The name murmured reverently on stage most often by Republicans in public forums rolls off the tongue like an alliterative prayer. Ronald Reagan is the only lodestar. May his success trickle down to us all. But in 2016, a time when most presidential campaign precedents have been left on the curb, Reagan’s name has gone nearly extinct. The current GOP nominee prefers to cite someone else as a leader worth emulating: Vladimir Putin.
When asked to explain his admiration for the Russian president (an authoritarian who, like Donald Trump, enjoys spreading falsehoods) during Wednesday night’s foreign policy forum, Trump said, “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating.” Of course Trump, whose ego is a Prius fueled by notions of his own popularity, would consider this data point the most crucial one to consider when evaluating the worth of a leader. Trump spent most of his 30-minute interview with Matt Lauer getting away with lying about his positions on the Iraq War, noting that he didn’t have much time to do policy prep since he was busy making money, and saying that rape is inevitable if women and men serve in the military together. In the middle of all that, he had time to talk about Putin, noting that he is a better leader than President Obama, and “when he calls me brilliant, I think I’ll take the compliment, OK?”
Stop what you're doing and read this entire exchange between Lauer and Trump on Putin: pic.twitter.com/W8yewpw4xh— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 8, 2016
Just hours earlier, Defense Secretary Ash Carter painted a vastly different picture of Putin. “Despite the progress that we made together in the aftermath of the Cold War,” he said in a speech at Oxford University, “Russia’s actions in recent years — with its violations of Ukrainian and Georgian territorial integrity, its unprofessional behavior in the air, in space, and in cyberspace, as well as its nuclear saber rattling — all have demonstrated that Russia has clear ambition to erode the principled international order.” He added that the country “lashes out, alleging that it fears for its own viability and future.”
Wednesday didn’t mark the first time Trump has said kind things about Putin; look back at the past year, and his comments on the Russian dictator read like a treacly pile of greeting card rejects. He’s also bragged that he “got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes” (they filmed their interviews in different locations), and has scouted for business opportunities in Moscow. One theory about why he won’t release his tax returns is that it may reveal his financial ties to Russia; his second campaign manager resigned after multiple investigations into his work in Ukraine.
Much of Trump’s infatuation seems to stem from the fact that Putin — unlike most politicians here in America — thinks Trump would make a wonderful president. “It is always a great honor,” Trump said, “to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” It isn’t clear whether Trump realizes that his presidency would serve Russia’s interests, or whether he is simply determined to admire all public servants who are so nakedly self-interested. Trump once invited Putin to a Miss Universe pageant; Putin didn’t go, but did send a lovely box.
Putin's letter is a masterpiece for Russia and a disaster for the U.S. He is lecturing to our President.Never has our Country looked to weak— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2013
Trump’s praise of Putin is almost always accompanied by an equal and opposite complaint about the United States. When Joe Scarborough rattled off a laundry lists of Putin’s worst actions — like killing journalists and other people he disagreed with — Trump responded, “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing. A lot of stupidity.” During another interview, Trump added that “Nobody has proven that [Putin]’s killed anyone.” And, anyway, Putin called him smart, and it’s “always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
Since it seems unlikely that Trump will stop praising authoritarians (his thoughts on Saddam Hussein: “He was a bad guy — really bad guy. But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.”) or saying that he thinks they are far better at running countries than America’s current executive — and since few people call him out for these remarks when he makes them in high-profile settings — it seems worthwhile to remind ourselves of who Putin is, and how other American politicians have differed in their character analysis of him. Mitt Romney called him “a real threat to the stability and peace of the world” in 2011, and Hillary Clinton said in 2008 that Putin “doesn’t have a soul.” Whenever President Obama has to be in the same room with his Russian counterpart, it looks like he wishes he had laser eyes.
Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) December 18, 2015
Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times published the headline, “More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead.” Russia ranks 180th out of 199 countries when it comes to press freedom. That ranking has gotten significantly worse since Putin took office in 2000. One expert told the Washington Post last December that there "is indeed no proof Putin has journalists killed. But he presides over a regime in which journalists are beaten, harassed and murdered, often with impunity.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine led to economic sanctions that helped cripple the economy; the country has been in a recession for 18 months. This week, the only polling center in Russia — the same one that said Putin had an 82 percent approval rating — was named a “foreign agent” after it showed that Putin’s party wasn’t doing so hot in the polls for the upcoming parliamentary election.
Like Trump, Putin enjoys seeing how malleable reality and fact can be. The Hollywood Reporter published a story last year that said reality TV producer Mark Burnett was dreaming of a show starring the Russian president. Putin choreographs publicity stunts that prove that he does nothing but win, like the time he scored seven goals in a birthday ice hockey match. In these stunts — the bare-chested horse riding, the hugging of the polar bears — “Putin is pantomiming a brave, beneficent tsar, patriotic and incorruptible, rather than merely presenting himself as one,” the Economist wrote in 2015, back before America had its own candidate pretending that he was the only one to solve our problems. “These images represent another source of power, too: the coercive power of lies. … Those ice-hockey goals fit into this strategy of weaponised chutzpah: Vladimir Vladimirovich may not really have the athletic prowess to boss an ice-hockey rink, but, behold, he certainly has the power to make everyone pretend that he does.”
No wonder Trump thinks the guy is a role model. In Wednesday night’s forum, he made perfectly clear, for the hundredth time, that he has no idea what he’s talking about, that he has no plans to learn what he’s supposed to talk about, that he can string together lies without being challenged, and that secret, nonexistent plans to Make America Great Again are enough to make people believe that you really could fix all the problems. Of course, that only works as long as no one presses you for more details — which becomes easier if you blacklist the reporters working hardest to fill in the details that never see the light of day when all your public utterances serve as a recycling program for 100 superlatives.
Wow, reviews are in - THANK YOU!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 8, 2016
In 2007, the New York Times called Putin “a master at bluster and hyperbole.” Nearly two decades earlier, The Art of the Deal declared that Trump “play[s] to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” John McCain once said that Putin and Trump are a “match made in heaven.” Trump seems to agree.