“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself,” wrote the celebrated Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. As Americans go to the polls today, what does it say about Donald Trump that the country’s greatest enemies—including the Islamic State, Iran, Russia, and North Korea—have all endorsed him?
In his three decades as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never said anything positive about an American politician. Yet in a recent speech commemorating the anniversary of the taking of the U.S. embassy hostage in 1979, in which he called Americans “liars, deceitful, untrustworthy and back-stabbing,” Khamenei defended Trump against charges of populism, lauding him for being open and candid about America’s rampant poverty, racism, and moral depravity.
Khamenei has said for decades that Americans live in a rigged political system “under Zionist custody”; not only does Donald Trump regularly corroborate Khamenei’s conspiratorial worldview, his most vociferous supporters share Khamenei’s anti-Semitism. “When you say, “Death to America,” Khamenei assuredly concluded to his audience, “I agree with this and I do not have any objections to it.”
While Trump lacks bipartisan support at home, he has not only the support of the Shia Iran but the Sunni ISIS. In August, an article in Foreign Affairs noted that an ISIS spokesman wrote on an ISIS social media channel, “I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.” ISIS’s logic is simple: It believes that Trump’s erratic leadership will weaken America, and his abrasive style will alienate the Muslim world, in turn bolstering its efforts to recruit jihadists worldwide. In the words of a recent ISIS defector, “We were happy when Trump said bad things about Muslims because he makes it very clear that there are two teams in this battle: The Islamic team and the anti-Islamic team.”
Trump’s most well-documented foreign enthusiast is Vladimir Putin, whom he has implied is a stronger leader than Obama. Putin has reciprocated, calling Trump “lively” and “talented” and “the absolute leader in the presidential race.” Former CIA chief Mike Morell called Trump an “unwitting agent” of Putin, and 17 U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russian cyber hackers have attempted to tilt the election in Trump’s direction. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Americans hoped Russia could emerge as an economically prosperous, socially tolerant democracy. Putin not only helped thwart attempts to make Russia more like America, but he found in Trump an opportunity to make America more like Russia.
Further east, Trump’s criticism of long-time allies such as South Korea as “free-riders” and his laissez-faire approach toward nuclear weapons have also won him praise in Pyongyang. In response to Trump’s threats to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, DPRK Today, an official North Korean news outlet, deemed Trump “wise” and “far-sighted” (in contrast to “thick-headed Hillary” Clinton).
The list of authoritarians hoping for a Trump victory goes far beyond Russia, Iran, ISIS, and North Korea. Budding authoritarians in Europe have commended his opposition to Muslim immigration, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who calls migrants “poison” and Trump “valiant.” Prominent China scholars believe Beijing prefers Trump, given his authoritarian tendencies—reminiscent of Mao Zedong—and lack of interest in human rights.
Yet one of paradoxes of the 2016 elections is that while foreign despots are most keen to see Trump elected, among those most intent on stopping him are U.S. immigrants who’ve lived under authoritarian rule. For those who’ve witnessed dictators using intimidation, misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry to divide and rule, the freedoms provided in America are not merely abstract slogans.
Most notable has been Khizr Khan, the Pakistani immigrant, Gold Star-father of the late Captain Humayan Khan, who carries a pocket constitution with him and frequently gifts them to visitors at his home. A former Army ROTC commander who knows Khan well said he was “the most patriotic person I’ve ever met,” given his “complete understanding of what liberty and democracy mean.” As Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and himself a Trump supporter, put it, “We focus so much on how immigrants can change America that we forget that America has always changed immigrants even more.”
Those who’ve come to America from nations sometimes thought culturally or religiously incompatible with democracy have thrived in America’s democracy. Iranians who fled their country’s 1979 Islamist revolution have become the second-most successful immigrant group in the United States, based on income and education. One Iranian friend whose family escaped execution in Iran for belonging to the Baha’i faith put it simply: “America treated us so much better than our own country treated us.”
This engenders a deep, loyal appreciation to the country that embraced them. In the words of Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who became one of the great philanthropists in American history, “There is no class so intensely patriotic, so wildly devoted to the Republic as the naturalized citizen and his child, for little does the native-born citizen know of the value of rights which have never been denied.”
It is often said that one way to measure a nation is by looking at how many people want in, and how many people want out. While foreign autocrats have enjoyed watching the most sordid presidential election in America’s contemporary history, they must also know that, if given the chance, many of their best minds would eagerly trade their own passport for an American one. For centuries, this simple truth has allowed America to constantly advance its leading educational, cultural, medical, technological, and commercial institutions, and continuously rejuvenate it democratic project.
The 14th-century North African philosopher Ibn Khaldun famously observed that empires are built and destroyed over the course of three generations. The first-generation founders are hungry, determined, and vigilant. The second generation inherits and manages what they witnessed the first generation build. By the third generation, the ruling elite are self-entitled, palace-reared elites who had no reason to develop the grit necessary to maintain what their grandparents built.
Donald Trump is a third-generation American who never experienced life without freedom and privilege, running on a campaign projecting power rather than principles. Despite the best intentions of his authoritarian supporters overseas, his path to power will be thwarted in no small part by deeply patriotic new Americans determined to protect the values that brought them to this country.