There has been a lot of outrage going around over the past day or so about Donald Trump’s warm words for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The term “murderous dictator” has been used a lot.
This characterization of Kim is perfectly true. He is, objectively speaking, a murderous dictator and terrible person. But this sort of shock-horror-gasp reaction feels predicated on the premise that Trump represents a radical break with tradition in this area. He very much does not. A fondness for murderous authoritarians is a cornerstone of American foreign policy and has been since virtually time immemorial.
Take a look at these four pictures.
In order, they show: Franklin Roosevelt and murderous Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza; Barack Obama and murderous Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; Dwight Eisenhower and murderous, fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (the visit was so friendly that Franco was moved to tears); and Bill Clinton and murderous Saudi dictator King Fahd. All four countries were—and, in every case but Nicaragua, still are—key U.S. allies. Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain murderous dictatorships to this day.
This is just a tiny sample of the vast support America has given to despots, tyrants, killers, and monsters over the decades—including the ones we helped install to thwart democratically elected governments getting in the way of our “national interests.” These are not state secrets—it’s all quite well known. We are huge fans of murderous dictatorships, and we always have been. Kim just happens to have been the wrong sort of murderous dictator—the kind who attempted to thwart American interests rather than support them.
I also don’t recall seeing Kim-level ire when Trump rolled out the red carpet for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—a country whose repressiveness is notorious and which is carrying out a genocidal war in Yemen with Western support—last year. Instead, the prince received rapturous media coverage and hung out with movie stars and tech giants. The difference, of course, is that Saudi Arabia is a longstanding American ally, and North Korea isn’t.
Without this kind of context, the thinking around Trump’s overture can feel disturbingly ahistorical. Taken to extremes, it results in ridiculous observations like these:
That last one is especially wild. You’re a former congressman, David! Have some self-respect.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable to be offended by Trump’s ostentatious praise for Kim, or to note that he “loves authoritarians.” The praise is gross, and Trump does love authoritarians. But let’s not pretend like he is breaking new ground by gushing over a bad man who oppresses his people, or that America’s lip service to democratic values was as important as its actual record of subverting democracies around the world. This should feel like one of those obvious things that’s not worth repeating, except that so many people seem to forget it.