The horrifying thing about Trump’s recent remarks about Saddam Hussein is not that he expressed admiration for the late Iraqi dictator — in fact Trump called him a “bad guy” three times. What is horrifying is that Trump seemed envious that Saddam could “kill terrorists” without due process — the most important element of which is the presumption of innocence, which places the burden of proof of guilt squarely on the government’s shoulders. “He killed terrorists” Trump said of Saddam. “He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk.” (Emphasis added.)
This should concern any Trump fans who believe that criminal suspects should be protected against the state. Trump was clearly signalling that he wants the government (which of course he aspires to run) to have the power to kill people suspected of planning or having committed politically motivated violence against noncombatants. Let’s be clear: Trump wasn’t endorsing capital punishment for convicted terrorists. (I ignore here the objections to state executions.) He was praising the killing of suspected terrorists without charge or trial in which the prosecution has the burden of proof. Dictators always find due process an obstacle to efficient and decisive action against threats real and imagined. But Americans supposedly believe that the rights of the accused are more important than the state’s convenience.
The securing of due process was the result of a nearly thousand-year struggle against western tyrants. It is certainly true that due process has been badly eroded, especially since 9/11. But this is the first time I can recall a presidential candidate celebrating a dictator’s freedom from due-process constraints at a campaign rally. This certainly distinguishes Trump from his predecessors and opponents. That the throng, wearing their Make America Great Again caps, responded enthusiastically is ominous indeed.
Trump’s remarks are consistent with his earlier expressions of admiration for the “strength” of despots such as North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and the Chinese rulers who slaughtered pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. The remarks also flesh out his promise to use water-boarding and more against terrorism suspects and his belief that the families of suspects should also be killed.
Throughout his campaign Trump has shown impatience with procedures that brake government activity. He often bashes politicians who are “all talk and no action.” So his envy of dictators should surprise no one.