Donald Trump has gotten a lot of well-justified criticism for his paeans to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s anti-American dictator. Just last week Trump said that Putin has “very strong control over a country. … Certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Imagine a Republican in the 1930s saying, “Hitler has been far more of a leader than Franklin Roosevelt.” That is, in fact, the kind of thing that the original America Firsters, led by Charles Lindbergh, did say, which is why it is so appalling that Trump has borrowed their slogan for his campaign.
But Trump isn’t backing down from these offensive claims, and neither are his supporters. In a Twitter exchange with me, for example, the radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt wrote: “Putin’s an evil man. POTUS a good but incompetent man. Putin has served his country’s national interest better.”
I commend Hewitt for admitting that Putin is evil — something that Trump has never done. Trump, in fact, has never uttered one word of criticism of the Russian strongman. But what of Hewitt’s larger claim — that Putin has done a better job of serving Russian interests than President Obama has done of serving American interests?
I am no defender of Obama. I was a foreign-policy advisor to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and I have been critical of Obama’s weak foreign policy. I think the Iran nuclear deal, the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the hands-off policy toward Syria, in particular, have been catastrophic mistakes. I am no fan, either, of Obama’s tax-and-spend policies culminating in the passage of a costly healthcare mandate. But on both foreign and domestic policy there is simply no comparison between the democratically elected president of America and the thug who has seized control of Russia.
Let’s start with the domestic side. Granted, the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 has been anemic under Obama — the growth rate of 2.1 percent is below the postwar average of 2.9 percent — but GDP still has grown in 25 of the last 27 quarters, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9 percent.
And how has Putin done by comparison? According to the World Bank, Russia’s GDP fell 40 percent between 2013 and 2015 — from $2.23 trillion to $1.33 trillion. “To put that in perspective,” notes CNBC, “U.S. GDP shrank at the onset of the Great Recession from $14.719 trillion in 2008 to $14.419 trillion in 2009 — a decline of 2 percent.”
Moreover, Lauren Goodrich of the Stratfor geopolitical consultancy points out, “Over the past year, the average Russian’s monthly wage fell 9.5 percent, slipping below $450 — less than in China, Serbia and Romania.
In other words, the Putin presidency has been an economic disaster for the Russian people. To the extent that Russia has prospered at all since the dawn of the Putin era in 1999, it’s due entirely to its oil wealth. Putin has done nothing to develop a viable economy. Russia (population 146 million, according to Wikipedia) has a smaller GDP than South Korea (population 50 million).
Putin’s actions, and in particular the annexation of Crimea, have been widely applauded by Russians who have been given a one-sided view of the world by his propaganda apparatus. The Kremlin’s media lackeys claim that the Russia intervention in Ukraine was a response to the rise of fascists and neo-Nazis, rather than to the rise of a democratically elected, pro-Western government.
This is what makes Trump’s claim that Putin has an 82 percent approval rating — and therefore he must be a good leader — so ridiculous. Sure, he’s popular, but no alternative is allowed.
Putin is pursuing the classic despot’s strategy: He is invading neighbors and beating the drums of war in order to distract his own people from his ruinous and tyrannical rule. It is terrifying that Trump sees Putin as an admirable leader, and shameful that his supporters have fallen in line to defend his indefensible views.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
©2016 Los Angeles Times