Liberals, along with a fair number of Republicans, think that Donald Trump damns himself every time he praises President Putin of Russia. We've had another round of damning Trump since he talked about Putin at a televised forum on military issues last night. What did he say specifically? It's worth noting that Trump noted that Russia has "a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system." It would be interesting to learn what Trump doesn't like about the Russian system, and it'd be in his interest to elaborate, though he wasn't pressed to do so this time, since he might calm critics who fear that he sees Putin as a model for governing the United States. Trump went on to say that "in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader." His next sentence was "We have a divided country," the twofold implication being that Russia under Putin's leadership is a less divided country, and that divisions in America reflect Obama's lack of leadership. A moment earlier, Trump seemed to mock liberal criticism of Putin by saying, "I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country." The problem with that statement is that many Americans do think it a terrible thing for a man to have "very strong control over a country" if that means using the means often attributed to Putin, i.e. the intimidation or persecution of dissidents. How terrible it sounds depends on what you're hearing. Many Americans hear that a "man has very strong control" and their dictator-alert goes off; from that perspective the problem is the man who is suspected of using that "very strong control" for his own selfish ends. By comparison, Trump is arguably a real old-school conservative, to whatever extent a real old-school capitalist can be that, because the significant part of the statement for him is probably "control" as a synonym for "order" or "stability." The opposite of Putin's "very strong control" is Obama's "divided country," howevermuch Trump's chosen political party is to blame for that condition. Trump may believe, however, that it's the leader's responsibility to resolve the divisions that exist in his country, whether he's the immediate cause of them or not.
Does that mean that Obama, or a Democratic successor, should treat the Republican party like Putin treats his opposition, or that they should treat Fox News as Putin treats opposition media, or as Trump might treat MSNBC, in order to end division and take very strong control? Not to Trump, probably, since ours is a "very different system." Yet I suspect that his notion of order or good governance is essentially non-ideological to an extent that might make his own distinction between systems less relevant than we might want or hope. I'm more certain that his idea of leadership is non-ideological, which is why he can praise Putin unreservedly by conventional American standards, and that's exactly what bugs people on both left and right. For neither group is order really an end unto itself; each has a set of freedoms that must be accommodated for order to be just and society free, and insofar as Putin's Russia appears unfree in many respects, his order is not worth having, much less praising. Trump's ultimate retort to that sentiment might be that what matters to him as a potential President is whether Putin's order is good for, or compatible with, American interests, not whether it's good for Russian intellectuals or compatible with American values. Many Americans, at least in public life, find Putin's power neither compatible with nor good for American interests -- much less the interests of people in Russia's "near abroad" whom they want to protect from Putin -- but what American interests (if not values) actually are is arguably more subject to debate this year than in recent election cycles. That's why I think Trump should be probed more about his feelings about Putin and Russia; not to goad him into a gaffe, but to find out whether he actually offers an alternative to the establishment consensus that can't help seeing Russia as not merely a competitor on the world stage -- which it is indisputably -- but also an existential enemy. I don't know if Trump has the vocabulary to elaborate his views the way I'd like, but I think he could give us enough to figure out the rest ourselves.