Donald Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin's strength and "great control over his country." So naturally, conservative supporters like Hugh Hewitt, Dinesh D'Souza and many others felt compelled to praise the effectiveness of the Russian strongman, especially when compared to President Barack Obama.
First of all, remember that when Trump's con game is over, you'll still be one of the people who defended an authoritarian thug.
Then again, this growing Putin admiration among conservatives probably reflects two dynamics. The first, which we've seen on numerous fronts in this election, is the corrosive effect this Republican nominee has on the principles and long-held beliefs of conservatives in general.
Rationalizing your nominee's inconsistencies isn't unique. It's conventional behavior from partisans in every election, in every political party. What makes 2016 different is:
- Conservatives find themselves outside their comfort zone, sometimes taking positions that contradict 40 years of philosophical positioning.
- Trump's stances don't oscillate; they thrust in unknowable directions all the time, oftentimes more than once a day. Keeping up can make a partisan look more like a shady apparatchik.
The second, far more concerning aspect of this trend is that love for Putin likely reflects a genuine (once latent) shift among Republican voters. There's a lot of talk about how elites and the ruling class have led the nation to a candidate like Trump. It seems to me that in many ways, Trump's fans pine for their own muscular ruling class.
Well, if you're a fan of unaccountable plutocrats, you'll love Putin's Russia.
Some conservatives try to couch their appreciation for Putin's potency in relativistic terms. You know, "He does what's right for his country," he "fights for Russia's interest," etc. Who are we to judge, right? But why would any allegedly freedom-loving conservative allow a dictatorial ruler to define what "love of country" means anywhere? Wouldn't a conservative maintain that the fundamental interests of any people—to be freer and more prosperous, which in turn makes them safer and less bellicose—are universal?
It's also worth pointing out that Trump praised Putin's "control" of his country, not his foreign policy. That's something his defenders seem to ignore.
Trump is helping normalize the idea that we need a strong president who gets things done, regardless of how he goes about it, rather than one who navigates through the messy, slow-moving swamp of republican governance. He's not alone, of course. It's basically a coarser version of Obama's contention (no, I'm not saying Putin and Obama are the same) that he has a moral duty to circumvent the legislative process on issues he finds particularly important. Or Tom Friedman's notion (others share it) that China should be praised for its commitment on climate change, no matter how it gets that done. Like anyone else, there are Americans willing to embrace authoritian methods if it means forwarding their cause, especially in the case of a national emergency.
Russia has a lot of order but little freedom. No one has more "control" over his nation than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Crime rates are super low, I hear. Things get done. There's no political "obstructionism." No doubt, other tyrants love their people and country deeply, too. No one has ever pursued the geopolitical goals of Moscow with more vigor and "strength" than Joseph Stalin. Would we praise him as an effective leader or patriot?
Or should Obama invade Canada to show how much he cares about American interests? There are lots of expats up there, you know.
Now, if you don't believe Obama has pursued the right foreign policy (and I don't), it's not a violation of The Logan Act. That's why we have elections. But was Obama unable to conduct foreign policy because he lacked the strength? If so, then we should celebrate. Obama abuses power enough. I'd hate to see what he or any other president would do with even more control.
For example, Putin would never have to worry about asking the Senate to sign a self-destructive climate deal with China. Obama, despite all the fanfare, couldn't get it done. Would conservatives admire him more if he found a way to make the climate deal binding and projected power and effectiveness? One hopes not.
The oligarchs Putin has empowered to run Russia don't help their people. Despite its wealth of natural resources, the CIA puts Russia's growth domestic product per capita right under that of French Polynesia, and right above that of Aruba. The Russian state feeds perpetual conflict that only benefits the powerful—one of the hallmarks of fascism. We have to live with Russia, and we may even have to partner with Russia on occasion. But once we start praising human-rights-violating thugs, we risk becoming accessories to his power, and worse, adopting some ugly ideas.
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