Donald Trump has long shown admiration and respect for Vladimir Putin, saying that the authoritarian Russian president is “doing a great job” in “rebuilding Russia,” and “I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin.” After Putin called Trump a “talented person” last year, he returned the favor: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
So it came as no surprise when he praised Putin during NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on Wednesday night. “The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump told Matt Lauer. “It’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Trump also said Putin had an “82 percent approval rating.” (This was roughly true when he started using this line last year, but slightly less true lately.) Americans, though, feel less affection for the Russian strongman. A Bloomberg poll conducted last month found that 69 percent of respondents were bothered by Trump’s praise of Putin, the seventh-highest concern about the Republican nominee.
Why, then, does Trump continue to show affection for Putin? Some journalists have tried to explain it in crass economic terms, by pointing to evidence that Trump has borrowed money from Russian oligarchs and that former campaign manager Paul Manafort was handsomely compensated by Putin allies in the Ukraine. This explanation is certainly suggestive, but even if Trump and his cohort didn’t receive one red ruble from Russia, they would still be attracted to Putin.
Trump draws his ideological energies from the alt-right and the older paleoconservative movement, both of which find plenty to admire in the Russian leader. Pat Buchanan, whose presidential campaigns prefigured Trump’s, perfectly expressed nationalist Americans’ affinity for Putin in a 2013 column, “Is Putin One of Us?”
Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?
In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?...
President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire “the focus of evil in the modern world.” President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.
Nor is he without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values....
While much of American and Western media dismiss him as an authoritarian and reactionary, a throwback, Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught up in a Cold War paradigm.
As the decisive struggle in the second half of the 20th century was vertical, East vs. West, the 21st century struggle may be horizontal, with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.
While Buchanan’s panegyric calls attention to a shared social conservatism, there are other reasons for Trump’s admiration. Putin’s foreign policy is based on a forthright assertion of national interest even in defiance of international norms. As such, Putin is much closer than Obama to the type of foreign policy Trump has outlined. Further, Putin is an autocrat who can “get things done” without worrying about approval from Congress or rejection from a Supreme Court. As Trump sees it, Putin has Made Russia Great Again. And given how Trump talks about achieving his own political goals—everyone will do what I say, trust me—it’s clear that Putin is his model of leadership.
At least part of Trump’s base shares his rosy assessment of Putin. According to a YouGov Poll conducted in late July, 26 percent of Trump supporters have a favorable view of the Russian leader—compared to just 8 percent for Obama. Still, even among Trump supporters, Putin is generally unpopular: 59 percent have an unfavorable view of him (compared to 92 percent for Obama).
What’s true of Trump’s supporters is more generally true of the Republican Party. Four years ago, Mitt Romney made opposition to Russian expansionism a major campaign theme. The GOP foreign policy elite is broadly anti-Russian, which explains why so many major neocons are supporting Hillary Clinton. In the wake of Trump’s comments on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan felt it necessary to say, “Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who continues to endorse Trump for president, held out hope that in the remaining 60 days of the election, his party’s standard-bearer could develop a more realistic view of Russia. As Rubio told the Guardian, “My sense is those views will probably change once he understands better who Vladimir Putin truly is—that’s my hope.” Conversely, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, gamely stood by the Republican nominee, saying, “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.”
Trump’s puffing of Putin might please his most hardcore right-wing fans. But it’s also given ammunition to Clinton, who can use the topic to ramp up already existing tensions between mainstream conservatives and Trump. His Russian romance is the perfect wedge issue to force wavering Republicans to realize that even a Democratic president would be better than having Putin’s best friend in America in the White House.