“He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Xi to the Republican donors, at a luncheon at Mar-a-Lago. Then he went on seemingly to express interest in doing the same thing in the United States so that he too could rule forever. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
Mr. Trump was surely joking about becoming president for life himself. But there can be little doubt now that he truly sees no danger in Mr. Xi’s “great” decision to extend his own rule until death. That craven reaction is in line with Mr. Trump’s consistent support and even admiration for men ruling with increasing brutal and autocratic methods — Vladimir Putin of Russia, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, to name a few.
Mr. Trump certainly needs to find ways to work with Mr. Xi on major international challenges. But past presidents have combined efforts to deepen relations with China with advocacy for expanding human rights there. Mr. Trump clearly sees no national interest or responsibility in trying to promote democracy. On the way to amassing more power for himself, Mr. Xi has moved to crush all rivals, silence all dissent, undermine Chinese institutions, promote a cult of personality, weaken the free market economy, destroy any hint of an independent press and otherwise tighten control over a society that is already among the world’s most restricted.
As for Mr. Trump’s line about becoming president for life: His audience was said to respond with laughter, and let’s hope it was nervous laughter. They and we have reason for anxiety. It’s not too much to say that as the authoritarian model gathers strength abroad, democracy is under assault at home. The Russian government meddled in the 2016 election to help elect Mr. Trump, and American intelligence agencies have said they anticipate further Russian interference in the midterms this year. Mr. Trump has remained strangely indifferent to this meddling.
He has also proven ignorant of and impatient with checks on presidential power, whether they be courts that thwart his unconstitutional actions or a Justice Department that won’t jump to his orders to investigate political rivals.
When you consider that Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million ballots, claiming the presidency only through the antidemocratic mechanics of the Electoral College — not to mention with some help from Russia — it may be understandable that he would be uncomfortable with democracy. Ultimately it will be up to the American voter, in 2018 and then 2020, to fulfill Mr. Washington’s hopes for the resilience of the American system.