Dining with dictators

Just to be clear, the world is not a safer place this morning — if anything, it’s more dangerous. As usual, with legerdemain of a thalidomide-damaged walrus trying to juggle meat cleavers, Trump lent legitimacy to one of the world’s most egregious human rights violators and lawless totalitarian dictators while insulting and dismissing the legitimate economic trade concerns of America’s usual allies, the liberal democracies of the west, all in the space of 48 hours. And all that for a photo op which means nothing. Our reading today is from Anne Applebaum’s Washington Post opinion piece about that photo op, published earlier this morning:

For Kim Jong Un, this moment is vindication. The wisdom of his nuclear policy has been confirmed: His tiny, poor, often hungry country, where hundreds of thousands have perished in concentration camps that differ little from those built by Stalin, has been treated as the equal of the United States of America. If Kim hadn’t continued the missile program, if he hadn’t enhanced his missile delivery capability, President Trump would not be there. …

In Singapore … Trump controlled the optics, even deliberately giving priority to a Singaporean television station rather than the White House pool. He reveled in that ability.  “Are you getting a nice photo,” he actually asked the camera operator, “So we look nice and handsome and beautiful and perfect?” As for the substance of the meeting, there wasn’t any. The paper signed reiterates previous vague agreements. It promises “denuclearization,” just as in the past, but without any substance, as in the past. It implies that there will now be further talks about talks, but there have been U.S.-North Korean talks before. Had any previous American president, Republican or Democrat, emerged from an event like this, in which so much was given away with so little to show for it, he would have been embarrassed and probably vilified.

But Trump and Kim are two men who survive, in politics, by insisting on their own versions of reality. Both have propaganda machines which will trumpet a great success. Both will be loudly applauded by their respective supporters. Both will gain personally, even if their countries don’t. In that sense, this was indeed, as Trump said, “a really fantastic meeting.”

Trump is choosing some curious bedfellows these days. To add insult to injury at the G7 conference, the reigning moron suggested that Russia, having been booted from the G7 group for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty with its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its continuing undeclared war in the eastern half of that country (never mind meddling in both U.S. and European electoral politics), be readmitted to the group. As a European diplomat said in response to Trump’s typically thoughtless comments, “We (have) always been clear we should engage with Russia where it is in our interests, but we need to remember why G8 became the G7, it was because Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Since then we have seen an increase in Russian misbehavior and attempts to undermine democracy in Europe. It is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin until we see it behaving responsibly. Putin should get nothing for free.”

Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939.

Not that any of this matters to Trump supporters, who couldn’t care less about North Korea’s human rights record or Russia’s fascistic, expansionist tactics in Europe. Even among some Never Trumpers, the photo opportunity is being met with approval, even celebration, despite the fact that absolutely nothing of substance emerged from the summit, except the public legitimization of one of the world’s most violent dictators. It’s like celebrating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and look how that turned out.

If anything, Trump’s continuing love fest with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, as he continues to undermine the very principles of western liberal democracy, pluralism and fair trade agreements by insulting Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders, should give us additional cause for worry and concern. And just last week, in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran inaugurated a new nuclear enrichment facility “that will operate within the limits of the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers” — for now, anyway.

Feel safer yet? There’s now no reason for Iran to maintain the terms of the agreement, not if it can one day provide another photo op for Trump and Hassan Rouhani. And on June 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats are now preparing a summit meeting for Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The metaphysical question of whether stupidity is just evil with an anti-intellectual tinge, or evil is just stupidity with a moral tinge, is one I’ll leave to the philosophers. On a practical level there’s little difference. Myself, I doubt that Donald Trump is evil, and even if he were, he’s too stupid to do anything about it. But I know enough about history to recognize the rise of a new Axis Power alliance when I see it.

Trump is “very proud of what took place” yesterday. As an American and a believer in a pluralistic western liberal democracy, I’m not. No American should be. It was an empty gesture that subverted the principles upon which this country was founded. And for the rest of you — well, bon appetit.


A few days ago, Timothy Snyder posted the latest in his series of short YouTube talks, “Timothy Snyder Speaks.” In it, he defines two of the central ideas he set out in The Road to Unfreedom, the Politics of Eternity and the Politics of Inevitability. I recommend your taking the brief 11 minutes to watch it.