Steve King: Putin has been more of a leader than Obama has because Russian nationalism has increased

I will never understand the tendency among authoritarians within the mainstream American right to reach for Putin when imagining the sort of “strength” they want from America’s leader. I understand why actual fascists do it; Putin’s a fascist, so naturally they look to him for reactionary inspiration. Why Rudy Giuliani does it or Steve King does it, though, God only knows. Even with the perfunctory “to be sure” qualifiers, it’s a terrible frame for a Republican to be offering the voting public.

King made the comment a day after GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump made headlines by saying that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been.”…

“I think that [Putin has been a stronger leader] because I watched as the Russian nationalism has been increased substantially,” King said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

“The Sochi Olympics, he put something like $50 billion into that. And you have Russian hyper-nationalism and they are proud of being Russians today.”…

“I think we need to be aware of that the American dominance in the world has retreated because of … direct orders from Barack Obama and that has allowed Putin to be more robust,” he added.

Let’s do a reality check on how much Americans admire Putin’s leadership. Here’s where things stood in Gallup two years ago:


More recently, in August 2015, Pew found this:


About the best you can do among American public opinion to find a preference for Putin is this Wall Street Journal poll from May, in which slightly fewer Americans viewed him “very negatively” than they did Trump or Clinton. But that’s no surprise: Of course voters have sharper views of the other party’s nominee in an election year than they do of a foreign leader whom they’re not thinking about day to day. (In fact, the Journal chose Putin as a yardstick against which to measure Clinton’s and Trump’s unpopularity precisely because he’s deeply unpopular here.) Meanwhile, Obama’s job approval is consistently 50 percent or better in the most recent polls and his favorable rating is several points better than that. If Democrats succeed somehow in making this election a proxy choice between Putin on the one hand and Obama on the other — which is what these stupid “I prefer Putin’s leadership to Obama’s” GOP soundbites amount to — then Trump will lose badly. And don’t think Hillary doesn’t know it. Watch the second clip below from today’s tarmac presser in which she stresses how “astonishing” it is that Trump would prefer the Russian president to his American counterpart. You’re going to hear that again at the debates. Why the hell Steve King can’t just say “We need a strong president and Obama is weak” and leave it at that, without mentioning Putin as a role model, I can’t imagine. You don’t need to lick the fascist’s boots, for fark’s sake.

Another thing. The “to be sures” about how, of course, Putin has some very serious flaws (“It’s still Russia, I don’t deny that,” King says here somewhat sheepishly) don’t impress anyone. If you must insist on boot-licking, you’re better off ignoring the killing of journalists, the amazing kleptocracy, and the slow-motion invasion of Ukraine altogether. It’s easier to tolerate the Putin back-slapping if you’re pretending those problems don’t exist than if you’re acknowledging them and implying, whether you mean to or not, that his “strong leadership” kinda sorta balances the scale against those deficiencies. As Jeryl Bier put it, it’s almost literally the “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time” argument. I don’t even want to know what King means when he says that Putin is a stronger leader because “Russian nationalism has … increased substantially.” Bullying satellite countries is a great way to stoke nationalism; state control of most media with plenty of propaganda programming is another good way; historically, Jew-baiting is a great way too. You can goose nationalism a thousand different ways. (Oddly, King mentions bringing the Olympics to Russia. If Obama had nailed down the summer games for Chicago, would his presidency have a different complexion?) If that’s how we’re measuring great leadership now, in terms of who can do more for nationalism, we’re in more trouble than I thought.

And just as I’m writing this, I see that no less than Mike Pence is hammering the point that “Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” Keep pushing that choice on voters, Republicans. See how it works out for you.

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