What a pathetic spectacle it is to see Donald Trump slobbering all over Vladimir Putin, lauding him as a Strong Leader, making excuses for the Strong Leader’s serial assaults on the democratic spirit. But what else can we expect? I bet Mein Donald would love nothing more than to be photographed on a horse, flashing his man boobs.
Trump has been wreaking all kinds of havoc on the Republican brand – most notably, destroying the party’s plans to reach beyond its angry white base – and the foreign policy realm is no exception. The last nominee, Mitt Romney, called Putin an international menace and a threat to American interests; most Republican regulars (and most of the ’16 candidates) still hew to that view. Yet here is Trump veritably shining the Russian thug’s shoes, gushing about how great the guy is.
Suffice it to say, if Hillary Clinton was kissing up to Putin this way, Trump would be the first to fulminate about her “weakness.”
Trump has been signaling his love for months, remarking this fall that he “would get along very well” with Putin, and Putin recently returned the favor by calling Trump “brilliant.” Naturally, Trump loved that; insecure narcissists lap up praise anywhere they can get it. Indeed, last Friday, during yet another guest gig on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show, Trump said: “When people call you ‘brilliant,’ it’s always good, especially when that person heads up Russia.”
And when Joe Scarborough pointed out that Putin oppresses his political opponents and invades other countries, Trump said that was no big deal: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader.” And when Scarborough said that Putin “kills journalists who don’t agree with him,” Trump said that was no big deal either: “I think that our country does plenty of killing too.”
The topic resurfaced on Sunday. This time, on ABC News, Trump found a fresh way to let Putin off the hook. He said there’s no evidence that Putin has personally killed any Russian journalists. (According to the International Press Institute, at least 36 have been killed during Putin’s long reign.) In Trump’s words, “This isn’t like somebody who stood with a gun….Nobody has proven that he’s killed anyone….He’s always denied it. It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody.”
Yeah right. And Adolf Hitler must’ve been innocent too; after all, he didn’t personally kill any German dissidents.
Actually, what’s hilarious is that Donald Trump, of all people, is suddenly demanding a narrow standard of proof. This is the same guy who routinely mouths off without evidentiary proof. (Opining about Obama on Fox News, 2011: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim, I don’t know.”) But now Trump is all about proof. Anything to defend his bromance.
What’s encouraging – though who knows whether it’ll make any difference – is that saner Republicans are vocally upset about the bromance. Romney said this weekend that Trump was nuts to draw a moral equivalence between Putin’s thuggery and America’s killings. Romney tweeted, “Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.”
Republican operative Stuart Stevens emailed the Politico website: “Donald Trump is like that stray dog anybody can pet and it will follow you home. Putin praises him, so he loves Putin. It’s embarrassing and sad. He’s a seriously damaged individual who is deeply insecure and needs attention and praise, and the source doesn’t matter.” All of which is further proof that Trump lacks any kind of “political approach or philosophy.”
Actually, on this issue, Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Gary Kasparov is arguably Trump’s most credible critic. On Twitter, he says that Trump is Putin’s chump, that Putin “always wants to sow weakness and chaos among his enemies” – America, NATO, Europe – and praising Trump, just as he praises other “xenophobes and neo-facists,” is a way to “divide and conquer.” (I interviewed Kasparov this fall at the Free Library of Philadelphia. During our stage talk, Kasparov compared Trump to Twitter: “Tastes good, no nutritional value, and too much makes you sick.”)
Of course, the odds are approximately zero that Trump’s kissup will hurt his campaign. I’ll try to say this diplomatically: Since Trump draws his heaviest support from people with high school educations, it’s fair to conclude that his fans are ill-schooled, or simply uninterested, in the nuances of geopolitics.
But the Republican regulars are still hoping that people will come to their senses. One GOP aide, speaking anonymously, tells Politico: “You just sort of shake your head. At some point, the voters are going to recognize that (Trump’s bid) isn’t a serious campaign. We hope that recognition will come sooner rather than later.”
Problem is, the clock is ticking fast. As Yogi Berra used to say, about the afternoon shadows in Yankee Stadium’s left field, “It gets late early out there.”
I joked on Twitter yesterday, “Breaking news: Lindsey Graham’s dropout announcement triggers a wild Republican scramble for his voter.”
But seriously, folks, his bailout may be important in one respect: John McCain is now a free man. He and Graham constitute the GOP’s most enduring bromance, and his endorsement of Graham was de rigueur. With Graham gone, he can potentially influence the race in critical New Hampshire – where he has long been popular. He’d never endorse Ted Cruz or Trump, both of whom he detests. He’s probably cool to Jeb Bush, as payback for how the Bushes smeared him in the ’00 primaries.
He could tilt to Marco Rubio; problem is, he thinks Rubio is a finger-in-the-wind weathervane. So that probably leaves Chris Christie. Don’t be surprised if McCain endorses Christie, in the state where the big guy has staked all. That contest is Feb. 9 – and hey, the Bridgegate scandal trial won’t start until April!