Donald Trump
Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr

In a candid moment, John McCain would admit that he screwed up when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. He’d allow that he and his team did a piss-poor job of vetting her on every level, from her personal life to her performance as the governor of Alaska to her skills as a politician to her base of knowledge and preparedness to be the commander in chief. Even their assessment of her basic character was off by half the circumference of the globe.

But, because people actually care about stuff, millions of Americans who wanted the Republicans to win the 2008 presidential election suddenly had to start making excuses for Sarah Palin’s shortcomings. So, family values went out the window, as did critiques of abuse of power, and the idea that a president should read a newspaper from time to time or know anything about the world outside of the United States.

I don’t really share a whole lot of values in common with conservative Republicans but many of these were values we had largely shared. Really, almost all Americans shared these values.

But the perceived need to protect McCain and prevent an Obama presidency changed that. And the next step, which was a short one, was the Tea Partification of the Republican Party. The damage, in other words, was immediate and lasting.

Now, I’ve been reading conservatives’ criticisms of Mao Tse-tung for decades. In their telling, which is exaggerated but not far from the truth, Mao is the greatest butcher of the 20th Century. In the following Tweet, Hugh Hewitt is willing to allow that perhaps Hitler and Stalin had higher body counts.

Now, how is it possible to argue that a man murdered more people in the latter half of the 20th Century than anyone else but that that person was “an effective leader”?

First we have to ask “effective for whom?” because he certainly wasn’t effective for the millions of people who died as a result of his policies.

Second, why is Hewitt even making this comment? What purpose does he have?

And it turns out that he’s trying to rationalize Donald Trump saying that Vladimir Putin is a strong and effective leader by arguing that Mao was also a strong and effective leader. So, in other words, Trump isn’t wrong about Putin. It may be true that some leaders are monsters but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good for their people and their nation.

Now, is it me, or does is seem impossible to make this argument and then complain about the president issuing a signing statement or an executive order? How can you say that a mass murdering despot is an effective leader and then turn around and say that failing to adequately submit to congressional oversight is evidence of obscene tyranny?

Of course, this is all nonsense. What’s actually happening is that Trump is the new Palin. And if he says warm things about Putin then naturally the next step is start praising dictators and strongmen rather than sticking to that small, local government schtick.

Why does Hewitt do this?

Because he cares about other things more.

On a smaller scale, the same thing happens on the left where excuses are made for Clinton and Obama that would not have been made for Bush. It’s human nature to make excuses if you think you’re doing it for the greater good. And that’s usually a pretty rational thing in a situation where you have a binary choice and a clear preference.

But it’s getting extreme when you start arguing that a homophobic crime boss like Putin who murders his critics at home and abroad is a better leader than our president because he’s “stronger.” And when you justify that by saying that Mao was also a really effective guy, unlike our president, even though he deserves a wing in the mass murder hall of fame?

What’s going on here is a clear demonstration of the importance of moral leadership, because without it you can see how fast a party can jettison all the decent things it stands for in the blink of an eye. And you can see from both Palin and Trump how fast this can corrupt the morals of a party and a people.

People constantly underestimate the value of the Obama family’s example of basic decency. Because the left is not immune to these pitfalls, and there’s a real cost (even when it’s justified) when a party has to rally around a morally compromised champion. See the results of the 2000 election for the Democrats’ most recent experience with paying the price for that. (And, yes, I’m referring to Bill here.)

I give the Republican Party credit for taking a good hard look at all the issues raised during Watergate and deciding that it simply wasn’t tenable to defend their president. That upheld (kind of established, really) a standard worth having. That showed an ability to put country before self-interest.

In retrospect, we can see how rare and special that was.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at