Faculty Journal Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Trump and the ‘Bromance’ of Autocrats

Jillian Schwedler Professor of Political Science, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

Writing about public policy and foreign policy presupposes that an administration is interested in hearing a range of analyses and suggestions about how to develop effective and coherent policies.  President Trump, however, has made it abundantly clear that he is not interested in advice, so rather than propose policy suggestions for his first 100 days in office, I will express my view that he needs to use caution and restraint in his diplomatic relationships with some of the world’s most volatile leaders. Trump is unlikely to implement any foreign policies experts recommend, but perhaps he can avoid ones that would lead to catastrophic results for both the United States and the world.

Trump’s foreign policy posture breaks from long-established bi-partisan political traditions. Instead of honored security alliances and trade partners, he envisions a set of new “deals” prioritizing U.S. rather than global or regional interests. In broad terms, he and his Cabinet appointees have articulated little more than a vague nationalist vision of U.S. foreign policy, manifest more generally as a “Clash of Civilizations Doctrine”: an outlook of the U.S. role in the world shaped by the deeply held belief that the United States is under existential threat not only from radical Islamists abroad, but also from Muslims, immigrants, and people of color already inside the country.

To defend the homeland against this “civilizational threat,” the new administration appears open to building alliances with those who share that sense of threat—of a civilized world under siege—rather than with allies who share our core democratic values.  This approach is not entirely new; past administrations have advanced and maintained close relations with non-democratic regimes for a wide range of reasons, and in the process have turned a blind eye to abhorrent human rights violations. The U.S. response to the Arab uprisings, to give just one example, clearly exposed such hypocrisy. In May 2011, President Barack Obama gave a beautiful speech declaring support for the democratic movements of the Arab uprisings, but in practice he quickly caved to authoritarian allies. One grotesque betrayal was toward the people of Bahrain, where Sunni and Shiite citizens together rose against their repressive regime and demanded greater freedoms. When the regime responded with the documented-but-ignored massacre of peaceful protesters and torture and killing of medical professionals, the U.S. administration was publicly silent. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his famous “military-industrial complex” speech, U.S. foreign policy has evolved in the interests of arms sales and those who profit from them. Such misplaced priorities are only likely to deepen under an administration dominated by billionaires, the hydrocarbon elite, and former military generals.

But what is perhaps the greatest difference from previous administrations is that Trump seems to personally admire heads of state who engage in thuggish and bullying behavior.  He appears eager to earn his place in the “Bromance of Autocrats”—the gang of nationalist and hyper-masculinist leaders who believe that they alone can save their nations from such misguided political projects like liberalism, multiculturalism, and compassionate humanism. This club includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and any number of populists and radical conservatives in Europe, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. They each advocate a new version of the “Daddy State”—a regime that regards rights-demanding citizens as misguided, petulant children in need of “tough love” and a swift spanking.

Trump the “tough boss” and Trump the “deal-maker” are in for a brutal wakeup call.  Strongmen like Putin may identify with Trump’s macho dismissal of inconvenient facts and his routine bullying of journalists, critics, and political opponents, but little else. Putin is likely giddy about the U.S. election results because he recognizes what Trump does not: in the Bromance of Autocrats, Trump is in over his head and likely to be outmaneuvered (and humiliated) in short order. But the new president cannot even fathom this possibility because he is convinced of his own brilliance, despite ample evidence of poor choices and multiple failings. He routinely boasts of his business successes, for example, but he never foresaw changes in the financial markets as he claimed. In reality, banks forcibly renegotiated the terms of loans for Trump’s failing businesses on terms that suited the banks, leaving Trump no choice but to acquiesce. In public, however, he continued to boast of his keen business instincts. His brilliance was always an argument made by assertion, one that even without supporting evidence—if repeated enough—others might come to believe. Those paying attention knew the truth, but Trump still boasted of his brilliance in public and in his books. Putin and some of the other autocrats, however, are clearly paying close attention.

In short order, bullying autocrats are likely to play to Trump’s massive ego, getting him to believe their whiskey-room promises while nudging him into miscalculations of epic proportions. They will lie to him and then call his bluff. Unfortunately, Trump’s temperament is such that he is likely to take the bait. But unlike his business dealings, Trump cannot fold in private but bluster of his successes in public. And the international spectacle and public humiliation of Trump that seems very likely will not lead him to slink away quietly. Bullies who are embarrassed go home and get a bat, determined to show the other guy who the real tough guy is. And they continue until either they crush the other guy, or are crushed themselves.

This is where the results become dangerous, because Trump now has at his disposal a massive military, a sprawling surveillance machine, and—yes—nuclear weapons.

I am not immediately afraid of the military-industrial complex or the massive surveillance state per se; both concern me deeply, but we have lived with both for decades. I am most concerned about a standoff between bullies that could rapidly escalate to deadly levels. The individual pathologies of Trump and his cabinet members will push us into new, more dangerous waters, and we are likely to see Trump’s mettle tested in the international arena within the first few months of his presidency.  Humiliation may well come quickly, and Trump must not take the bait. If he seriously tries to earn a place among this club of bullying autocrats, the results could be catastrophic.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Dr. Jillian Schwedler is Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, Hunter College and the Graduate Center. She is author of the award-winning Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006) and most recently editor (with Laleh Khalili) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East (Columbia/Hurst 2010). Her articles have appeared in World PoliticsComparative PoliticsMiddle East PolicyMiddle East ReportJournal of Democracy, and Social Movement Studies, among many others. Dr. Schwedler is a member of the editorial committee and former chair of the board of directors (2002-2009) of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), publishers of Middle East Report. She has conducted research in Jordan, Yemen, and Egypt and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East with support from the National Science Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, the Fulbright Scholars Program, and the Social Science Research Council, among others. Her work broadly engages questions of contentious politics, political geography, Islamist politics, policing, and political dissent. Dr. Schwedler received her PhD in Politics from New York University in 2000. She is currently finishing a book examining political protests and policing in Jordan from 1946 to the present.