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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

When leaders had principles

The faces of the presidents that make up

The faces of the presidents that make up the Mount Rushmore monument. Credit: AP / David Zalubowski

When I was a kid, we knew what our political parties stood for. The principles they espoused were chiseled as clearly as the faces on Mount Rushmore.

One of those verities was the Republican Party’s antipathy to the Evil Empire. It was among the strongest elements of GOP orthodoxy — unyielding opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and, after its dissolution in 1991, to Russia.

What happened?

President Donald Trump goes to Helsinki last week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for their one-on-one summit and now-infamous news conference, turns in a disgraceful performance and embarrasses the United States, trashes various Americans with the smirking tyrant standing by his side, appears to take the former KGB agent’s word over U.S. intelligence agencies on Moscow’s election meddling, calls Putin’s proposal that Trump allow the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and other Americans to be questioned by Putin’s goons an “incredible” idea — and 79 percent of Republicans in an Axios/Survey Monkey poll say they approve of the way Trump handled the news conference with Putin.

It’s not like Putin is no longer a murderous thug. How did coddling such a man become acceptable to Republicans? Even the weak-kneed GOP-controlled Senate voted 98-0 to rebuke Trump on turning diplomats over to Putin.

An even larger majority of Republicans, 85 percent, think the investigation into Russia’s election interference is a distraction. Time was when the party would have considered such an attack on our democracy a declaration of war. Now it’s a distraction?

Another transformation of the GOP — from the party of Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves, to the party of a man who, at best, has racist tendencies — is every bit as dramatic. But that evolution took much longer, with degenerative signposts along the way — Richard Nixon’s racism captured on White House tapes, Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign ad, any number of state efforts at voter suppression.

But Russia? The change on Russia was a whiplash.

As recently as 2008 and 2012, Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney were rock-solid in their conviction that Russia was America’s biggest geopolitical foe and Putin its malevolent mastermind. They were right. And rank-and-file Republicans were in lockstep with them, convinced each would be tougher on the Kremlin than Barack Obama.

Trump’s facile yearning for better relations with Russia is like wanting to be friends with the neighbor who throws his trash into other people’s yards, lets his dog go to the bathroom on everyone else’s property and doesn’t clean it up, starts his lawn mower at 7 a.m. and parties til dawn. Then you go talk to him — all by yourself — and announce to the rest of the block that everything is OK now, even though he hasn’t changed his behavior and your surveillance camera caught him climbing on your roof to cut the cables from your solar panels.

Except that Putin’s misbehavior includes invading some countries, stirring unrest and creating chaos in others, and actually killing folks he deems enemies of the people — “people” meaning himself — both at home and abroad.

I won’t add to the rampant speculation about the reasons for Trump’s toadying to Putin. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing — wait for special counsel Robert Mueller to complete his investigation and see whether he comes up with the answer.

But whatever Mueller finds won’t explain Trump’s fellow Republicans, whose change of heart is a pile of shards on the ground.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.