The fetish for Putin on the right is well-known. Trump has heaped praise on him throughout the campaign, most recently putting on his cultural relativist cap to tell Matt Lauer, “The man has very strong control over a country. 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.”
Over the years, Putin has been praised by Rudy Giuliani, Pat Buchanan, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh. On Friday morning, right-wing radio host Hugh “The Smart One” Hewitt bought into Trump’s argument:
Later, Hewitt clarified his position a bit.
My sense is that Trump thinks that Putin is a strong leader simply because he has good poll numbers, though obviously the authoritarian flourishes are attractive as well. Hewitt, however, is a smart guy trying to make a dispassionate, almost academic argument about effective leadership: Mao was a monster, but he got shit done!
The problem with the argument that Putin is operating from a position of strength, however, is that it’s wrong. Seen properly, the invasion of Crimea wasn’t evidence of Putin’s swashbuckling vigor—it was a desperate land grab to prevent yet another country formerly in Russia’s sphere of influence from gravitating toward the West. Putin’s popular support, while real, is precariously built on an oil-and-gas economy that is in shambles. The government remains one of the most corrupt in the world, presides over several simmering insurgencies, and in recent years has been rocked by huge democratic protests. That Putin’s regime has also taken to assassinating political opponents and journalists is only further evidence of the profound insecurity and weakness of Putin’s standing.
Maybe I’m grading on a curve, but if we’re talking about “strength” and “leadership” and “effectiveness” and “national interest,” I’ll probably stick with Obama.