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Trump and the Right's Strange Admiration for Putin

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Graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.
Graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.Credit: Mindaugas Kulbis, AP

One of the more bizarre developments in the topsy-turvy world wrought by Trump and the other leading lights of the new politics in America and Europe is admiration of Vladimir Putin and the way he runs Russia.

Not long ago, conservatives hated and feared Russia and justifiably saw it as a threat to Western freedom. A lot of that was tied up with communism, but the fact is, Putin’s post-communist Russia is not exactly a beacon of freedom. And within the confines of its limited military and economic powers, Russia is a menace to its neighbors.

Whether on principle, or cynical manipulation of public opinion, Putin talks about the West as if it is his enemy. But the hostility is unrequited, as we saw yet again this week in the controversy over U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia had indeed interfered in the elections.

Waffling with syrup

Many Republicans expressed concern over the findings, but a surprising number of stalwarts of the party that once was home to Joseph McCarthy waffled.

Partly they are motivated by hatred of Hillary Clinton and a policy of not giving an inch to the other side. Partly it reflects a kinder, gentler attitude toward Russia that has emerged on the right.

It began long before Trump entered the presidential race, but Trump has adopted the trend for his own. 

It’s not just realpolitik that says we should deal with Russia because that is the practical thing to do, say in Syria. Trump actually admires Putin. He seems to think America could learn a thing or two from his Russia.

"He's running his country, and at least he's a leader -- unlike what we have in this country," Trump said during the election comparing Trump to Obama.

T-shirt depicting President Vladimir Putin as an Olympic strongman, Moscow, Nov. 10, 2014.Credit: Andrey Rudakov, Bloomberg

And then, there’s this: "Look at Putin—what he's doing with Russia—I mean, you know, what's going on over there. I mean this guy has done—whether you like him or don't like him—he's doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period."

Just behind the Maldives

Okay, that was 2007 when Russia was still riding high on oil prices. Back then, Russia was like an oil sheikhdom: Everything is gold-plated thanks to oil profits. But scratch beneath the surface and there isn’t much of an economy there.

When oil prices collapsed and Western sanctions kicked in, the real Russia was laid bare.

But let’s take Trump’s advice and have a look at Putin.

We may live in a post-truth era, but for those of you who still can appreciate a good fact or two, here’s the scorecard on Putin and the country he is supposedly doing such a good job running.

The Russian economy: Its size in 2016 is about $1.27 trillion, in nominal terms, which ranks it No. 12 in the world behind Canada.

Canada, however, has just a quarter of Russia’s population. On GDP per capita basis, Russia ranks 71st, just behind the Maldives and one place ahead of Mexico.

The business environment: The World Bank’s Doing Business index,  which rates things like how easy it is to get a business license or hook up your electricity, puts Putin’s Russia at No. 40 in the world, one step behind the notoriously misruled countries of Bulgaria and Belarus.

Corruption: Transparency International, which measure perceptions of malfeasance, ranks Russia 119th of 168 countries. That puts it on the same level of Azerbaijan, Guyana and Sierra Leone and one notch more corrupt than Tanzania.

Human rights: Freedom House categorizes Russia among the countries that are “not free” and gives it a six on a scale of 1-7 (seven being least free) in terms of overall freedom, political rights and civil liberties.

High-tech: Russia is No. 43 ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Innovation Index, that is behind Greece and the United Arab Emirates and barely ahead of Costa Rica and Moldova.

What appeals to the right is Putin’s decisive leadership, his defense of traditional values, his straight-talking and his nationalism. The fact that he runs a country that is one giant rust belt, ignores property rights, lacks honest government, interferes with its neighbors and democratic elections in the U.S., and conducts brutal wars is all secondary to the romantic image of the Leader.

Sadly, this seems to be the Trump leadership model, too -- all appearances and no substance.  And, we see where that’s gotten Russia.

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