It’s important to keep Donald Trump’s awfulness in perspective, to distinguish between what is the result of broader historical forces and what is unique to him. Time and again, he has taken a long-standing American problem and brought it to new levels of terribleness. While the GOP has been using code to energize racist voters since at least the early 1960s, Trump has blurted out what other Republicans have only hinted at. They use dog whistles, he pulls out a train whistle. This is the big difference between Trump and a generic Republican, and it is significant because his train whistle has had the effect of normalizing open racism.
A similar dynamic is occurring with Trump’s praise of dictators like Saddam Hussein. There’s a long and ignoble tradition of American politicians from both major parties praising dictators who serve American interests. As Franklin Roosevelt is reputed to have said when he invited the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somaza to the White House, “He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.” Over the decades, America’s SOBs have been an unsavory lot, ranging from military dictators in Latin America to white racist regimes in Africa to tyrants in the Middle East. This is the logic that led the Reagan administration to sell poison gas to Hussein and turn a blind eye to its use. This was the long-standing policy that led Donald Rumsfeld to shake hands with Hussein even after the dictator deployed that gas.
Yet there’s a crucial difference between earlier American alliances with dictatorships and Trump’s open celebration of them. Traditionally, such alliances have been defended as a “necessary evil”—an inevitability in a world where America has to deal with regimes that are antithetical to its values. Trump doesn’t use the language of necessary evil. Rather he celebrates various tyrannies as a positive good, examples of strength that the United States should emulate.
Consider Trump’s words from his Tuesday speech in North Carolina: “He was a bad guy—really bad guy. But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.” What’s startling here is the undisguised admiration for Hussein and the envy of his unfettered ability to fight terrorism without any regard for rights.
This is part of a pattern for Trump. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump celebrated the crushing of student protests at Tiananmen Square:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world...
Trump isn’t the result of an immaculate conception. His most vicious ideas have some roots in American history and political practices. But he also takes these earlier traditions in dangerous new directions. In the past American governments have shamefacedly worked with tyrants. Trump has no shame, and openly praises dictatorships for their worst acts. As he has done so often, he’s taking America into uncharted territory.