Time to Stop Saying ‘Leader of the Free World’ by Kurt B. Pitzer

Dear experts on TV,

Please stop calling the U.S. president the “leader of the free world.” You’ve been doing it for at least a couple of decades too long now. People in other countries laugh when they hear it. And — now that we have a leader who wants to take a wrecking ball to some of our most basic liberties — it has gotta go.

Why does it keep tripping off your tongues? The “free world” became a thing in 1942, at the height of fascist expansion, when the U.S. swooped in to rescue everybody. Your predecessors started calling the president the “leader of the free world” when Trump was just a boy. It became a trope of anti-Soviet propaganda: Freedom was our side of the Iron Curtain, bright with no bread lines. Never mind that, in freedom’s name, the U.S. toppled freely elected governments in places like Iran and Chile. When Reagan challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” at least he sounded like a leader of a free world.

Kurt B. Pitzer
Kurt B. Pitzer

But the map ain’t so simple anymore. Without the Iron Curtain, where do we draw the lines of the “free world?” Norwegians are freer than North Koreans. But what about Uzbeks? Brazilians? In Qatar, your level of freedom depends on whether you are a grandnephew of the king or the wife of an immigrant welder.

In the U.S., freedom has too many caveats to fit on a bumper sticker. The word has cut two ways ever since Europeans and Africans arrived with very different relationships to it.

Freedom gets trickier when you try to separate the freedoms-to and the freedoms-from. Anyone is free to walk down a public street, but some people are more likely to get stopped by police.

So even if a free world still existed, could our country claim to lead it anymore? We declared independence from the British in order to be free from taxation without representation. Two hundred and forty years later, we are to be led by a billionaire who by his own admission does not pay taxes. We have, if you will, the inverse: representation without taxation.

That’s a freedom most of us poor schmucks don’t have. We pay our taxes, and we expect certain liberties to be guarded in return. Which liberties? Good question. Such a good question. Why weren’t you talking more about this during the campaign?

We know you probably don’t have time to review the Constitution between shows. So here’s a little cheat sheet:

Rule One: Torture and freedom don’t go together.

Rule Two: Having a free press is the easiest way to tell you’re not living in a dictatorship.

Rule Three: Try to incarcerate fewer citizens. It’s hard to argue that you’re part of the free world with the highest prison population on the planet.

Rule Four: It is not “law and order” when police stop and frisk people of color more than white people. It is the opposite.

Rule Five: Registries are for wedding gifts, not people.

Rule Six: Flags don’t belong to the state. No one should be jailed for burning their own flag.

Rule Seven: Don’t protest protesters.

Rule Eight: Forget the southern-border thing, unless you want the next leader of the free world to be the Mexican president: “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall.”

We also know that it’s hard to avoid catchphrases on the hot seat of live TV. Which is why it’s good to think about them before the cameras roll and your mouths click into gear.

“Leader of the free world” should not be used, even ironically, unless you’re comfortable with Trump saying it himself. Because he would. “Leader” is like catnip to autocrats, like “Dear Leader” (Kim Jong-il), “Leader of the Turkmen” (Niyazov) and “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” (Gaddafi).

Can you imagine a Saddam-like statue outside the White House — a massive, gold-plated tuft of hair blotting out the view from the Jefferson Memorial — bearing the words “Donald J. Trump, Leader of the Free World?” Don’t laugh. It could happen.


Kurt B. Pitzer is an author and foreign correspondent who has written for the Boston Globe, The Sunday Times of London, the Los Angeles Times and Mother Jones, among others. He is a recipient of the Lange-Taylor Prize for documentary work in the Balkans and author of the non-fiction books The Bomb in My Garden and Eating with the Enemy. He holds an MFA in fiction from New York University. His short stories have appeared in The Golden Handcuffs Review and Pleiades.

“Representation without Taxation” image created by Kathy Bates