For some abroad, four more years of Trump sounds pretty good

Why We Wrote This

Despite his broad unpopularity around the world, Donald Trump is not without his international supporters. What is it about the U.S. president that earns the respect and approval of non-Americans?

Thomas Peter/Reuters
A protester wearing a President Donald Trump mask gestures during a "March of Gratitude to the U.S." event in Hong Kong on Dec. 1, 2019. Mr. Trump's signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act earned him the admiration of Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators.

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The drama of the United States election campaign has gripped onlookers around the world. Generally speaking, President Donald Trump is not popular outside the U.S. His “America First” rhetoric, his disdain for traditional allies, his apparent soft spot for foreign autocrats, and his sudden policy lurches have earned him a poor reputation internationally.

Yet he does enjoy pockets of support from many sorts of people, from Chinese dissidents to Arab sheikhs, from Russian politicians to Mexican workers. While some simply appreciate the gains that his tenure has brought to their countries, others speak of his policies and his restraint from launching the U.S. into new military conflicts as reasons for their admiration.

He’s been good for Mexico, says Hernan Dominguez Juarez, a former state-level teachers union organizer. Remittances sent home by Mexican migrants have risen almost 50% since Mr. Trump took office. “Those with family members living and working in the U.S. feel like their family is better taken care of under Trump.”

And Mr. Trump “is the first president in 40 years not to start a new war,” says Mr. Wolfmeier, a service manager in Hannover, Germany. “That’s good for Germany, good for everyone in the world.”

A man on a sunshine-yellow bicycle weaves his way through traffic, pulling a sign that reads, “TRUMP 2020 KEEP AMERICA GREAT.” From the shade of a Stars and Stripes marquee, participants wait for the event to begin, lauding the U.S. president’s commitment to family values and his support for the economy.

But this is not just another standard Donald Trump campaign rally. It is taking place, on a recent Saturday afternoon, in a working-class district of Mexico City and few of the attendees have a vote in the U.S. election.

The drama of the U.S. election campaign has gripped onlookers around the world, and divided them. Generally speaking, President Trump is not popular outside the United States. His “America First” rhetoric, his disdain for traditional allies, his apparent soft spot for foreign autocrats, and his sudden policy lurches have earned him a poor reputation internationally.

Yet he does enjoy pockets of support from many sorts of people all around the world, from Chinese dissidents to Arab sheikhs, from Russian politicians to Mexican workers. While some simply appreciate the gains that his tenure has brought to their countries, others speak of his policies and – perhaps most commonly – his restraint from launching the U.S. into new military conflicts as reasons for their admiration.

Christopher Alva, who organized the Mexico City meeting, was hoping to persuade people to urge their relatives in the United States to vote for Mr. Trump because he’s supported so many Mexican Americans during the pandemic in the U.S. And because “he brings strong values, a lot of discipline to his leadership,” Mr. Alva says. “He’s really decisive in his actions.”

And he’s been good for Mexico, argues Hernan Dominguez Juarez, a former state-level teachers union organizer. The Trump administration has doubled the number of temporary farmworker visas issued each year, and remittances sent home by Mexican migrants have risen almost 50% since Mr. Trump took office.

“Those with family members living and working in the U.S. feel like their family is better taken care of under Trump,” says Mr. Dominguez.

“He helps us fight China”

The U.S. flags on display at Mr. Alva’s rally also appeared in profusion last year in Hong Kong, as hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators rallied against Beijing’s encroachment on the territory’s autonomy. And the protesters made no secret of whom they were primarily appealing to for help as they brandished his portrait: Mr. Trump.

The president’s tough stance on China – sanctioning Beijing for espionage, human rights abuses, and unfair trade practices – meant that “the overall impression of Trump was pretty positive and strong,” says Kenneth Chan, who teaches politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Pro-Trump euphoria reached new heights last Thanksgiving when the president signed the long-awaited Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires Washington to sanction Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials who violate human rights.

Thousands rallied that night on the shore of Victoria Harbor, some holding banners depicting Mr. Trump riding a tank and others waving images of his head pasted onto Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” torso.

“Donald Trump is the greatest president in the world,” exclaimed a young worker. “He helps us fight China.”

For similar reasons, some prominent Chinese dissidents are also Trump fans: blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled China via the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2012, praised his anti-China stand at this year’s Republican National Convention.

The Chinese government has remained neutral in public, but nationalist commentators on Chinese websites have suggested that a Trump victory would be good for China since his policies serve to unite the Chinese people and undermine the Western alliance system curbing Beijing.

He is known in such circles as “Chuan Jianguo” or “Build-the-Country” Trump – a patriotic nickname suggesting that Mr. Trump is aiding China’s rise. 

Disappointment in Russia

When news of Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 reached Moscow, the Russian Duma (parliament) famously erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation. Candidate Trump had said he wanted to “get along” with President Vladimir Putin, and according to U.S. intelligence agencies the Kremlin had actively worked for his election.

Today, expectations are lower and indifference more widespread. Just 16% of focus group subjects say they prefer Mr. Trump to Joe Biden (9%), according to Denis Volkov at the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster. That’s down from 38% for Mr. Trump in 2016.

“There is far less hope than before ... that anything will change in the U.S.-Russia relationship,” he says.

The Kremlin, like Beijing, might see an advantage in Mr. Trump’s disdain for Western alliances such as NATO, writes Tanya Stanovaya in a recent paper published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. Among the security services, she suggests, “what’s important is that his contradictory and destructive policies make the United States more exposed and fragile, which gives Russia freer rein.”

But Mr. Trump has disappointed his erstwhile supporters in Moscow, says Sergei Markov, a former adviser to President Putin. “All the hopes he raised in Russians were dashed. More sanctions, more tensions, less arms control, and almost no diplomatic dialogue is what we have today. But no one in Moscow has any hopes about Biden either.” Mr. Putin criticized him earlier this month for his “anti-Russia rhetoric.”

“The feeling in Moscow is that if Trump cannot pull Moscow out of its spiral of confrontation with the United States, no one can,” adds Ms. Stanovaya.

“The choice of patriots against globalization”

Europe is home to one of only three world leaders to openly endorse Mr. Trump – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who proudly calls his government an “illiberal democracy.” (The other two are also populist autocrats, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.)

French President Emmanuel Macron emphatically is not one of them, though he did try to make nice with Mr. Trump early in his term. But the American president is deeply unpopular in France except among extreme right-wing voters, with whom he is merely less unpopular. A recent Pew Research poll found that 28% of Marine Le Pen’s “National Rally” voters supported Mr. Trump; only 6% of non-RN voters did.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump walk down the White House colonnade together on their way to the Rose Garden on March 19, 2019. Mr. Trump has been openly endorsed by only three world leaders, all populist autocrats. Mr. Bolsonaro is one of them.

One of them is Wallerand de Saint-Just, who is also treasurer of the National Rally party and who shares and admires Mr. Trump’s protectionist, nationalist outlook. “Joe Biden seems very weak ... compared to Trump’s huge amount of energy,” he says.

Another RN figure, European Parliament member Jérôme Rivière, likes Mr. Trump’s anti-globalization stand. “Trump is the choice of patriots against globalization,” he says. “It has an influence on our voters because it shows we are not alone, that others in power share the same ideas.”

Most importantly, he adds, President Trump has not sent soldiers abroad to fight in a new war. For decades, “each president has been involved in a war,” Mr. Rivière says, “imposed his vision of how things should work elsewhere. But not Trump. This is a notable aspect [of his presidency] and it should be congratulated.”

MAGA auf Deutsch

That is a key consideration, too, for Benjamin Wolfmeier in neighboring Germany, another country scarred by warfare. Mr. Trump “is the first president in 40 years not to start a new war,” says Mr. Wolfmeier, a service manager for a Finnish elevator company in Hannover.

“That’s good for Germany, good for everyone in the world,” he adds.

Mr. Wolfmeier, who likes to pin a Trump 2020 button to his jacket and wear a red MAGA baseball cap, is an average conservative. Half American (though not registered to vote in U.S. elections), he was once a member of Democrats Abroad.

Then “the party turned very left under Obama, especially on issues like abortion, immigration, and guns,” he says, and now he volunteers as communications director for Republicans Abroad in Germany.

Trump supporters in Germany are generally “quieter” than Democrats, Mr. Wolfmeier says. But the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is not shy about its support for the U.S. president. Its leaders were among the first German politicians to congratulate Mr. Trump in 2016.

It is Mr. Trump’s straight talk about “America First” that resonates most deeply with Armin-Paulus Hampel, an AfD member of the European Parliament. “Trump has recognized with clear eyes that multilateral relations have failed,” says Mr. Hampel, whose website boasts a section entitled “Germany First.” “And as a German politician I have to accept this and then figure out what German interests are.”

“Why would you change chickens?”

Israeli politicians do not face that challenge: Mr. Trump has aligned U.S. interests almost completely with the Israeli government’s interests. A June poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 56% of respondents (75% of right-wing voters) thought a Trump victory would serve Israel better than Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump’s unstinting support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was epitomized by U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1973.

“Trump is a major prize for the Israeli people,” says Zion Vasika, who works for the municipality in Netivot in southern Israel. “If you have a chicken that lays golden eggs, why would you change chickens?”

The recent White House-brokered peace accords between Israel and two Gulf states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have reinforced Mr. Trump’s positive image. “He is one of the most important leaders there ever was in the United States when it comes to Israel and the Jews,” says Yosef Ben-Hor, standing behind the counter of his dry-cleaning business in Tel Aviv.

Israel’s new friends in the Gulf “see us as a force for good in the region,” says Mr. Ben-Hor. “We have the backs of those countries that are also threatened by Iran and other extremists.”

Trump in the Gulf

Indeed, few are rooting harder, albeit discreetly, for Mr. Trump than the Arab monarchs in the Gulf who have developed close personal ties with him since he attended a summit in the Saudi Arabian capital in 2017, his first overseas trip.

“Trump has been unpredictable, inconsistent at times, rude at times, but he reached out to Gulf leaders early and has a personal affinity with them,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of politics. “They are more than happy with four more years of Trump.”

The U.S. leader’s hard line against Iran, which Gulf states see as their greatest threat, has made him popular in the region, and he went out on a limb to protect de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman, vetoing congressional sanctions in the wake of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, even his detractors express relief that Mr. Trump has not launched any military action in the region. “The best thing is the fact that Mr. Trump is a businessman, and businessmen don’t like wars,” says Mohammed Husseini, a Jordanian lawyer. “Four years, and he hasn’t started a single war in our region.”

Mr. Husseini also says he respects Mr. Trump’s leadership style. “I wish we had a strong leader who could stand up on the world stage and push our interests and pressure other countries for our economic benefit.”

Ann Scott Tyson in Seattle contributed reporting to this article.

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