Trump’s Failed Audition to Join the Strongmen Club

The Republican candidate missed his last chance to become America’s Putin. But Clinton doesn’t have a good answer for the next strongman to come along.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he addresses students during his visit to the German Embassy school in Moscow, Russia, June 29, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he addresses students during his visit to the German Embassy school in Moscow, Russia, June 29, 2016.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko, Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The United States has an administration. However, during Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump referred to it twice as “President Obama’s regime” when accusing it of doubling America’s national debt. Of course, you should never interpret too much from a mere slip of the tongue, but throughout the Trump campaign and Wednesday night especially, it’s seemed as if the Republican candidate indeed thinks the U.S. should have a regime.

Regimes are what we call the governments of non-democratic or semi-democratic countries, the kind ruled by members of the Strongmen Club — Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping. One of those men in their sixties with scant regard for the democratic process or a free media. Some of the club’s members are leaders of democracies, but exhibit these tendencies, such as India’s Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Shinzo Abe of Japan. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is another member, and there are those who detect the signs of honorary membership in the recent actions of our very own Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Strongmen Club members are keen on nationalism and building up their country’s military and sense of patriotic pride. They are great believers in their own ability to deal with other leaders, eschewing more traditional diplomatic channels for the secret services of personal emissaries and face-to-face summits. They are dismissive of wider international forums and alliances which they cannot dominate, like the European Union or NATO.

Presidents of the United States never felt the need to belong to the club. Why should they? They were the leaders of the free world. Anyway, they were restricted by term limits and had the Constitution to uphold. Even an interventionist and believer in regime change like George W. Bush didn’t seem to desire the perks of membership. Donald Trump is different. His performance during the third debate was his final attempt to convince the American people that this is the kind of a leader they need, though as an aspiring strong man, he prefers to appeal directly to other members rather than to his own electorate. Just like an eager contestant on The Apprentice, Trump was auditioning for membership in the Strongmen Club.

His pitch to join began with another show of fealty to the club’s current president, Vladimir Putin. Despite knowing perfectly well that the unanimous opinion of the U.S. intelligence community is that the Russians are behind the hacked emails of both the Democratic Party Committee and Clinton’s campaign, he denied there was any proof. “I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good,” he stated. On the other hand, he said, Putin “has no respect for [Hillary Clinton]. He has no respect for our president.” That was the sum of Trump’s policy towards America’s major foreign rival: Putin likes him and doesn’t respect Clinton or Obama.

Together with Putin, Trump can go after ISIS. Together with Putin, he would partner with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is “just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama.”

Just like Putin has done in Russia, Trump will make America great again, start manufacturing new nuclear weapons and rebuild America’s “depleted military.”

Trump questioned America’s allies in NATO, as well as Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, claiming they are not paying their share (though as far as those three countries are concerned, they maintain their own large militaries and order tens of billions of dollars worth of arms annually from the U.S.) and extolled the economies of China and India for their fantastic rates of growth, as if they could be in any way comparable to the American economy. For a strongman, raw numbers of GDP and nuclear warheads are what matters.

But do Trump’s aspirations matter any more? After all, he is almost certainly about to lose these elections handily.

It matters because even if he loses as badly as some polls are now predicting, at least forty percent of Americans will have voted for a wannabe member of the Strongmen Club. And it matters for other democracies as well as the U.S., because strongmen seem to be on the rise. For all the hopes pinned on Barack Obama, at least on the international stage, he failed to live up to them — and it still isn’t clear whether Hillary Clinton and other Western heads of state are capable of articulating the case for a different kind of leadership.

While the headlines of most American news organizations were about Trump's refusal to commit to accepting the result of the presidential race on November 9, the question is how many Americans, and other citizens of democracies, are themselves that committed to the principles of the democratic process, and what happens next time an aspiring strongman candidate comes along, a disciplined and credible contender without all the toxic baggage of the billionaire playboy. As demagogues from both the right and the left gain ground on political scenes of so many countries in the West, and confidence in the political establishment, the international diplomatic and financial systems and the mainstream media plummets, a better answer is urgently needed. While most of the blame for the rise of Trump should be laid at the doorstep of the Republican Party and its years of shifting to more extreme poles of anti-politics, the facts are that Obama and Clinton, just like their colleagues in Europe, have failed in convincing wide swathes of the public that they have a better alternative at hand.

Clinton was happy to talk tough about Putin, claiming that she would support the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria not only to protect civilians but also to “gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians.” And she defended America’s allies around the world, saying that the U.S. “has kept the peace through our alliances.” And of course she said she was “appalled” by Trump’s cavalier attitude to the election result. But what was missing was any serious attempt to stand up for democracy, an argument against the cult of the strongmen. All Clinton had was the vacuous belief that “America is great because America is good” and her claim that rather than respecting Trump, Putin is rooting for him “because he’d rather have a puppet as president.”

This was a good line because it is both obviously true and succeeded in putting Trump off balance at an early stage in the debate. But stating that what matters is how Putin regards the U.S. president was effectively playing by Trump’s rules. And while beating your opponent at his own game is a sure-fire way to win a debate, and Clinton is so clearly a more competent candidate than Trump on just about every level, she has yet to prove that she can be a template for a different kind of leader, one capable of proving both to Americans and citizens around the world that membership in the Strongmen Club is not a guarantee of a better future.