does not reflect the real situation”.
Have no doubt Trump’s distinctive style of government echoes round the globe. The United States has presented itself in recent decades as a force for good and is seen, for all its blunders and blemishes, as a standard bearer for Western values of decency and democracy. Yet its 45th President presents himself as a disruptive force, a self-aggrandising populist and divisive figure in constant conflict with critics. Why would other world leaders not mimic his stance when it suits their purposes?
We saw clear demonstration of his impact in Poland this month. Trump gave a supine speech praising the Polish government for protecting Western civilisation, talking in terms of faith and family that played to Catholic and nationalist supporters of the ultra-conservative Law and Justice government. There was little mention of democracy, no concern over the ruling party’s restraints on separation of powers and free speech. Days later came a fresh assault on judicial independence, moderated only after huge street protests but still subject to stern warnings from Brussels.
This Polish pivot from democracy should cause concern in Washington. But Trump is a leader who lays out the red carpet for repellent demagogues and despots. The President shook hands with Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi before saying he backed a man who “had done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”.’ Lest we forget, Sisi is a former spy chief who led a bloodstained coup before crushing civil rights and jailing thousands of dissidents.
He was followed to the White House by Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, who has purged the public sector of foes, shut down papers, jailed journalists and squashed civil society groups. An invitation was extended to the revolting thug Rodrigo Duterte, despite his anti-drugs campaign in the Philippines that slaughtered thousands of alleged dealers and his boasts of personally killing criminals. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” said Trump.
Friends say he respects forceful leaders. But support for strongmen is corrosive at a time when democracy is under siege in many places and China offers nations an alternative model of authoritarian capitalism. “Previous administrations have sometimes soft-pedaled their criticism,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “But none displayed the kind of determined indifference to human rights that Trump has channeled.” Little wonder even some Republicans, most notably Senator John McCain, have voiced concerns.
Perhaps he should listen to Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who now fights for human rights. Earlier this year he told an interviewer how living in the Soviet Union “the image of the United States as a shining city on a hill and beacon of hope to the oppressed was very real to me”. He added that while many Americans, especially on the left, saw this as “corny mythology” it was a key part of the nation’s soft power “as a nation to be envied and imitated despite its flaws”.
Trump’s disregard for democratic norms, his unceasing attacks on the media, his preening narcissism and his disturbing nepotism are demeaning for the United States. This pathetically insecure man even used a scout jamboree this week to brag about his size of victory, attack “fake news” and urge teenage boys to boo his enemies. But at least he will leave office after a maximum of eight years – hopefully much sooner – checked by the US constitution and division of powers.
More sinister is the way we see autocratic and corrupt regimes – many built on personality cults that glorify dictators – use a White House incumbent to excuse their deeds and undermine opponents fighting for freedom. I have worked with journalists and human rights activists daily risking lives for things such as free expression that we take for granted. It is disturbing to see the casual way that Trump is tossing away his country’s moral leadership in an era of global turbulence. He debases not just his office, but the noble cause of democracy.