Donald Trump’s effusive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin has puzzled political observers for many reasons, not least because it’s a sharp break from Republican Party orthodoxy and an unpopular position among the general American electorate. “His embrace of Mr. Putin ... fits no obvious political strategy,” New York Times reporter John Harwood wrote on Tuesday. “So when Mr. Trump praises Mr. Putin, as he did last week, for his ‘very strong control over a country,’ Republican political and policy experts explain it in purely personal terms: Mr. Trump admires the Russian leader’s ruthless use of power, even if it conflicts with American democratic principles.”
That analysis might be reassuring to Republicans, but it flies in the face of facts. Trump’s admiration for Putin as a “strong” leader is far from just an idiosyncratic quirk; it’s increasingly common on the right. While House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator Lindsey Graham, and other members of the GOP establishment continue to denounce Putin, others have sided with Trump: His running mate, Governor Mike Pence, and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt have both said Putin is a “stronger leader” than President Barack Obama.
More significantly, this once-toxic view has taken hold among the Republican base. The praise for Putin is a symptom of a deeper ideological sickness, one that is causing many to turn longingly to the idea of autocratic rule. And it’s not the first time that conservatism has been suffered from this particular illness.
Just two years ago, Republicans had a very unfavorable view of Putin. But as polls conducted by YouGov in 2014 and 2016 show, there has been a remarkable shift, with Putin’s net favorability shrinking radically from -66 to -27. As Andrew Prokop noted on Vox, the details of the two polls are striking:
The number of Republicans who viewed Putin “very unfavorably” shrank from 51 percent in 2014 to just 22 percent in 2016.
The number who view Putin favorably rose from 10 percent to 24 percent.
And the number who say they don’t know what to think about him rose from 15 percent to 26 percent
Much of this shift is due to Trump’s popularity within the party, but it is not the only cause. On July 28, 2015, when Trump’s candidacy was only six weeks old and his praise of Putin hadn’t been widely discussed, the website Right Wing Watch documented the fact that Putin was being widely praised by leading right-wing Christians:
Evangelist Franklin Graham hailed Putin as a hero for taking “a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” even as “America’s own morality has fallen so far on this issue”; Bryan Fischer called Putin a “lion of Christianity” and called upon U.S. lawmakers to adopt similar speech prohibitions; Matt Barber marveled that Putin was able to “out-Christian our once-Christian nation”; Sam Rohrer called Putin “the moral leader of the world”; Scott Lively lavished praise on Putin for “championing traditional marriage and Christian values”; and Rush Limbaugh applauded Putin for stopping “a full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy.”
Similarly, for decades after WWII, the right celebrated dictators like Spain’s Francisco Franco for providing firm leadership to disordered societies. Mid-twentieth-century conservatism was deeply skeptical of democracy, especially in the wake of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four presidential election victories and the fact that successful Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower refused to roll back the welfare state because it was too popular. Beyond these electoral concerns, there was a strong sense that democracies were too weak and decadent to stand up to the communist threat.
This lead many on the right to sing the praises of strongmen. “General Franco is an authentic national hero,” William F. Buckley declared in 1957. When the Spanish dictator died in 1975, James Burnham, Buckley’s colleague in National Review, wrote, “Francisco Franco was our century’s most successful ruler.” For Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, Franco’s Spain embodied an authentic Catholic culture that could more strongly resist the degradations of liberalism and communism than America.
In his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism, Buckley lamented that “the commitment by the Liberals to democracy has proved obsessive, even fetishistic.” To counter the idea that democracy is a positive good, Buckley cited parts of the world where the cause of civilization would be advanced by denying the franchise: the American South (where Buckley supported Jim Crow), Latin America, and Africa. As National Review editor Richard Brookhiser wrote in his memoir, Right Time, Right Place, “one of the easiest ways to raise a laugh in our editorial section was to refer to democracy in Africa or South America.”
The conservative attitude towards democracy underwent a radical change during the Ronald Reagan administration thanks to an influx of neoconservatives—former liberals who had moved to the right. The neoconservatives thought that the best way to fight communism was for America to explicitly take up the cause of democracy promotion. “Conservatives had got into the habit during the 1980s of positing democracy (and not, for example, free enterprise) as the ideological alternative to communism,” David Frum wrote in his 1994 book, Dead Right. “Many of them called for a foreign policy explicitly dedicated not merely to resisting communism but to spreading democracy—not only to Central and Eastern Europe, but to backward lands where nothing like it ever existed.” Frum himself became a convert to the cause of bringing democracy to “backward lands” when he championed the Iraq War as part of a larger quest to bring democracy to the Middle East.
Now the American right has gone full circle, and once again has a soft spot for an autocrat who promotes nationalism and heteronormativity. It wasn’t just the failure of Iraq that soured conservatives on their brief love of democracy. The rise of Barack Obama and the political success of liberal social causes, especially LGBTQ rights, has demoralized many on the right, who are now looking to foreign lands and autocratic leaders to stem the tide of moral degradation. In effect, Putin is the new Franco.
Granted, this remains a minority cause among conservatives, even with Trump at the helm of the Republican Party. But it is undeniably on the rise, and likely to endure even if Trump loses in November. And if he wins? The Democratic Party will have to resurrect democracy promotion—as its top domestic priority.