Over the years I’ve been constantly amazed by the willingness of some people to flaunt their ignorance in public – especially at a time when false rhetoric, claims and pronouncements can so easily be fact-checked and challenged.
It manifests in many ways, from pundits and politicians with national platforms to nonsensical rebuttals that some readers write to editors; from those addicted to sources like FoxNews, The Drudge Report, Breitbart, and InfoWars to those too close-minded to consider anything but closely-held parochial prejudices.
Even from those who say, “Trust me. I’m, like, a smart person.”
The cultural embrace of “alternative news” sources, even when such sources contradict common sense, is terrifying and jeopardizes both long-treasured American values and our national security interests.
Today, speaking with some agency as someone who is American, Muslim and Arab – and as someone who on a regular basis tries to reach out to find common ground with my neighbors – I find this cultural divide profoundly disturbing and dangerous.
And what I’m finding is particularly disturbing and dangerous is President Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarian despots and dictators, embraces that recklessly jeopardize our strategic interests and security.
One case-in-point is that Trump’s “shout out” to Russia-friendly Marine Le Pen in this weekend’s French election signaled approval of a candidate representing a party – whether he meant it or not (or even cared) – steeped in anti-semitism, neofascism, Islamophobia, bigotry, xenophobia and extremism.
I wonder if he thinks about the fact that a Le Pen victory could topple the European Union, perhaps jeopardize NATO’s future, all while reinforcing the worst prejudices of Europe’s white nationalist separatists?
I think not – and that is profoundly dispiriting.
And when Trump congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Erdogan narrowly won a referendum ending Turkey’s current parliamentary political system and assumed more authoritarian powers for himself, did Trump think about whether he was also sending a message to pro-democracy forces world-wide that America might not have their back if they needed us?
I think not.
Trump – whose first national security advisor Michael Flynn worked for Turkey – was the only western leader to congratulate Erdogan, whose government has arrested over 50,000 and who has fired or suspended about 130,000 Turks suspected of being connected to last summer’s failed coup.
Erdogan is expected to meet with Trump in Washington on May 16th.
That, too, is profoundly dispiriting.
And recently, when Trump said he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, whom he described as “a pretty smart cookie,” did he wonder what message he was sending to our allies in South Korea and Japan?
I think not.
And it was equally dispiriting when Trump, during a “very friendly conversation,” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – who once referred to President Obama as “son of a whore” – invited Duterte, a strongman whose anti-drug campaign has reportedly resulted in more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings, to the White House.
“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings,” John Sifton, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said. “Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
Narcissists know no shame, no embarrassment.
Complicity isn’t a concept they recognize.
And it was profoundly dispiriting when Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House and said, “I just want to let everybody know that we are very much behind President Sisi; he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
That “fantastic job’ includes leading a bloody military coup d’etat against Egypt’s democratically-elected government, led by Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.
While Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government was corrupt and incompetent, al-Sisi’s coup aborted Egypt’s nascent democracy without offering a new path forward.
Since al-Sisi’s coup human rights groups estimate that 100s of Egyptians have died, over 40,000 political prisoners have been detained, and there’s ongoing persecution of human rights activists, women, and journalists all by Sisi’s government – all while al-Sisi is still failing to protect Egypt’s Coptic Christians, which had been targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood and which is now being targeted by ISIS.
Trump’s instinctive affinity for such strongmen, from Vladimir Putin to Edgogan, al-Sisi, Duterte, and Le Pen, is profoundly un-American – and terrifying.
When asked whom he consults on foreign affairs, Trump once answered: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. . . . My primary consultant is myself, and I have, you know, I have a good instinct for this stuff.”
He has to stop talking to himself!
Stable strategic relationships need to be built on platforms on rights, reciprocity, and mutual respect – on a delicate balance between smart, hard and soft power – not on militarism, authoritarianism and repression. Even though America has historically not been reluctant to sideline issues like torture, repression, human rights and justice in favor of perceived economic and security interests, Trump’s willingness to embrace despots, dictators and kleptocrats on their non-democratic terms rather than on American values and national security reaches a new American low.
In 2013, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
He’s right. It’s not just his fault. It’s also the fault of those who couldn’t recognize that Trump is an emperor manqué, a fraud in a well-cut, expensive,empty Brioni suit.
It’s the fault of votaries who believe, as does Trump, that facts, truth, education, temperament, experience, compromise, empathy, and vision do not matter – indeed are not relevant – in matters of state and governance.
Votaries who’re either incapable of understanding – or don’t care – that the leader they support has, in just a matter of weeks, given new life to anti-American and anti-democratic movements in France, Mexico, and South Korea, all while American troops are still facing lethal force and challenges throughout the Middle East and Asia.
“I don’t stand by anything,” our president recently told CBS’s John Dickerson.
Finally, President Trump spoke the truth.
Trump’s truth is dangerous and deplorable. Trump’s truth is that he’s a singularly incurious and inarticulate person who not only doesn’t know what he doesn’t know but he doesn’t care that he knows nothing – or that we know he doesn’t know..
“Trust me,” Trump said while visiting the CIA , “I’m, like, a smart person.”
I feel so much better.
PS: I will be presenting an “Ask a Muslim Anything” program at the Durham Public Library on May 10th from 6:30-8:30. Please join us. http://www.durhampubliclibrary.org/