There is a long tradition, as old as the republic itself, of American officials hypocritically overlooking the despotic traits of foreign governments whose help they need, or believe they need. Donald Trump has brought a new style that superficially resembles this old tradition, but with a crucial difference. Rather than hypocritically overlook the authoritarianism of our allies, he actually admires it. Trump for years has praised strongmen in China, Russia, Iraq, and elsewhere who knew how to crack heads and keep things orderly.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was awash with unusually friendly symbolism, implying not only shared interests but also shared values between the feudal oil kingdom and its American admirers. The nadir of the excursion so far is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s blithe praise for the total absence of protest or dissent in Saudi Arabia. This is a remarkable exchange:
Ross explains that the most impressive aspect of the visit is that “[t]here was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.” After being gently reminded that Saudi Arabia does not permit protest or dissent, which makes its absence meaningless as a measure of public sentiment, Ross simply continues as if that fact does not matter, and the display he witnessed must be an authentic representation of public opinion in the country: “In theory, that could be true, but boy there was certainly no sign of it. There was not a single effort at an incursion, there wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood.”
It’s worth noting that protest is not merely a mildly discouraged activity in Saudi Arabia. It’s a capital crime. One recent protester has been sentenced to death by crucifixion and beheading. That kind of tough-on-crime policy might help explain the “genuinely good mood” Ross enjoyed.
Ross is a superficial man, inexperienced in foreign affairs, and easily manipulated by symbolism. (He goes on to gush embarrassingly about the cartons of dates he was offered by Saudi security guards, a “from-the-heart” gesture” that “touched” him.) But he also clearly looks at a society where, unlike the United States, he can sweep through his day without encountering any evidence of political discontent. And he sees in this something to admire.