Donald Trump’s most important purely political skill (that is, one not directly related to his abilities as an entertainer and performer) is his ability to intuit what the great angry mass of movement conservatives wish their gutless leaders would say, and then say it. Other Republicans dogwhistle. Trump dispenses with coded language and simply says: We should deport all the illegals. We should ban all Muslim immigration. And now, on Vladimir Putin: “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
Oddly, some in the political press (starting with the person to whom Donald Trump said that, Joe Scarborough) have interpreted this as some sort of weird, out-of-left-field “gaffe.” Surely everyone, especially in the GOP, agrees that Putin is bad, because he is a tyrant, and (even worse) he so frequently opposes American interests, right?
Apologies for the actually, but—actually: Admiration for Putin runs deep in the conservative grassroots, and has for much of Obama’s presidency. This is not a fresh observation! Here’s a sampling of pro-Putin comments one Washington Post writer got, after Matt Drudge linked to his story. “The best leader I have seen in my life time. A man’s man who makes his own decisions and loves his country and its citizens.” Here’s a Free Republic thread: “Why fight Putin? At least he’s standing up to the Islamic crazies, the global-warming nuts, and the depraved promoters of the homosexual agenda. Unlike the craven and sicko leaders here in the West, who embrace their own cultural suicide.”
These are, broadly, Trump’s “people.” They love Putin as a sort of anti-Obama, and for that crowd, a Putin “endorsement,” however glib, likely means more than one from any actual elected Republican. This direct and explicit Putin worship has generally been limited to what we misleadingly call the “fringe” (Pat Buchanan is a longtime fan) but the sentiment has bubbled up into the mainstream discourse before.
Not mainstream enough for you? Here was Rudy Giuliani just last year: “But he makes a decision, and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.”
That’s practically the exact same sentiment that Trump has been castigated for expressing. At least he’s tough! At least he leads!
That slightly veiled admiration for authoritarianism—if only weakling Obama, always seeking consensus, just made decisions and acted instead—isn’t even just limited to conservatives.
Pop quiz. Who said this?
“It’s almost as if Putin is brilliant, really. I mean, he’s sort of outfoxing Obama all the time. He’s very clear. And the reason that he wins in a way is that he’s the only one who knows what he thinks. He’s utterly clear. He’s clear, he wants to increase Russian power.”
And, you know, say what you like about Tina Brown, but at least she’s a thought leader.