Why do republicans love Putin?
Even now, as the world and the rest of America gets behind Zelenskyy and Ukraine, republicans steadfastly admire and support Putin, though often more quietly so after Putin’s recent atrocities.
But how did they come to love Putin and Russian in the first place? The Republican Party’s identity for decades was practically defined by their searing hatred for Russia. Even in 2012, Mitt Romney identified Russia as being America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
Most people assume that Donald Trump brought Putin Love to the right wing, but that’s not accurate. Trump’s association with Putin developed at about the same time as the republican admiration of Putin, but Trump was not openly pro-Russian until after Putin was already a right-wing hero.
So, how did it happen? Why did republicans go Coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs over this aggressive dictator?
The answer is Obama. He was an effective, popular, charismatic president who was being a better Republican president than any of their own candidates could hope to be. This drove right-wingers crazy. They needed a foil for Obama, someone arguably better and more powerful than him, but no one in their own ranks measured up.
And then Syria happened. In August of 2012, Obama was asked what would provoke a U.S. military action in Syria, and Obama replied that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would bring America into the fray. However, a year later, Assad crossed that red line, using sarin gas to kill more than a thousand of his own people. Suddenly, Obama was boxed in: he had promised action, but almost any action he took would end badly, not to mention that the American people did not want to add a third land war in Asia to our plate.
Obama responded by passing the buck on to Congress, asking for their approval to use military force. Conservatives saw this as a sign of weakness and began to pile on.
It was then that Vladimir Putin came to the rescue, suggesting a plan to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles so as to avoid military action against them. Obama grabbed the opportunity as a best possible solution, and Damascus agreed to the terms.
That was when republicans suddenly took a liking to Putin: he had stolen Obama’s thunder, outplayed him in Syria, and took the limelight in center stage. The idea that Putin had shown up Obama and pulled the rug out from under him in the region became the story of the month. Matt Drudge, of the Drudge Report, hailed Putin’s involvement in Syria, tweeting that “Putin is leader of the free world.” He began to constantly run headlines praising Putin and trashing Obama, branding Putin as the strong, charismatic world leader, and Obama as a spineless coward who couldn’t begin to match his Russian counterpart. This was a drumbeat starting in 2013 onward, often echoed elsewhere in the conservative sphere. And then, in early 2014, just six months after the Syria deal, Putin just rolled into Crimea and annexed it, and Obama could not do much of anything about it. Putin again came out on top.
Republicans loved this. They discovered a newfound hero in Putin. He was rugged, masculine, in control. He was a right-wing, nationalistic, militaristic shirtless man riding a horse in the countryside. His policies were fiscally conservative, anti-tax, pro-Christian, and a near-perfect fit for the religious right. Most of all, Putin was aggressively, even virulently hostile to gay people. And he invaded and occupied nearby countries.
And Obama was more or less powerless to stop him.
That’s what truly made Putin a right-wing hero, besting Obama in the geopolitical arena, not just once, but twice. Showing power to Obama’s powerlessness. Comments like this started appearing in right-wing areas in 2014:
“Putin is a former KGB colonel. 0bama is a former community organizer. Of course Putin is going to have a far better grasp of international affairs. That is obvious to anyone outside of the liberal echo chamber.”
“Putin right? Why is anyone on earth surprised? President Putin is highly intelligent and by far the best leader in the world. The best leader I have seen in my life time. A man’s man who makes his own decisions and loves his country and its citizens.”
“He is a world leader. He sees the world, not the next party, photo op, selfie…. Putin=Leader Obama=Loser in every category for a leader as well as human being.”
“arguably, Putin would be a better Commander in Chief than our dear leader.”
“Putin at least isn’t a blind Marxism/Leninism fool, unlike Obama and his fellow New Bolshevik Criminals. Their pathetic attempts to focus solely on domestic control, while ignoring rest of world will end up destroying this country.”
All of this was more than a year before Trump showed any sign of being relevant at all. Trump did not bring Putin to the party, republicans were already very much on board. Right-wing talking heads started speaking reverently of Putin, gleeful to have someone who showed up their hated foremost enemy, their own president. More and more, they found elements of Russian culture and Putin’s political positions of which they approved, like Putin’s laws against “homosexual propaganda,” i.e. any favorable mention of LGBTQ people or issues.
While Trump spoke favorably of Putin once or twice after the Syria deal, even slightly before his fateful trip to Russia for the Miss Universe contest (the one where the “pee tape” was allegedly recorded), no possible argument could be made that Trump was in any way responsible for making Putin popular in right-wing circles. In fact, this early admiration for Putin likely helped republicans accept Trump better; he was already a Putin-lover, and fit right in with the crowd.
The problem for republicans is that Putin is, both to their discomfort and delight, a murderous power-crazed dictator willing to commit atrocities. The atrocities part may tamper down their enthusiasm temporarily, but they love the aggressive strongman part, and even as Russia becomes a pariah in most of the world, conservatives still prefer him to anything liberal. Thus we saw signs, t-shirts, and other conservative gear since maybe 2018 reading, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”
But Trump didn’t bring that. It was there before he stopped being a joke.