The bromance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is the key to understanding the kind of leader Trump wants to be for America.
Throughout his run for the presidency, Trump has had nice things to say about the Russian strongman, precisely because he views Putin as a strong man — not only tough, commanding and ruthless, but a guy with very high popularity numbers.
Putin has characterized Trump as "brilliant" (using a Russian word, by the way, that really means flashy or flamboyant, not super smart). Trump took that as an accolade and said, "It's always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond."
During an NBC candidates' forum last week, host Matt Lauer questioned Trump about his open admiration for Putin. In response, Trump said, "Well, he does have an 82% approval rating…"
Lauer noted that Putin's regime has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supported the brutal dictator Bashar Assad in Syria and engaged in other kinds of troublemaking around the world. Lauer could have added that Putin has crushed dissent in his own country by jailing opponents, silencing and sometimes killing journalists, stifling honest pollsters and creating a vast propaganda machine that has pumped up his image as a strong leader. None of that seems to faze Trump.
"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump told Lauer. "I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' — the man has very strong control over a country. 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."
Obviously, Trump praises Putin, in part, to demean President Obama and, by extension, Hillary Clinton. Pressed on his kind remarks about an autocrat who has done so many deplorable things, Trump said, "But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?"
Well, let us consider a few of the things Obama has done. Obama oversaw the successful pursuit and elimination of Osama bin Laden. He rescued the country from a looming economic disaster in his first months in office, and, though growth has been slow, put the economy on a positive course. He signed into law a healthcare scheme that has made medical care available to millions of people who did not have it before. He brokered an agreement with Iran that has put that country's nuclear program on hold with strict monitoring. And he helped get most of the countries in the world to join together on a bold plan to limit the effects of climate change.
Now, conservatives have harsh critiques of almost all those achievements, but Putin's record does not compare favorably. While busy threatening his neighbors, brainwashing his own people and running a kleptocracy, Putin has let the Russian economy sink like a rock. What Trump loves about Putin cannot be his actual accomplishments, rather it is his tough guy image, it is his popularity with crowds of revved up nationalists, it is his bullying and sensitivity to the least slight. In other words, Trump admires Putin for all the qualities Trump values most highly himself.
President George W. Bush once claimed to have looked into Putin's eyes and seen his soul. Trump looks at Putin and sees himself.