The Right's Putin Derangement Syndrome

Four years ago, Mitt Romney denounced Russia as America’s top geopolitical foe. Today, Donald Trump sees Putin’s lawlessness and brutality as a feature, not a bug.

Thierry Roge / Reuters

Donald Trump just can’t quit Vladimir Putin. For a 24-hour stretch starting Wednesday night, the Republican nominee returned to his praise for the oppressive Russian strongman, throwing his campaign off balance and throwing the Republican Party into disarray.

If there are lessons to be drawn from the stint, there are two: First, Trump can only ever stay on message for so long; and second, his admiration for Putin is not just a strange affectation, way of trolling the left, or product of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s influence. It’s a genuine affinity.

A certain amount of credit has to go to Matt Lauer, in the midst of his much-maligned moderation work at the Commander in Chief Forum on Wednesday. Lauer asked Trump about his past comments about  Putin, and Trump happily delivered a strong dose of additional praise. To wit:

  • On Putin: “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here.” (Trump’s faith in polls to determine rightness remains unshaken.)
  • Asked by Lauer, “Do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?” Trump relied, “Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?”
  • Trump also said of Russia, “Now, 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.”

These comments are roughly in line with what Trump has said about Putin in the past. But it was just a start.

On Thursday, vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, who has sometimes played the role of cleaning up when Trump went too far, opted instead to agree.

“I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country. And that's going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president,” Pence told CNN.

A few hours later, Trump conducted an interview with Larry King, the aging broadcaster whose show is now carried on RT, the Kremlin-controlled news and propaganda station. King asked him about suggestions that Russia was behind hacks of Democratic officials’ emails, and Trump demurred. “It’s probably unlikely,” he said. “Maybe the Democrats are putting that out, who knows?” Trump didn’t offer support for his contention; U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe Russia was behind the digital break-in.

Trump also blasted the American press. King started the interview by asking what had surprised him the most about the campaign. “I think the dishonesty of the media,” Trump said. “The media has been unbelievably dishonest.”

It was a bizarre scene: Trump was attacking the U.S. media while sitting for an interview with a media outlet of a regime that has not only clamped down on journalists but also in some cases is widely believed to have had them killed.

It is difficult if not impossible to recall an instance where a leading American politician blasted U.S. leaders while speaking to a foreign propaganda outlet. One can only imagine the reaction if, say, Barack Obama had done something like this during the 2008 election—or even if Hillary Clinton had done so. (Eyebrows were raised at her recent statement on Israeli TV that ISIS was praying, “Please, Allah, make Trump president of America.”)

Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli reports that Trump’s campaign claimed it believed the interview would be on King’s podcast, not on RT. If so, that’s a sign of extremely shoddy advance work by the Trump campaign, but given Trump’s eagerness to praise Putin, the excuse is tough to credit.

It’s surprising that the Trump campaign bothered to put up any defense at all, as he has otherwise been open about his admiration. The presidential campaign has produced an efflorescence of affection for Putin among Republicans and conservatives, those who would in normal times have denounced Putin as an oppressive dictator; a bloodthirsty enemy of liberty; and a geopolitical menace whose expansionism threatened the Pax Americana.

One might diagnose it as Putin Derangement Syndrome—the product of Republican hatred for Obama and their distant view of a faraway strongman who represents his opposite, for good or ill. The party of “My Country, Right or Wrong” has been overtaken by cheerleaders for a brutal leader in Moscow.

There have always been elements of the right who were willing to overlook the flaws of strongmen who espoused some of the right causes. See, for example, William F. Buckley’s admiration for Francisco Franco—or for that matter, more recent National Review writers like Jay Nordlinger, who, reviewing a biography of El Caudillo last year, wrote, “He was a dictator, and that should settle the matter, as we are good liberal democrats. But does it? There are dictators and there are dictators, and mature people acknowledge degrees.”

But Putin, as an avatar of reborn Sovietism, fell in a different category. Just four years ago, Mitt Romney was warning that Russia was “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” and saying, “Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.” The statement was roundly mocked by progressives at the time, and while the “no. 1” designation may still be up for debate, Romney’s statement at the very least looks a great deal more prescient than he was given credit for. In the wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the DNC hacks, and Russian intervention in Syria, many of the liberals who mocked Romney are now saying much the same thing.

Clinton was perhaps cynical in invoking the most famous of Republican Cold Warriors on Thursday, saying, “What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks American’s generals and heaps praise on Russia’s president?” but it does seem likely the Gipper would be taken aback.

Some Republicans continue to view Putin dimly. Many conservatives, including my colleague David Frum, were quick to condemn Trump’s and Pence’s comments about Putin. Responding to Trump’s comments on Thursday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that “Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests” and “is acting like an adversary.” But Ryan continues to back Trump for president, and bristled at reporter’s questions about the nominee.

Other Trump backers tried to write his comments off as simple negotiating—buttering up a potential counterpart. But Trump’s long roster of praise suggests something more than mere posturing. He’s taken up the banner carried by some conservatives who have objected to Barack Obama’s approach of foreign policy retrenchment. (The extent of that retrenchment, of course, is debatable: Obama has also deployed American troops across the globe and begun wars in Libya and Yemen.) One of those conservatives is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has become one of Trump’s closest advisers and top surrogates.

While some of Obama’s critics see him as lawlessly defying the Constitution, this camp sees him as insufficiently willing to act, authorized or not. In 2014, for example, Giuliani unfavorably compared Obama with his Russian counterpart. “Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day, right? He decided he had to go to their parliament. He went to their parliament. He got permission in 15 minutes,” he said. When Neil Cavuto (of all people!) pointed out that was because of the perfunctory approval of a rubber-stamp Duma, Giuliani replied, “But he makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama, he’s got to think about it. He’s got to go over it again. He’s got to talk to more people about it.”

Another convert to the argument is Hugh Hewitt, the conservative intellectual and talk-show host who drew some of the first serious blood from Trump during the GOP primary, revealing he didn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force, nor what the Nuclear Triad was. But Hewitt has since come around on Trump, and his defense of Trump’s praise for Putin is instructive.

Like Trump, Hewitt begins with a caveat insisting he doesn’t like certain things about Putin, then blows right past it with praise for Putin’s supposed efficacy.

Whether or not Putin is truly effective is a different matter. Like Hewitt, one could discount certain elements of Putin’s human rights record. Even then, it's hard to make the case: Putin oversees a shattered Russian economy, a cratered ruble, bare shelves, a potentially overextended military, strangling sanctions, and widespread corruption. This is a peculiar definition of the “national interest” by any standard, and that’s still leaving out the cyber-espionage, the brutal repression in Chechnya, the likely assassinations of political opponents, and the annexation of Crimea.

But these comments from Trump, Giuliani, and Hewitt make clear that Putin’s refusal to be bound by either law or propriety is not an unsavory side effect of his strong leadership—they are a feature. (The last 24 hours is, among other things, a useful revelation about what Hugh Hewitt views as effective governance.) The willingness to override or work around constitutional boundaries, or the checks and balances imposed in a democratic system, is the hallmark of a leader; rule of law is a sign of weakness. The press is dishonest and despicable; therefore, Putin’s willingness to shut down the independent press and assassinate pesky reporters is in fact virtuous. Power politics, even at the expense of ruining the national treasury, is a game to be played grandly. (The U.S. tried that in Iraq, with disheartening results.)

This should also give voters some sense of how Trump might govern—his attitude toward check and balances, the free press, and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally. He has already made his view of the press well-known, and blacklisted publications he doesn’t like from covering rallies. (That embargo is apparently now being lifted.) In a Trump administration, it’s likely that the GOP would hold both houses of Congress.

But would a Republican Congress be willing and able to stand up to President Trump acting extralegally? The muted reaction to his Putinphilia over the last months suggest they wouldn’t––and neither would much of the conservative media.