Donald Trump has this thing about strength.
He uses variations of the word constantly in speeches. He practically sneers as he calls opponents, and even the U.S. military, weak. One of his campaign slogans is “Make America Strong Again.”
So perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Trump also has a thing about Vladimir Putin.
After all, the sobriquet of strongman invariably precedes the Russian president’s name. The internet is awash in manly photos of a bare-chested Putin fishing, hunting and riding horses in the Russian wilderness. No world leader alive likes to flex his nation’s collective muscle quite like Putin.
And, oh, those poll numbers, another Trump fetish. Trump touts Putin’s supposed 82 percent approval rating in Russia — never mind that the Russian people don’t have a whole lot of choice in whether to like Putin.
Trump basks in Putin’s praise of him — never mind that Putin never called Trump “brilliant” or a “genius.” Those were poor translations of the Russian language; experts say “colorful,” “flamboyant” and “lively” are more accurate.
Whatever the reason, Trump repeatedly bear-hugs Putin. Last week, he upped the ante when he said Putin was a better leader than President Barack Obama.
Up to then, it had been fashionable to refer to the Trump-Putin bromance, but there’s nothing cuddly about this. It’s not some geopolitical version of a Clooney-Pitt-Damon Rat Pack. It’s way more scary than that.
Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the United States and Russia have fundamentally dissimilar forms of government. Yes, Trump did allow that he didn’t like Russia’s “very different system.” But it was a weak disclaimer in that he followed by saying, “But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
That’s true, if you define leadership as presiding over a state that has exiled, jailed and killed its critics; cracked down on news media; snuffed out nearly every vestige of Russia’s fledgling democracy of 25 years ago; conducted a bombing campaign in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad; annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine; and enriched Putin himself, to the tune of as much as $40 billion in assets.
Trump’s response to a similar list of grievances was to ask NBC’s Matt Lauer whether he wanted him to name some of Obama’s transgressions, as if they are remotely equivalent to Putin’s.
In the United States, we have checks and balances. We deliberately constrain the power of our chief executive. It’s the height of hypocrisy for Republicans who dub Obama the imperial president for allegedly exceeding his constitutional authority in his use of executive action to now defend Trump’s comments about Putin.
Trump supporter Rep. Lee Zeldin, from Shirley, got it right when he told CNN that while Putin’s leadership traits might work in Russia, “These aren’t character traits that work in the United States or the free world.”
But what has Trump exhibited except flashes of Putin when he bans reporters from rallies, embraces torture, and extols the need to bar and surveil Muslims?
Putin wants to restore Russia to its Soviet Union-era glory. Trump wants to Make America Great Again. But when he says he alone can fix something, which he says often, that’s not just his absurdly inflated ego talking. It’s a much darker boast, undergirded by his authoritarian streak.
This summer, after U.S. officials said they believe Russian intelligence services hacked Democratic National Committee servers, Trump encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton to find 30,000 missing emails from her tenure as secretary of state.
That’s neither colorful nor flamboyant.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.