Look, we all know that the title “Leader of the Free World” that we use for President is hyperbolic (I sure hope we know that) and not really true. It’s still symbolically important however, so it’s probably important that if you hold this title that you not go and support a brutal dictatorship that is imprisoning and killing rival members. You know, like Saudi Arabia.
I get it, the US has a long history of choosing to be on the wrong side of history, especially in our alliance with Saudi Arabia. So any elected official – for better or for worse – has to be careful with what they say about such a brutal regime. But Trump is just diving in headfirst (like Pete Rose) into some Saudi lovin’. It’s one thing to give a vague response to what’s going on, it’s entirely another to refer to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with the same affection and admiration that a nun would show to the Rosary, or that a New Englander would show to a Dunkin Donuts owned by Bill Belichick and managed by Tom Brady (right now, people in New England are Googling hard to see if this actually exists).
See, and this is where it gets really complicated, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) may actually help his country with what he did. Many of the people arrested actually were corrupt and actually are a hinderance on modernizing Saudi Arabia. MBS wants to bring his country, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 21st century (or as 21st century as a radical Wahhabist nation can be). So his actions may not be all bad, but they could be and could be very destabilizing, signaling to hardliners that MBS might try to modernize too much, which could lead to some nasty revolts. It’s honestly a major gamble; on one hand, this could pacify Saudi Arabia within the next 10 years, which would cease the exporting of terrorist ideology. On the other hand, this could exacerbate the situation and destabilize the region even further. Hooray modern foreign affairs!
At the same time…
Trump is also just being honest. In the past a president might have commented on how MBS is going about this all wrong, but wouldn’t have done anything about it (and may not have even commented on it). Trump’s tweet is at least brutal honesty, that we don’t care how much the Sauds run their nation with an iron fist, as long as they give us that black gold we’ll be good.
As president of the United States and already threatening Jeff Sessions’ job as Attorney General unless he goes after Hillary Clinton, supporting a similar move overseas really, really, really looks bad here. He’s already talked about how he wants to go after his political rivals here, so supporting another world leader doing is…concerning. And that’s just me making an attempt at a polite British understatement; it’s actually disturbing. It’s very disturbing. He’s made comments about going after political opponents, about wanting to go after the Democrats, about going after Clinton, and going after whomever based on the idea of “draining the swamp.” And here he is supporting that exact action overseas, possibly wondering, “Now why can’t I do that?” (The Constitution, but that means exactly what to him?).
So this is the world we live in. As cliche as it is, multiple philosophers (and yes, Plato) have pointed out that Republics, especially large ones, tend toward dictatorships because eventually the system gets clogged up and the people want a demagogue. Trump certainly isn’t the end of our Republic (it’s been dying for a while), but he’s certainly a necessary step along the way.