Jeremy W. Peters
Jeremy W. Peters is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who covers politics.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met with President Trump last week at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Years before the words "collusion” and "Russian hacking” became associated with President Vladimir V. Putin, some prominent Republicans found far more laudatory ways to talk about the Russian leader.
"Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and longtime friend and adviser to President Trump, gushed in 2014.
"A great leader,” "very reasoned,” and "extremely diplomatic,” was how Mr. Trump himself described Mr. Putin that same year.
Though such fondness for Mr. Putin fell outside the Republican Party’s mainstream at the time, it became a widely held sentiment inside the conservative movement by the time Mr. Trump started running for president in 2015. And it persists today, despite evidence of Russian intervention in the 2016 American election and Mr. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home.
The veneration of Mr. Putin helps explain why revelations about Russia’s involvement in the election — including recent reports that members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle set up a meeting at which they expected a representative of the Russian government to give them incriminating information about Hillary Clinton — and Mr. Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge it, have barely penetrated the consciousness of the president’s conservative base.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is one of many Republicans who have made positive statements about Mr. Putin’s leadership. Credit Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Mr. Putin is no archvillain in this understanding of America-Russian relations. Rather, he personifies many of the qualities and attitudes that conservatives have desired in a president of their own: a respect for traditional Christian values, a swelling nationalist pride and an aggressive posture toward foreign adversaries.
In this view, the Russian president is a brilliant tactician, a slayer of murderous Islamic extremists — and not incidentally, a leader who outmaneuvered and emasculated President Barack Obama on the world stage. And because of that, almost any other transgression seems forgivable.
"There are conservatives here who maybe read into Russia things they wish were true in the United States,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. "And they imagine Russia and Putin as the kind of strong, traditional conservative leader whom they wish they had in the United States.” To these conservatives, she added, "Russia is the true defender of Christian values. We are decadent.”
Mr. Trump’s opponents have tried repeatedly to make an issue of the mutual admiration between him and the Russian president, anticipating that Republicans would not tolerate any whiff of sympathy from one of their own toward the leader of what Ronald Reagan called the "evil empire.” But Mr. Trump has never had to wait long for conservatives to leap to his defense — and often Mr. Putin’s as well.
"My guess is that Trump voters would say: ‘Hey, you know what? I kind of like the fact that Putin’s endorsed Trump,’ ” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners in December 2015. "At least Putin’s killing terrorists. At least Putin’s made an enemy out of ISIS. We don’t seem to be able to do that.”
After Mr. Trump was elected and evidence of Russian hacking had started to accumulate, the praise for Mr. Putin from the right continued. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Fox News host who once said Mr. Trump had considered naming her as his press secretary, said that she wished Mr. Putin could be president of the United States for just 48 hours. That way, as she put it, "Americans don’t have to worry and wake up in the morning fearful of a group that’s murderous and horrific like ISIS.”
"People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Sarah Palin told Fox News after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times
In dismissing the threat from Russia, Mr. Trump and many conservatives now, ironically, echo Mr. Obama, who in 2012 brushed off the warnings of Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, that Russia was the United States’ "No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Mr. Obama scoffed during a debate with Mr. Romney, a quip that some Democrats now regret.
It would be difficult to overstate how large the Soviet Union once loomed in the Republican Party’s foreign policy through four decades of the Cold War. Its dissolution softened attitudes toward Russia, but some Republicans are still baffled by Mr. Trump’s friendly overtures.
"It’s like being raised in a church and someone says, ‘Actually, no, you’re a Buddhist,’ ” said Stuart Stevens, a former adviser to Mr. Romney. "The role of the Republican Party has been to tell the truth about what Russia and the Soviet Union was, not what it was pretending to be,” he added. "Now some conservatives have gotten into the ‘let’s give Russia the benefit of the doubt’ business.”
The unflattering comparisons with Mr. Obama became especially personal in 2014 after Mr. Putin invaded Crimea, an act of aggression that was widely condemned by the United States and its allies but praised as a display of brawn and guts by many on the right.
Sarah Palin, for one, questioned Mr. Obama’s "potency” and added that no one had any such doubts about Mr. Putin. "People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” she told Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Pat Buchanan described Mr. Putin, who led a crackdown on gay rights in Russia, as a natural conservative ally in 2013. Credit Cliff Owen/Associated Press
"He’s looking like a real man,” Mr. Limbaugh declared approvingly in 2014.
Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, which has tracked the conservative media’s depiction of the Russian president, described Mr. Putin as taking on "a Paul Bunyan-esque persona among this audience.”
Mr. Putin’s mystique for conservatives resembles in many ways the image that Mr. Trump has cultivated for himself.
Both are go-it-alone nationalists who value the projection of strength and decisiveness over thoughtful deliberation. Both have dedicated themselves to defending Christians and their faith — Mr. Trump through his "religious freedom” initiatives and Mr. Putin through his strengthening of ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Both have condemned Christian persecution in the Middle East. Both have taken a more forgiving view of human rights abuses.
"This is consistent with a nationalist, populist, authoritarian point of view,” said William Kristol, the editor at large of the conservative Weekly Standard. That view, he added, "would ridicule the promotion of human rights and democracy as globalism, or criticize occasionally deferring to allies when you want to keep them on board as weak, or mock worrying about public opinion in allied nations as naïve.”
"The admiration of Putin is part of that story,” Mr. Kristol said.
Beyond foreign policy, some conservatives saw Mr. Putin as a committed warrior in the culture wars they were losing at home. In Russia Mr. Putin led a crackdown on gay rights by taking such steps as criminalizing behavior that could be seen as promoting anything other than heterosexual relationships. This has earned him praise from leaders of the Christian right like Franklin Graham, who said in 2014 that Russia was doing more than the United States to protect its children.
Writing in 2013, Pat Buchanan, the columnist and commentator whose anti-establishment, conservative presidential campaigns in the 1990s emphasized such social issues, described Mr. Putin as a natural ally.
"In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?” Mr. Buchanan wrote, quickly answering his own question. "He is seeking to redefine the ‘Us vs. Them’ world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.”