Politics

How to Help Trump in His Listening Phase

Some authoritarian leaders got a push down the path through derision, rejection and humiliation.

Still listening.

Photographer: Drew Angerer

Donald Trump has often been linked to some authoritarian rulers and compared to others. Strictly speaking, he hasn't done much to deserve it yet. But this is a dangerous moment -- some current authoritarians started in this way too, and were pushed toward the dictatorial path.

Volumes have been written about Trump's supposed affinity for, and connection to, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Guy Verhofstadt, a top Brexit negotiator for the European Union, has called Trump, Putin and Erdogan "a ring of autocrats" looking to encircle Europe. Apart from that, Trump has been likened to Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta , India's Narendra Modi -- all authoritarians to different degrees. 

I suppose anyone who has watched a populist strongman up close can find certain similarities. Trump, for example, is unashamedly self-obsessed and touchy about mockery and media criticism. It's impossible not to see shades of Erdogan demanding that a German comedian be jailed for writing a salty limerick about him, or Putin's staff making sure the diminutive Russian president's official photographs downplay the difference in height with other world leaders.

Comparing charismatic leaders, however, is a thankless task. While it takes a certain type of personality to rise to the top, especially in a chaotic and imperfect system like those now run by authoritarians, the differences are as plain to see and as important.

Trump is only superficially religious and, if anything, somewhat anti-Muslim; Erdogan has returned Islam to the forefront of Turkish public life. Trump is a businessman with a complicated history of big wins and momentous failures; former intelligence officer Putin has never worked a day in the private sector. Trump is a TV personality with a keen sense of how to play the media; Kenyatta is a thug whose first instinct is to suppress. Trump is a political outsider, even a political ignoramus; Modi is an experienced politician, campaigner and office holder. 

I could go on, but the general principle is clear: If you're looking for similarities, you'll find them, but there is no such thing as a universal authoritarian character. Very different people are thrust to the top of nations by the demand for a strong hand, radical change or both. How they will act once they get there often isn't predetermined. 

As a Russian, I have watched Putin most closely, and I believe his rule could have turned out differently had he been differently conditioned by Russian society and the foreign leaders he faced.

Like Trump, Putin rose to the presidency unexpectedly -- his ailing predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, picked him rather abruptly and not long before his resignation. It took him most of his first term to get oriented, and he was greatly influenced by his support networks.

A group of liberal economists, who saw his arrival as an opportunity for reform, persuaded him to push through an almost libertarian tax reform with a flat tax rate. A group of former KGB officers like himself convinced him big business needed more state control and less political influence. A group of imperial ideologues, dormant under Yeltsin but now suddenly hopeful, promoted stronger centralized controls and less sovereignty for Russia's regions to stifle separatism.

I remember early Putin as a keen listener: He was looking for ideas and policies to latch onto, as well as for people to trust. Some fit his preconceived notions, some changed them. Putin, of course, was also answering the call he'd heard from his voters: They needed less anarchy and more economic opportunity. There was, however, no clear signal from the voters on foreign policy; Russians saw themselves as part of European civilization and clearly weren't inclined to see themselves as Cold War losers.

As years went by, Putin realized two things: The West -- Europe and the U.S. alike -- was happy to take Russian money but wasn't particularly interested in making it a true member of the club; and, whereas most Russians cared more about their well-being than about civil liberties, the intelligentsia was always going to hate him for being a former KGB man, regardless of what he did. Emboldened by his growing governance experience, he finally acted confidently on these realizations. The world was shocked. 

Erdogan's path was somewhat similar. I doubt he planned to establish an autocratic regime in Turkey when he first came to power: It would have seemed impossible to anyone, given the army's traditional role as the guarantor of democracy. During his first years in power, he actually curtailed a tough anti-terrorist law, broadening democracy, made conciliatory steps toward Turkey's Kurdish minority and stepped up economic deregulation.

Eventually, however, Erdogan learned that he could get away with more authoritarianism -- and that the West had provided little incentive for him not to try. European Union accession negotiations were a joke; the U.S., technically an ally, took Turkey for granted. Like Putin, Erdogan found it easy to see enemies in the West and among his country's intellectuals: No matter what he did they wouldn't give him a break because he wasn't a secularist like them.

Trump today is in the looking and listening phase. He told New York Times reporters a meeting with General James Mattis changed his attitude toward waterboarding; the general had told him a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers was usually more effective. Clearly, his meetings with President Barack Obama have changed his view on scrapping Obamacare. Trump is said to be going back on his campaign promises -- but that's a good sign. He is clearly listening to people, and he's not limiting their circle to the relatively narrow group that surrounded him during the campaign. 

A lot of what Trump will do as president will depend on what he hears now -- and on how his first steps are taken. He's signaling that press coverage will be important to him by meeting with TV anchors and New York Times columnists. If he senses that whatever he does is met with protest and derision -- what he keeps calling "unfairness" -- he will be tempted to ignore this input channel, as Putin and Erdogan do, and then to counterattack vengefully -- as much as the U.S. context will allow.  He can do an end-run around the traditional media, abandon the customary White House press pool and communicate straight to voters on Twitter.

The same goes for foreign leaders. If they treat him as a buffoon, a pariah or an inexperienced novice, U.S. policy may end up being driven by his grievances, as Russia's and Turkey's are driven by Putin's and Erdogan's.

The U.S. has an enormous advantage compared with Russia and Turkey: It has a very deep bench of credible intellectuals, politicians and bureaucrats who can influence Trump's presidency. It has mature, independent institutions -- the judiciary, the media and a bicameral legislature, as well as substantial powers allocated to the states -- that will serve to hold the president to account and act as a restraint. But Trump has scope to maneuver too, especially on foreign policy. And given the U.S.'s size and power and influence, the potential for causing instability in the world is great.

Now is the time to engage with a leader who hasn't yet chosen what he wants to be or figured out the specifics of what he wants to do. Kicks and slights in response to his campaign rhetoric are likely to drive him toward the most destructive path. It's important for U.S. society and the international community to create incentives for Trump to learn and grow wiser rather than stew and grow more bitter. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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