Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump (AP/Andrew Harnik/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

Donald Trump's revealing man-crush on Vladimir Putin: What it says about the right's soft spot for authoritarians

The Donald gushes over the Russian strongman's leadership. He's not alone


Sean Illing
October 1, 2015 8:45PM (UTC)

As much as conservatives hate tyranny in the abstract, they appear to love it in practice. This odd contradiction has manifested itself in recent years with the chorus of conservatives praising the tough, bold leadership of Vladimir Putin. Unfazed by Putin's fascism, the American right has lauded his strength, contrasting it with President Obama's alleged weakness. Here are just a few of the pro-Putin statements uttered by conservative commentators in the last year or so:

Sarah Palin: “Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s – the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as someone who wears mom jeans.”

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Bill O’Reilly: “You gotta hand it to Putin. He knows the West is weak.”

Rudy Giuliani: “Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day…That’s what you call a leader.”

Ralph Peters: “Russia has a real leader…Our president is incapable.”

Rush Limbaugh: “In fact, Putin – ready for this? – postponed the Oscar telecast last night. He didn’t want his own population distracted. He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him. They weren’t distracted. We were.”

So what do we make of all this Putin envy? We should expect this kind of hero worship for someone like Reagan, but why Putin? There are likely many factors at play here, not least of which is Putin’s anti-gay "propaganda" law, passed under the guise of Orthodox Christianity. Indeed, Ben Carson praised Putin’s religious bigotry in a column last year for TownHall.com:

Interestingly, last year Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Euro-Atlantic countries, including the United States, of becoming godless and moving away from Christian values. Some may bristle at such an accusation, but when you consider that many Americans are hesitant even to mention God or Jesus in public, there may be some validity to his claim. We also casually tossed out many of the principles espoused in the Bible and have concluded that there’s no authority greater than man himself.

Setting aside Carson’s naiveté about Putin’s intentions, his willingness to laud Putin’s draconian worldview is awfully revealing. And we can assume many in the Republican base are equally enthralled by Putin’s ultraconservative social policies, which likely accounts for the rise of right-wing praise for Putin.

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But there’s also a confused leadership fetish on the right, which helps explain the Donald Trump phenomenon. Conservatives may deplore dictators, but they have a soft spot for right-wing authoritarians. Part of Trump’s appeal is his veneer of strength (which, unlike with Putin, is mostly a mirage). Trump is the tough, no-nonsense taskmaster who knows how to get things done. He’s a “winner” and the other candidates (especially Jeb) are weak, low energy losers. The most conservative elements of the GOP love this kind of talk.

Trump is well aware of his base appeal. After Putin’s United Nations speech on Monday, he told Bill O’Reilly that Putin is a better leader than Obama. “I will tell you,” Trump said, “in terms of leadership, he’s [Putin] getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well.” The implication, of course, is that Obama isn’t tough enough to handle a man like Putin – for that you need a bold real estate mogul! At any rate, Trump is expressing a popular sentiment on the right. According to a Quinnipiac poll last year, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to say that Putin was a stronger leader than Obama.

Putin is a “strong” leader, but so was Stalin and Lenin and Hitler and Pol Pot. What Putin isn’t, however, is a democratic leader. That small-government conservatives admire him so much betrays not just an ideological incoherence but also a deep disdain for the democratic process. Obama won two national elections, and yet many on the right won’t even acknowledge his legitimacy. It seems conservatives have no problem with tyranny so long as it’s of the right (pun intended) sort.

Trump, though, wouldn't prove the right-wing strongman conservatives want – he’s too politically inept to accomplish anything beyond his own exaltation. But he’s quite good at sounding tough and speaking the language of nativist conservatives (something at which Putin also excels). That’s he gone this far in Republican politics says more about his party than it does about anything else.

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Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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