A friend of mine recently asked why I’m so hung up on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the adulation he’s received from Republicans in the U.S. I think it comes down to two things.
The first is that GOP gushing over the Russian autocrat has always struck me as a historical oddity: I simply can’t think of a comparable moment in modern American history in which the United States butted heads with a major foreign rival, and prominent figures from an American political party started publicly praising the other country’s leader. It served as a reminder that Republican contempt for President Obama has reached levels that defy simple, patriotic norms.
The second, however, is more basic: a variety of conservative Americans not only expressed their admiration for Putin, they also saw him as a strategic mastermind, guiding Russia towards power and greatness, and demonstrating the kind of leadership needed in the United States.
And so, as we watch conditions in Russia deteriorate to alarming lows, I continue to believe it’s incumbent on Republicans to offer an explanation for how spectacularly wrong they were.
A funny thing happened on the way to Vladimir Putin running strategic laps around the West. Russia’s economy imploded.The latest news is that Russia’s central bank raised interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent at an emergency 1 a.m. meeting in an attempt to stop the ruble, which is down 50 percent on the year against the dollar, from falling any further. It’s a desperate move to save Russia’s currency that comes at the cost of sacrificing Russia’s economy. So even if it “works,” things are about to get a lot worse.
In a not-so-subtle shot at Putin’s American fans, Matt O’Brien’s terrific report concluded, “Putin might be playing chess while we play checkers, but only if we lend him the money for the set.”
Russia suddenly has nothing but awful options. Falling oil prices has crushed Russian currency, which leads to brutal inflation. In response, Russia’s central bank – in a panicked, middle-of-the-night move – created much higher interest rates, which will crush Russian economic growth.
All the while, Putin’s military misadventures have isolated the country economically and diplomatically, leaving Russia with sanctions that make matters even worse.
All of which brings us back to the fact that much of America’s right was absolutely convinced of Putin’s genius.
In December 2013, failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hailed the Russian autocrat, telling NBC News, “I think Putin has outperformed our president time and time again on the world stage.”
In February 2014, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson wrote about how impressed he is with Russia’s direction under Putin’s leadership. “Russians seem to be gaining prestige and influence throughout the world as we are losing ours,” Carson said.
In March 2014, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) gushed on national television, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close. They’ve been running circles around us.”
Also in March 2014, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) said of Putin, “That’s what you call a leader.”
The same month, former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) added, “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 August 2014, Fox News’ Kimberly Guilfoyle said she wanted Putin to temporarily serve as “head of the United States” so the campaign against ISIS would be “done right.”
So many Republicans have spent the last year fawning over the Russian president largely because Putin satisfies their shallow understanding of leadership – he seems tough. Putin wants to come across as strong and intimidating, and it’s this persona that the right apparently finds so compelling.
What conservatives tend to miss is the fact that the Russian president’s confidence masks incompetence. Republicans may gush over an autocrat who walks with a tough-guy strut, but there’s a difference between those who act tough and those who are tough.
Every move Putin has made this year has produced disastrous results for his country. So what do his American admirers have to say for themselves?