Donald Trump is a big fan of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Big fan. Huge fan. Earlier this week, Putin praised Trump as “a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented,” and Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump gladly accepted and reciprocated Putin’s admiring remarks because he’s a an amoral dolt who assesses people based largely on whether they say nice things about him.
Trump’s bonhomie with the Russian leader led to this exchange, in which host Joe Scarborough pointed out that Trump superfan Vladimir Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries,” to which Trump replied: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
Trump eventually did say, after repeated inquiries, that he condemns the killing of journalists and political adversaries, but he’s taking it on the chin from the commentariat for saying that Putin – murdering and invading notwithstanding – is a strong leader, unlike President Barack Obama. It’s a morally repugnant position to take, and it’s not too far removed from what elite conservative pundits and Republican politicians have been saying about Putin and Obama for years.
There’s been a long-running streak of right-wing admiration for the Russian president, whose authoritarian tendencies and expansionist policies are contrasted favorably with those of Obama, whom conservatives view as terminally weak and constantly outmatched by Putin’s strategic genius and strong leadership. “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles,” House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers quipped on Fox News Sunday last March, as Putin was annexing the Crimean peninsula. “They've been running circles around us.” This is a common trope, especially among neoconservatives, who cast every aggressive foreign policy move by Putin as a strategic victory over Obama. “Putin is delivering one more finger in the eye of a president whom he continues to out-wit and out-muscle,” Washington Post blogger wrote in October after Russia moved to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war. (The Russians’ Syria campaign is actually looking more and more like a strategic blunder.)
In March 2014, Rush Limbaugh called Putin “strategically brilliant” for “running around with no shirt and making himself look like a hunk while our president is wearing mom jeans and can't even throw a baseball in the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game that doesn't embarrass everybody.” Around the same time on Fox News, Rudy Giuliani said “Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day… He makes a decision and he executes it quickly, then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.” Obama, he complained, has “got to think about it, got to go over it again, got to talk to more people.”
Sarah Palin said that “people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” A Washington Post writer marveled that after a story he wrote on Putin was picked up by Matt Drudge, it was inundate with comments that reflected the “respect, if not total adoration, on the part of many American conservatives for Putin,” who offers an “iron-cast mold, free of the fluff and frills of American politicking.”
When Putin rammed through policies that repressed gay people in Russia, he was given lightly qualified praise from some right-wing pundits and conservative Christian groups. One of Trump’s 2016 opponents, Ben Carson, wrote last February that Putin had accused the U.S. and other Western countries of “becoming godless and moving away from Christian values,” adding: “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.”
So yes, Trump went way too far in his admiration of and excuse-making for Putin’s brutal and authoritarian leadership style. But he’s only the most extreme example of the all-too-common “Putin’s a bad guy, but at least he’s a leader” argument coming from the right.