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Trump can’t quit Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin held a cabinet meetingat the Kremlin on Sept. 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a cabinet meetingat the Kremlin on Sept. 7.Mikhail Klimentyev

I've been following American politics for a long time and I don't think I'd ever see the day when a presidential candidate — no less a Republican presidential candidate — would favorably compare a Russian leader to the president of the United States. But yet here we are.

Since the beginning of this campaign, Donald Trump has had kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin. None of it has made much sense, but earlier this week Trump went a step further and said of the Russian strongman that he had been a far better leader "than our president." Trump even cited Putin's 82 percent approval rating in a country that is not a democracy as supporting evidence. When NBC's Matt Lauer began to point out some of Putin's many political and democratic transgressions, Trump said, "Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?"

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There are so many aspects of this line of argument from Trump that are difficult to fathom, but first and foremost is the fact that Putin has been a terrible leader for his country, particularly since his second run as Russian president.

Due in large measure to a drop in global oil prices and Putin's ill-advised seizure of Crimea, the Russian economy has been in freefall. In 2015 it contracted by 3.7 percent, hundreds of billions in foreign capital has left the country because of international sanctions imposed because of Putin's actions in Ukraine, and the value of the Russian ruble dropped 127 percent. The number of Russians living in poverty has sharply increased and real wages have fallen while inflation continues to rise. In short, Russia is an economic basket case and the country has become isolated on the international stage — and in large measure because of Putin's disastrously bad foreign policy decision-making.

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Then there is the fact that Putin's intelligence services are interfering directly in America's presidential election — something that Trump encouraged back in July. Trump regularly says wouldn't it be great if the United States and Russia got along, but is utterly oblivious to the fact that the main reason the US-Russian relationship is frayed is because of Putin and his provocative acts.

Four years ago, Republicans regularly and falsely attacked Obama for conducting an "apology tour" – in 2016 they've nominated a candidate who is an apologist for an un-democratic thug who regularly acts against U.S. interests and interferes with our presidential election.

But even if all of this wasn't true – even if Putin wasn't invading his neighbors, bombing hospitals in Syria and acting against basic global norms - there is nothing about Putin's leadership that is worthy of praise from an American politician. Putin is an authoritarian leader with virtually no institutional checks on his power. He has rolled back democratic reforms and is strongly suspected of having had journalists and political enemies killed.

The idea that somehow Putin is preferable to Obama is unpatriotic, un-democratic, and reflects an utter lack of appreciation for the basic ideas and principles that define American democracy. In America, strength comes not in popularity (a concept that an individual as needy for veneration as Trump may find hard to understand), but in adherence to the rule of law in respect for the will of the people. Putin has none of those characteristics. His leadership represents the opposite of virtually every principle that this country was founded on.

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In the end, I have no idea why Trump is so solicitous of Putin. Maybe he's protecting his business interests in Russia. Maybe he prefers the authoritarian manner in which Putin wields power. Maybe he can't say anything bad about someone who says "really nice things" about him.

Your guess is as good as mine. And to some extent we've all become so anesthetized to Trump's habitual violation of basic democratic norms that many Americans aren't even paying attention to what Trump says about Putin. But a presidential candidate who praises a leader like Putin as "effective" and "strong" and better than a democratically-elected American president not only understands nothing about America, but has made himself unworthy of the political office he is seeking.


Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.