"He is really very much of a leader," Trump told NBC's Matt Lauer last week. "I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing.' The man has very strong control over a country."
Trump, who also cited Putin's "82 percent approval rating," allowed that Russia has "a very different system" of government, and "I don't happen to like the system." Nevertheless, he said, "in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
Clinton slammed Trump for "taking the astonishing step of suggesting that he preferred the Russian president to our American president," which she called "unpatriotic and insulting." Kaine said the "irrational hostility toward President Obama, which started the very first day of his term from some of these people, is unpatriotic, and we've got to call it out."
Note how Clinton and Kaine equated Trump's insult to Obama with an insult to the nation. If you hate Obama, they suggested, you hate America.
Teddy Roosevelt, no stranger to jingoism, thought conflating love of country with love of the president is the opposite of patriotism. "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong," he wrote in 1918, "is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
Patriotism is in any case a dubious virtue at best. An emotional attachment to the land in which you happen to be born is natural, but when elevated to a moral principle it easily morphs into state worship and warmongering.
As a guide to judgment, patriotism is utterly subjective and unreliable. If it is unpatriotic for an American to say Putin is a better leader than Obama, it is equally unpatriotic for a Russian to say Obama is a better leader than Putin.
The problem with Trump's comments about Putin is not that they show a lack of patriotism. The problem is that they reflect authoritarian instincts no president of a liberal democracy should have.
Trump cannot credibly claim to dislike Russia's system of government while admiring Putin's strong leadership, because that system is what makes his strong leadership possible. In Russia's "highly centralized, authoritarian political system," the State Department notes, the executive branch dominates the legislature, pressures the judiciary, and routinely flouts notional guarantees of civil liberties.
According to the department's 2015 report on human rights in Russia, "the government increasingly instituted a range of measures to suppress dissent," including politically motivated arrests and prosecutions; discriminated against sexual, religious, and ethnic minorities; and "failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity." The report says torture by police was common, there were "numerous extrajudicial killings," and "corruption was widespread" in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Freedom House, which classifies Russia as "not free," reports that Putin's regime last year "intensified its tight grip on the media, saturating the information landscape with nationalist propaganda while suppressing the most popular alternative voices." The report also notes that "the judiciary lacks independence from the executive branch," "there is little transparency and accountability in the day-to-day workings of the government," and "vague laws on extremism grant the authorities great discretion to crack down on any speech, organization, or activity that lacks official support."
Trump's Putin partiality is of a piece with his praise of the strength shown by autocrats in Iraq, China, and North Korea. It does not bode well for his performance as president.