Trump is Not the First Republican to Praise Putin

This statement by Donald Trump about Vladimir Putin at the NBC forum is getting a lot of attention:

“The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump said. “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.”

Of course, that’s not the first time the Republican presidential nominee praised Putin. He’s been doing it throughout this campaign.

But that doesn’t make Trump unique among Republicans. Here’s something David Horsey wrote back in March 2014:

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, said Putin is playing chess while Obama is playing marbles.

Other conservatives have taken this critique a step or two further. On Fox News, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that Putin has shown what leadership is by acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests in Crimea. Also on Fox, right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin suggested that the Russian president is far manlier than the U.S. president.

“Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin said. “Look it, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

In recent days, Rush Limbaugh has surprised himself (so he says) by finding admirable qualities in Putin that Obama lacks. He joins the ranks of numerous social conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, who were already Putin fans due to his support for the Russian Orthodox Church and his opposition to gay rights.

It’s fascinating to look back and see how Horsey ends this piece.

Oh, how happy they would be if they could find their own Vladimir Putin to run for president in 2016.

I guess they found him, didn’t they?

While those views aren’t embraced universally throughout the GOP today, they have a long history among neoconservatives. Jonathan Chait wrote about that a while ago.

Three decades ago, right-wing French intellectual Jean-François Revel published a call to arms entitled How Democracies Perish, which quickly became a key text of the neoconservative movement and an ideological blueprint for the Reagan administration. Revel argued that the Soviet Union’s brutality and immunity from internal criticism gave it an inherent advantage over the democratic West — the United States and Europe were too liberal, too open, too humane, too soft to defeat the resolute men of the Iron Curtain.

“Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt,” wrote Revel, “Soviet leaders’ consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.” Even though Revel’s prediction that the Soviet Union would outlast the West was falsified within a few years, conservatives continue to tout its wisdom. And even as Revel’s name has faded further into the backdrop, recent events have revealed the continuing influence of his ideas.

Even while some Republicans denounce Putin today, they often do so out of a sense of competition rather than any real denunciation of his approach to power. Those are the roots of what Donald Trump is tapping into right now. It is what President Obama has often referred to as the use of 19th/20th Century tactics in a 21st Century world. Or what I have written about the difference between the power of dominance and the power of partnership.

It shouldn’t surprise us at all that the authoritarians who view power only in terms of dominance would hold a certain amount of respect for their brethren who share that perspective. But the world is transitioning out of that mindset, as President Obama said during his speech in Brussels two years ago.

Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle — through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution — that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding…

But those ideals have also been tested — here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign…

…that’s the question we all must answer — what kind of Europe, what kind of America, what kind of world will we leave behind. And I believe that if we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then hope will ultimately overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny — because that is what forever stirs in the human heart.

When I hear Donald Trump and other Republicans praising authoritarian leaders like Putin, I hear those ideals being tested once again…right here in the United States of America.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.