New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman criticizes Donald Trump's "idiotic observation that Vladimir Putin is a strong leader" who gets stuff done, unlike Barack Obama. Friedman endorses former world chess champion Garry Kasparov's take on Trump's praise of Russia's president: "Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink. Praising a brutal KGB dictator, especially as preferable to a democratically elected U.S. president, whether you like Obama or hate him, is despicable and dangerous."
Friedman and Kasparov are right. Trump's attraction to oppressive autocrats is more than a little disturbing, especially since it is precisely their dictatorial strength that he admires. But Friedman fails to acknowledge that he himself is guilty of the same idiocy.
"One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," the foreign policy sage conceded in a 2009 column. "But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century." In particular, Friedman admired the Chinese government's commitment to "clean power and energy efficiency," which he contrasted with the Republican Party's benighted resistance to "energy/climate legislation and health care legislation." The Republicans' failure to agree with Democrats on those issues, Friedman said, makes the United States a "one-party democracy," which is "worse" that China's autocracy.
Friedman offers more praise for China's rulers in his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, where he says their oppressive, cruel, and brutal limits on reproductive freedom "probably saved China from a population calamity" and hopes the current regime will show the same tyrannical fervor in pursuit of "net-zero buildings." In 2014 Mark Bittman, then a fellow Times columnist, took a cue from Friedman, hoping that China's dictators, unencumbered by democracy, the rule of law, or civil liberties, would show the rest of the world how to take on "the scourge of junk food." Bittman's reasoning echoed Friedman's: "Say what you will about the Chinese, but they know how to make wholesale changes, and sometimes those changes are inarguably for the good."
Trump also admires the power of China's leaders. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, he said they "almost blew it" in response to the Tiananmen Square protests the previous year but then realized they had to be "vicious" and "horrible" to maintain order. "They put it down with strength," he said, which "shows you the power of strength." By contrast, he said, "Our country is right now perceived as weak." Asked about those remarks during a Republican presidential debate last year, Trump provided this clarification: "I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn't mean at all I was endorsing it."
But it sorta does mean that, doesn't it? By describing the protests as a "riot" and admiring the strength shown by the government's "horrible" response, which according to Trump came after the regime "almost blew it" by taking a more restrained approach, he is saying the violent crackdown, which killed hundreds (possibly thousands) of people, was the right way to go, even while claiming he is "not endorsing it."
Friedman's admiration of the Chinese government's power, which allows it to accomplish policy goals (clean energy and population control) he views as desirable, is, if anything, less ambiguous than Trump's. Although "one-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," the columnist says, it gets good things done, unlike our dysfunctional democracy, which is "worse." The implication is that we'd be better off, on balance, if our government were more like China's. At least Trump had the sense to say Russia has "a very different system" of government, and "I don't happen to like the system." By contrast, Friedman, who supposedly is much more sophisticated about the way the world works, openly yearns for the strong hand of a dictator.