President Trump is blessedly weak
WASHINGTON -- In the category of small mercies, let us file this one: As strongmen go, President Trump has proved to be blessedly weak.
It isn't, apparently, for lack of ambition. The president, who has never been stingy in praising the world's dictators, engaged in that favorite pastime again Saturday night before a friendly audience in what was supposed to be a private event at Mar-a-Lago.
The object of the president's affection this time was China's president, Xi Jinping, whom Trump hailed as a "great gentleman" who treated Trump "tremendously well" during Trump's recent visit. In Trump's glowing assessment, Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader "in a hundred years."
One hundred years! How now, Mao?
Trump particularly admired Xi's successful move to abolish term limits. "He's now president for life -- president for life -- and he's great," Trump said at the closed-door fundraiser, audio of which leaked to CNN. "And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday." His audience cheered and applauded.
There has been debate about whether Trump was joking. But why? Trump's tastes (and those of his followers) have long skewed toward the authoritarian. A couple of days earlier, Trump casually proposed suspending the Constitution to deal with shootings: "Take the guns first, go through due process second."
And Xi is just the latest of Trump's strongman crushes. North Korea's Kim Jong Un is a "smart cookie," Saddam Hussein was good at killing terrorists, Egypt's Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is "very close to me," and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan won Trump's congratulations on a power-seizing referendum. Trump has a "great relationship" with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and laughed when Duterte called journalists "spies." Russia's Vladimir Putin, in Trump's view, is "very much of a leader" and has escaped punishment for meddling in the U.S. election.
Now Trump is bromancing Xi, calling him a "very good man" and giving China "great credit" for taking advantage of the United States in trade.
But here's the good news: Though Trump may admire the world's authoritarians, he has proved to be a singularly incompetent one himself. Certainly, he has the requisite bluster and demagogic instincts for the job, but he's been too undisciplined to be a self-respecting autocrat. He talks like Mussolini but governs like Mr. Bean.
Being a dictator is hard work, after all, and Trump, who has more than once remarked on how difficult his job already is, needs his executive time. Being a dictator requires discipline, and Trump thrives on chaos, his White House lurching between scandals and beset by constant turnover.