Despite the fact that this past weekend featured a Democratic Party presidential debate, the news continues to be Donald Trump and the GOP race. One assumes the press was not interested in the debate simply because the three candidates are professional, intelligent, well-informed and serious. In other words they are not a circus act. Luckily we still have Trump to entertain them, and he's doing a bang up job.
For instance, when "Fox and Friends" ran a clip on Sunday of Clinton criticizing him in the debate the night before, Trump, on the phone, responded, "could you imagine that as president? I'm just watching and to see that as president just doesn't work." That got a big smile from one of the hosts, Tucker Carlson, who is know for a famous quip about Clinton which he repeated often in the last election:
"She scares me. I cross my legs every time she talks...every time, involuntarily. It is like those pictures you see of the soccer goalie when they're about to get the free kick. That's me when she talks. I can't help it."
But Trump's comment about Clinton was a throwaway line. What the Sabbath Gasbags were most interested in were his comments about Vladimir Putin. Trump has been saying for some time that he and Putin would get along great. Months ago he told Anderson Cooper, "I think the biggest thing we have is that we were on '60 Minutes' together and we had fantastic ratings. One of your best-rated shows in a long time. So that was good, right? So we were stable mates." They weren't actually on "60 Minutes" together, there were simply stories about each of them on the same program, but that's Trump. They made ratings together so that makes them blood brothers.
In fact, they've never met.
Nonetheless, on that and on numerous other occasions, Trump has said that he believed he and Putin would "probably work together much more so than right now." And last week, Putin returned the compliment. In an end of year press conference he called Trump “a very bright and talented man,” and an “absolute leader.”
Trump nearly swooned at the compliment saying, "it is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond." It didn't matter in the least that the media was gobsmacked, he was thrilled, telling Joe Scarborough "when people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.” He even went out of his way to defend him against the charges that Putin had been responsible for the deaths of opposition journalists, saying "our country does plenty of killing."
On ABC's "This Week" on Sunday he went to the mat for him:
"They are allegations. Yeah sure there are allegations. I’ve read those allegations over the years. But nobody’s proven that he’s killed anybody, as far as I’m concerned. He hasn’t killed reporters that’s been proven."
He said it would be terrible if true, but "this isn’t like somebody that stood with the gun and taken the blame or admitted that he’s killed. He’s always denied it. He’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody. You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country.”
This is the same man who calls for the summary execution of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in every stump speech, usually followed by a nostalgic comment about how we used to do such things "when we were strong." It's also the same man who routinely points to the press in the back of the hall at his rallies and calls reporters disgusting and "scum," sometimes even naming names.
The GOP establishment is clutching their pearls over all this under the assumption that saying you admire Vladimir Putin surely will be the ultimate put-away shot. After all, we just had a debate in which the candidates were variously vowing to "punch Russia in the nose" and to shoot Russian planes out of the sky. Perhaps the most bellicose was Chris Christie who has long criticized President Obama for being soft, saying a few months back, “I don’t believe, given who I am, that [Putin] would make the same judgment. Let’s leave it at that.” Evidently, "who he is" is so macho that Putin will roll himself into a ball and have a good old fashioned cry if Christie looks at him sideways.
Mitt Romney tweeted furiously about Trump's coziness with Putin and his former advisers were all up in arms throughout the week-end calling him a "seriously damaged individual." Trump responded by saying, "they're jealous as hell because he's not mentioning" them.
Trump doesn't care one whit about any of this carping. His reasoning is clear in this one comment:
“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”
Later he said, “I think that my words represent toughness and strength."
Trump understands the base of the GOP a lot better than Mitt Romney and the Sunday talking heads. These GOP base voters like Putin. Like so much else, Trump is just channeling an existing right wing phenomenon. Marin Cogan at National Journal wrote about the right wing Putin cult two years ago:
Putinphilia is not, of course, the predominant position of the conservative movement. But in certain corners of the Internet, adoration for the leader of America’s No. 1 frenemy is unexceptional. They are not his countrymen, Russian expats, or any of the other regional allies you might expect to find allied with the Russian leader. Some, like Young and his readers, are earnest outdoorsy types who like Putin’s Rough Rider sensibility. Others more cheekily admire Putin’s cult of masculinity and claim relative indifference to the political stances — the anti-Americanism, the support for leaders like Bashar al-Assad, the oppression of minorities, gays, journalists, dissidents, independent-minded oligarchs — that drive most Americans mad. A few even arrive at their Putin admiration through a strange brew of antipathy to everything they think President Obama stands for, a reflexive distrust of what the government and media tells them, and political beliefs that go unrepresented by either of the main American political parties...
[T]he Obama’s-so-bad-Putin-almost-looks-good sentiment can be found on plenty of conservative message boards. Earlier this year, when Putin supposedly caught — and kissed — a 46-pound pike fish, posters on Free Republic, a major grassroots message board for the Right, were overwhelmingly pro-Putin:
“I wonder what photoup [sic] of his vacation will the Usurper show us? Maybe clipping his fingernails I suppose or maybe hanging some curtains. Yep manly. I can’t believe I’m siding with Putin,” one wrote. “I have President envy,” another said. “Better than our metrosexual president,” said a third. One riffed that a Putin-Sarah Palin ticket would lead to a more moral United States.
Is it any wonder that Trump is saying he's "honored" that Putin thinks highly of him?
But the pearl clutching about all this Putin love from the other presidential candidates is seriously hypocritical. They may not be tapping into the macho Putin cult as directly as Trump, but they are very much on Putin's authoritarian wavelength. Just like Putin they are very upset at the idea gay people might have equal rights and they are prepared to use government power to discriminate against them:
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee vowed to push for the passage of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), legislation that would prohibit the federal government from stopping discrimination by people or businesses that believe “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” or that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
The pledge is supported by three conservative groups: the American Principles Project, Heritage Action for America, and Family Research Council Action.
Apparently, Bush, Graham, Paul and Trump, have also publicly expressed support for FADA. In the name of freedom, of course, just as the old Soviets would have done. These liberty lovers may shake their fists and pretend they are in opposition to Putin's tyrannical ways, but when you get down to it they're all on the same page.
And the rest of us should probably stop laughing and start paying attention according to a warning from someone who knows what she's talking about, Maria Alekhina, aka Masha of Pussy Riot:
"When Putin came to his first term or second term, nobody [in Russia] actually thought that this is serious. Everybody was joking about it. And nobody could imagine that after five, six years, we would have a war in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and these problems in Syria," in which Russia has become involved.
"Everybody [is] joking about Donald Trump now, but it's a very short way from joke to sad reality when you have a really crazy president speaking about breaking every moral and logic norm. So I hope that he will not be president. That's very simple."
Strongman cults of the likes of Putin and Trump are often dismissed as silly and unserious at first. And then, all at once, it's too late.