If not for Ted Cruz, the story of Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention would have been Mike Pence rising to the moment with his speech accepting the GOP nomination for vice president. But the story of Wednesday in the context of the election more broadly might, in spite of Cruz, be this from an interview Donald Trump gave the New York Times:
“Donald J. Trump, on the eve of accepting the Republican nomination for president, said Wednesday that if he were elected, he would not pressure Turkey or other authoritarian allies about conducting purges of their political adversaries or cracking down on civil liberties. The United States, he said, has to ‘fix our own mess’ before trying to alter the behavior of other nations. …
“During a 45-minute conversation, he explicitly raised new questions about his commitment to automatically defend NATO allies if they are attacked, saying he would first look at their contributions to the alliance. Mr. Trump re-emphasized the hard-line nationalist approach that has marked his improbable candidacy, describing how he would force allies to shoulder defense costs that the United States has borne for decades, cancel longstanding treaties he views as unfavorable, and redefine what it means to be a partner of the United States.”
The comments about NATO seem to have gotten more notice, and people are rightly criticizing Trump for sounding wishy-washy about our most important military alliance. But the comments about Turkey might be even worse. In the above excerpt from the Times’ story I purposely left out the second paragraph, which quotes Trump more fully about what he said regarding Turkey and the actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The reason I did so is because you really need to see the question he was asked if you are to fully grasp the implications of what he said. From a transcript of the interview:
TIMES REPORTER DAVID SANGER: “Erdogan put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”
TRUMP: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger. …
“I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood. How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country. We have so many difficulties in our country right now that I don’t think we should be, and there may be a time when we can get much more aggressive on that subject, and it will be a wonderful thing to be more aggressive. We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.”
One need not be blind to the real problems in this country regarding law enforcement to reject completely this false equivalence. Turkey’s government has been locking up people left and right: Adjusting for population, 50,000 arrests or firings in Turkey — in just one week, remember — is like 213,000 in the United States. For years, Turkey has been devolving from the relatively open and Western-oriented government it has had for nearly a century. And Trump apparently believes we can’t try to pressure the Turkish government to do better because those actions are roughly equivalent to what’s going on in this country — where the police aren’t conducting mass incarcerations, but rather are protecting the people’s right to protest their actions, often at their own peril.
This false belief that America is just one despotism among others traditionally has been the fare of the American left; indeed, the notion that “America was never great” has explicitly been the message of some left-wing protesters in Cleveland this week. If you criticized Barack Obama for holding an “apology tour”, for saying Americans believe in American exceptionalism just as Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism, for not speaking up often or strongly enough in defense of our police officers — if you have been disturbed by any of those actions and words from Obama, how can you possibly defend what Trump said?
What Trump said might prove popular and win him a few more votes. Like many of the popular things Trump says, that doesn’t make it right.