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The Trump Effect

Trump's embrace of brutal dictators like Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is hardly new for American politics. But the media is treating it like it is.

A US military Apache helicopter. DVIDSHUB / Flickr

Every week of the Trump presidency brings with it some new outrage. This week, it’s Trump’s eager welcome of brutal Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was quickly assured by the president that he is viewed as a valued partner by the administration, despite the litany of human rights abuses racked up by his regime.

The media, particularly liberal-leaning outlets and pundits, rightly wasted no time in condemning Trump for cozying up to a vicious tyrant. “Egypt’s president is a bloodthirsty dictator. Trump thinks he’s done a ‘fantastic job,’ ” Vox alerted its readers. “Trump Sings Praises of Egyptian Autocrat,” intoned a Mediaite headline. “Another morning in Trump’s America,” Paul Krugman tweeted in reaction to the news.

Trump’s embrace of the barbaric Sisi is par for the course for an administration with total disregard for human rights. But it also fits into the ongoing narrative of the Trump administration as an aberration, something new and uniquely scary in the scope of US political history — an idea that allows us to avoid confronting deeper, structural issues by simply writing off anything bad as a case of Trump being his uniquely horrifying self.

Just about every article about the meeting contrasted Trump’s treatment of Sisi with that of his Democratic predecessor.

“Unlike Obama, who refrained from inviting Sisi to Washington, Trump has had a warm relationship since meeting Sisi on the sidelines at the UN general assembly in September 2016,” wrote the Guardian. “Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama never extended an invitation citing concern over Mr Sisi’s human rights record,” ABC pointed out. This meeting was a “shift from Obama’s policy,” according to Time. “The Obama White House did not afford Sisi this honor,” Newsweek told its readers.

They’re correct. Instead, the Obama administration did something much more helpful for Sisi: on June 22, 2014, then secretary of state John Kerry met personally with him to reassure him that the administration was still interested in maintaining the United States’s “historic partnership” with Egypt, and that it was restoring part of the $1.3 billion in military aid it had withheld after Sisi had overthrown Egypt’s democratically elected government in a bloody coup the year before.

This was after the administration had already intentionally avoided calling the coup a coup, because it would have legally required them to cut aid to the country outright. Instead, at the time, Kerry said that the coup — which involved the murder of hundreds of protesters — was “restoring democracy.”

“I am confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid,” Kerry told reporters the day of his meeting with Sisi in 2014, his use of the word “we” presenting the US and Egyptian governments as one unified entity with a shared goal. Referring to a shipment of ten Apache helicopters that had been suspended, Kerry said he was “confident . . . that the Apaches will come and that they will come very very soon.” One of these may well have been the same Apache gunship that two years later was involved in the Egyptian government’s airstrike on picknicking Mexican tourists, which left twelve innocent people dead.

By 2015, the Obama administration entirely lifted the freeze on military aid, and Egypt’s brutal autocrat was getting a steady stream of US-made missiles, tanks, fighter jets, and other top-of-the-line military equipment.

You wouldn’t know much of this from reading many of the reports of Trump’s meeting. Some of the outlets who expressed their outrage over Trump’s similar, if more enthusiastic, embrace of Sisi simply omitted this crucial part of history from their analysis.

And when outlets did include this history, they often played it down. ABC, for instance, simply noted in passing that “Mr Obama froze aid to Egypt for two years after the coup.” The International Business Times stated that “despite the aid cap being lifted in 2015, the two nations never warmed to each other,” while the Daily Beast stressed that “human rights conditions were toughened” and that “Sisi was never invited to Washington,” even while recognizing the administration’s continuation of military aid.

These articles also conveniently leave out that the Obama administration actually tried to remove human rights restrictions on military aid to Egypt, because they realized how bad the human rights situation was in Egypt and it was becoming increasingly awkward to approve weaponry for a government that continued flagrantly indulging in abuses.

Such brief, glossed-over statements also elide the context in which the Obama administration warmed to Sisi. Firstly, this occurred only a month after Sisi won an absurd 97 percent of the vote in Egypt’s presidential election, which the previous winner, the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned from taking part in — resulting in a widespread boycott of the ballot by the party’s supporters and other voters, which partly explained the lopsided result.

The other factor, as one election-monitoring organization pointed out afterwards, was that “Egypt’s repressive political environment made a genuinely democratic presidential election impossible.”

Speaking of repression, on literally the same day in 2014 that John Kerry was assuring the press that Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to . . . a re-evaluation of human-rights legislation [and] a re-evaluation of the judicial process” to justify restarting the military aid, the Guardian reported that four hundred disappeared Egyptians were being brutally tortured in secret prisons. Their abuse ranged from electric shocks and suffocation, to beatings and threats to rape their female family members.

Just thirteen days before that, Amnesty International called Sisi’s crackdown “repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” with anywhere between sixteen thousand and forty-one thousand people being arrested since the coup. And yet even in July, Kerry continued to insist that Egypt was “transitioning to a democracy.”

Compared to the press’s muted descriptions of the Obama administration’s treatment of Sisi now, news outlets at the time were less restrained. “John Kerry Voices Strong Support for Egyptian President Sisi,” said the Wall Street Journal in response to the June meeting. The BBC said that the US government was “backing President Sisi” by unlocking the military aid.

The counter-argument would be that the administration was simply cozying up to Sisi in order to be able to prod him into letting up or making reforms. And the administration did eventually show frustration with Sisi, which is why it never invited him to the White House. Yet the administration continued to provide him with more than a billion dollars in military aid a year. Who needs an invitation to the White House when you’re getting the latest in American weaponry?

Few of the outlets that pilloried Trump yesterday uttered a peep about the similar actions by Obama at the time. Vox, which yesterday strongly admonished Trump for his indifference to Sisi’s abuses and claimed that “Obama steadfastly refused to meet with the Egyptian strongman over concerns about serious human rights abuses,” published just a single article mentioning Sisi between June 20, 2014, and July 31, 2014: this explainer about Hamas’s tunnels into Israel, which mentions the Egyptian coup only incidentally.

What about ThinkProgress, which lamented Trump’s praise for Sisi and his refusal to bring up human rights issues? Not a single story in that period. The same is true for Mediaite, Newsweek, and Time. The Daily Beast did publish a piece criticizing Sisi’s awful anti-gay record during that time, but it at no point mentioned the Obama administration’s renewal of aid to the regime — despite the fact it was published six days after this happened.

The disparate treatment of Obama and Trump’s backing of Sisi, particularly by liberal-leaning outlets, is a good illustration of how the press treats Trump as a uniquely offensive and terrifying force in US politics.

On the one hand, it reflects the need to find outrage and unprecedented danger in anything and everything Trump does — often justified, but sometimes not. On the other, it’s a function of the fact that liberals and establishment-minded types simply can’t countenance the idea that, at least when it comes to national security, there is a large degree of continuity between the smart, articulate, Harvard-educated ex-president who came up in the same meritocratic circles as those in the Beltway, and the buffoon currently occupying the White House whom they view as anathema to much of what they stand for.

Of course this continuity isn’t unique to Obama and Trump, as demonstrated by successive administrations’ consistent support for a host of unsavory governments around the world. And one could easily point to the US support for the Saudi regime to show the emptiness of the current outrage over Sisi; it was only a few weeks ago that Trump met for lunch with the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a similarly brutal, autocratic state — much like Obama paid deference to the Saudi royal family before him, and Bush did before Obama, and Clinton did before Bush, and so on. Supporting autocrats is hardly a Trump-brand innovation.

But perhaps this is one bright side to Trump’s presidency: due to many people’s reflexive disgust for Trump and his actions, what has been basic operating procedure for the government for decades appears to be coming under more widespread scrutiny and criticism, as it should have long ago. This should become a permanent piece of political discourse post-Trump.

But something suggests to me that as soon as someone who is a bit more respectful of the decorum acceptable to the political class starts making friends with brutal dictators again, we’ll quickly forget about the need to be outraged.