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How Trump's Embrace Of Authoritarian Rulers Has Impacted The World


When Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, visited the White House yesterday, President Trump showered him with praise.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People have a lot of respect for this prime minister. He's a respected man. And I know he's a tough man, but he's a respected man. And he's done the right thing according to many people on immigration.

SHAPIRO: During Orban's time in office, he has undermined the free press and the independent judiciary. Human rights advocates worry that he is eroding democracy and minority rights in Hungary. President Trump has warmly embraced a number of authoritarian rulers during his two years in office. Here is how he spoke about the leaders of Egypt, Russia and North Korea.


TRUMP: We are very much behind President el-Sissi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial. And then we fell in love, OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters.

SHAPIRO: That was about Kim Jong Un. Well, Robin Wright of The New Yorker joins us now to discuss this president's support for world leaders who undermine democracy.


ROBIN WRIGHT: Always great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: These leaders come from all over the world from different kinds of political parties. How would you describe what they have in common?

WRIGHT: The one common denominator is that they are not great democrats. They are not great practitioners of human rights. They have abused many of their own people. They are interested in personal power and not in the kind of principles of the 21st century.

SHAPIRO: So what are the consequences of this kind of praise in these leaders' home countries? You know, when they go back to Brazil or Turkey or the Philippines having had warm words from President Trump, what does that do for them?

WRIGHT: It obviously encourages their supporters and makes it much more difficult for anyone who opposes them. And I think this is the - one of the most striking things. For the past 40 years, there's been talk of whether it's the end of history and the emergence of democratic movements, whether it's the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid and minority rule in Africa, the end of military dictatorships in Latin America. And we're seeing this sweep now, this reversal, whether it's the populists taking over, the thugs, the autocrats coming back into power. And I think this undermines many of the principles that had defined the post-Cold War world and had been the aspiration of Republican and Democratic presidents before him.

SHAPIRO: But are the words of an American president really that powerful? I mean, when Trump says Orban is respected, tough, doing the right thing, does that actually make a difference in Hungary?

WRIGHT: Well, he - Orban was elected. In some of these cases, the leaders were elected. And they reflect - whether it's anti-immigration sentiment or sectarian policies, it reflects the realities on the ground in many of these countries. But it also makes it much harder for any of the opposition groups to be daring, to take to the streets, to run for office. Many of these leaders feel empowered so that they can act against their own people. You look at President Erdogan in Turkey and what he's done in arresting thousands of people. This is - this leads to actions that make it easier for autocrats and more difficult for those who are the democrats.

SHAPIRO: There's a long history of American presidents making alliances out of convenience with countries whose values don't necessarily align with the United States - Saudi Arabia, for example. Is this fundamentally different from that?

WRIGHT: Well, for a long time, the United States, because of the Cold War, supported autocratic regimes and despots because they were so opposed to the Soviet Union. They took our side in that conflict. In the post-Cold War world, we've had more leverage to push - whether it's human rights, nation building, independence movements. And you're right. Saudi Arabia is one of the consonant exceptions. But what makes this particular regime in Saudi Arabia so egregious is we've just gone through a case where Jamal Khashoggi, who was living in the United States - a prominent Saudi journalist - was murdered and dismembered. And we know that to be a fact. Saudi Arabia is one that has been the consonant exception. This particular leader is one that stands out.

SHAPIRO: Trump supporters will say there's a geopolitical strategy here, that it is to America's advantage to have some of these leaders feel close to the U.S. and to have a positive relationship there. Do you think that argument holds up?

WRIGHT: Well, the question, really, is, what do you want out of your foreign policy? Do you want stability or do you want values? And that's been something that has torn American leaders for centuries. And in the post-Cold War world, there was a sense this was a time to move toward our values. And I think we're moving back increasingly toward those regimes that can guarantee stability, even if it means through draconian tactics.

SHAPIRO: Robin Wright is a Wilson Center fellow and correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. Thanks for joining us.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.