On election morning, President Trump appeared on Fox & Friends, his version of state-controlled television, to express one of his deepest beliefs: that American democracy is inferior to authoritarian rule.
One of Trump’s occasional riffs involves retelling a conversation he claims to have had. His “very smart” friend asks him which is the toughest interlocutor to deal with. Russia? North Korea? “No,” he tells the friend. “The toughest nation to deal with are the Democrats in the USA.” The point of the story, like many of Trump’s stories, is supposed to be that Trump is the victim of a crazed opposition hounding him with false allegations.
But the story reveals as well Trump’s belief that the open and rivalrous nature of American democracy is itself a deep flaw. The most consistent through line of Trump’s worldview, going back decades, is his admiration for dictators, irrespective of their ideological character. He believed the Chinese Communist Party was too soft on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, that Saddam Hussein was brilliantly ruthless in eradicating domestic opposition, that Vladimir Putin guides his country with a firm hand.
Trump’s riff about the craziness of his opposition, in comparison with the more favorable conditions faced by his counterparts in Moscow and Pyongyang, reflects this conviction. (If the opposition tried to accuse Vladimir Putin of corruption, they wouldn’t last very long.) And it reflects his experience as president, which has seen bitter conflict with Democrats, in contrast to flattery heaped upon him by authoritarian leaders.
His version of this riff on election morning had a crucial and revealing difference. He was not saying the Democrats are tougher to deal with than authoritarian regimes; he was attributing this to the United States as a whole:
They’ll go, ‘Mr. President, tell me, who’s the country that’s most difficult to deal with? Is it Russia? Is it China? Is it North Korea, sir? Is it North Korea?’ And I go, ‘No, well, by far, the most difficult country to deal with is the U.S. Not even close.’ And they all say, ‘You got to be kidding.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m probably not kidding.’
Trump has spent his term working, with some success and a great deal of failure, to make the American government work more like the regimes he admires. He seems now to grasp, at some level, that his project has failed. And he is able to identify his enemy: American democracy.