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Is Trump or Putin a dictator?

Wednesday October 21 2020

Who comes closest to being a dictator? Is it President Valdimir Putin or President Donald Trump?

Until Trump came on the scene as America’s number one, Putin took the prize for autocracy. No longer. Who uses his power to stir up violent, anti-democratic, movements? Who incites racism? Who cares barely a fig for poor ill people? Who cossets the rich? Who threatens the world’s existence most – the one who spends more on increasing armaments than the other has altogether? Who imposes on the Supreme Court new members who will rule against human and civil rights, medicare for the poor and vulnerable? Who single-mindedly rolls back previous progress on combating climate change? Who uses his untrammelled power as commander in chief to order 60,000 military personnel to be stationed in the Middle East and supplies armaments to Saudi Arabia so that it can attempt to annihilate fighters ranged against it in Yemen, together with tens of thousands women and children? Who threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton, his political opponent at the last election? Who threatens now not to recognise the result of the coming election?

Apart from the arms build-up, Trump does all this without Congressional authorisation.

Now what about Putin? He too has many autocratic tendencies and powers. He just won a referendum on a new constitution that allows him to stay in power for 16 years more, as long as he wins the vote in successive elections. Who controls directly or indirectly most of the media? Most of it, but not all, as Westerners claim- there being two newspapers, a couple of TV stations, a financial and business magazine and a radio station that operate nationally with a great deal of freedom. Then there are a number of locally based, more open-minded, radio and TV channels spread around the country. The internet and foreign broadcasts are uncensored. Who allows demonstrations but only if they are limited in size, (apart from the large one now the last three months taking place in Khabarovsk)? Who rules over a country where opposition figures and journalists too are sometimes beaten, imprisoned or murdered?

But, on the positive side, who heads a government which provides health services and pensions for all? Who, at present, has troops fighting abroad only in one country, Syria? Who keeps his country’s membership of the World Health Organisation and increases its donation to it? Who takes climate change seriously? Who keeps capital punishment abolished? Who preaches against racial division? Who, although divorced, exhibits moral rectitude in his personal life, including paying his taxes? Who still has from his people, in a poll conducted by the respected, independent Levada agency, 60 percent support, compared with Trump’s 46 percent, according to Gallup.

Prof Stephen Walt of Harvard University believes that Trump has every incentive to stay in power to keep himself out of jail and to avoid losing his wealth.

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The media in America, for all its many mistakes and, for most of it, its ignorance and oft misrepresentation of foreign affairs, is much freer than Russia’s, but Trump has tried to brainwash many people into believing that the mainstream media indulges in “fake news”. He has signed an executive order that could eventually allow his government to oversee political free speech on the internet. He has increased the prosecutions that involve journalists’ use of classified information, searched their electronic devices and monitored reporters’ movements. Indirectly he has encouraged arrests and attacks on journalists.

He has tried to persuade the Ukranian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, threatening him with a cut-off of US aid. He has removed independent inspector generals whose job is to be a watchdog over government wrongdoings in the departments of state, defence, health, human services, transportation and the intelligence services.

He has run a financially corrupt presidency. According to a study made by the non-partisan Brookings Institution there have been reports that 27 clients of Trump-connected lobbyists have received over 10 US billion dollars in government coronavirus spending.

Although right-wing terrorist groups and white supremacists are responsible for far more deaths than left wing protestors, Trump has repeatedly signalled his sympathy for the former and has heavily criticised the latter.

At the same time he has given clemency to his own criminal associates, such as the convicted felon, Roger Stone and ordered the Justice Department to drop charges against former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, accused of making false statements to the FBI.

I’m not a pollster but I think my guess that a vast majority of the world wants Trump to be defeated on November 3 is the right one. He is widely regarded as a malevolent autocrat. I’ve given you the measure of whether he is a worse or better autocrat than Putin. That, dear reader, is up to you to decide.

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For 17 years Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the Inter-national Herald Tribune/New York Times