Republicans are less disapproving of an amoral nationalist authoritarian now than they were two years ago? Why would that be?

Via Ben Shapiro, here’s what the partisan crosstabs look like from those two YouGov polls. Note that Putin’s numbers among Americans generally and independents specifically are terrible in both polls, backing up my point last night that only someone with brain damage would risk comparing him favorably to Obama in the thick of an election. So naturally that’s what Trump and his top surrogates, like Mike Pence, have done. As of 2014, pre-Trump:

14

And as of 2016, post-Trump:

16

There are more and less charitable ways to spin this for Republicans. One charitable way is that it’s an artifact of a hyper-partisan age. If Putin had been a headache for Bush instead of Obama in Ukraine and Syria, if he had praised the Democratic nominee for president, if Russian hackers had leaked damaging info from the RNC’s servers instead of the DNC’s, Republican opinion of him would doubtless be lower and Democratic opinion might be higher. This may not be a “Republican problem,” in other words, as much as a case study in how far partisan loyalty now extends, especially when your party’s leader commands his own cult of personality. Shapiro notes that black Democrats shifted awfully quickly on gay marriage after Obama came out in favor of it, which is true. Whether it’s more of a reach for the party of Reagan to learn to appreciate Russian fascism than it is for left-wing Christian to learn to appreciate gays marrying, you can decide for yourself.

Another charitable interpretation of these numbers is that Republicans are, after all, still decisively negative towards Putin notwithstanding Trump apologizing for him over the past 15 months. Which is no small thing given how reliably “on message” Trump has been about Russia. It’s a strange yet true and overlooked fact that he’s been more consistent in his statements on Tsar Vladimir than he’s been about his core policy proposals, from mass deportation to barring Muslims globally from entering the United States. Compare his exchange with Joe Scarborough about Putin in December, before primary voting began, with what he said about Putin a few nights ago to Matt Lauer. All the key points are the same, from emphasizing Putin’s “strength” to repeatedly trying to minimize Putin’s sins by comparing them to Obama’s. That’s one step that even Pence and other Trump defenders, like Rudy Giuliani and Steve King, haven’t taken, as Phil Klein notes. In a crowd of Republican authoritarians, Trump stands out:

Trump is dismissing actions Putin took threatening neighbors and working against U.S. interests by essentially saying, well, Obama has done a lot of things that were just as bad. This is exactly the type of moral equivalency that conservatives spent decades fighting against — when those on the far left tried to portray the U.S. and Soviet Union as morally the same, or slam U.S. as being the real terrorists in the Middle East. Imagine the reaction on the right if, in 2008, candidate Obama said Hugo Chavez was a great leader, and when confronted with his human rights violations, said, “Well you could say the same about what George Bush did in Iraq.”

This is very important. Trump is not merely saying that Putin has been more effectively advancing his nation’s interests than Obama, but he’s saying that none of the evil actions he’s taking have been any worse than Obama. And that is reprehensible and indefensible. And nobody on the right should be defending him.

“What if Obama said it?” hypotheticals about Trump are always instructive but especially so on this subject, since one of the main knocks on Obama on the right in 2008 was that he’d be too accommodating of cretinous regimes as president. (And that criticism was apt, as the Iran nuclear deal proves.) The key point here, though, in light of Trump’s consistency in admiring Putin is that he really seems to believe this and will even risk his political fortunes to defend his position. He’ll “soften” on legalizing illegals in the name of electability, he’ll soften the Muslim ban so that it’s a regional ban on immigration from terrorist countries, he’ll soften on his “white identity politics” image by courting black voters — but if you ask him to denounce Putin’s methods, even knowing that most voters look dimly on them, that’s where he draws the line. From the time he marveled at the “strength” of Chinese leaders in crushing protesters in Tiananmen Square to his current bromance with Putin, Trump really does seem more captivated than disturbed by the lengths to which some foreign regimes will go to neutralize their enemies. Some of his critics say he has no core and ultimately believes in nothing, but I don’t know. He seems to believe pretty firmly in ruthless “strength.” He’s a Nietzschean at heart. Why wouldn’t he admire a fellow adherent in Putin?

Via the Free Beacon, here’s Corey Lewandowski chattering about Putin’s “strength,” the alleged great saving virtue that implicitly makes his faults pale by comparison, followed by Paul Ryan with the traditional Republican view.