The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lesson of Vladimir Putin’s popularity isn’t the one Donald Trump seems to be taking

Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony at a Russian Chapel at the Vrsic mountain pass in northern Slovenia, on July 30. (Jure Makovec/Getty Images/AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is very popular in Russia. Polling from the Levada Center puts him at an 82 percent approval rating as of last month. He hasn't been beneath 60 percent since he rose to national attention in 1999.

Putin's recent low point was in early 2014. What turned it around? Putin's annexation of Crimea. In recent months, his numbers have been inflated by another military incursion, Russia's efforts against the Islamic State in Syria.

It is easy to dismiss Putin's popularity as the sort of artificial metric we're used to from, say, North Korea. But that's an overly simple explanation. The Post's Monkey Cage blog explained in November why the numbers aren't Kim Jong Un-esque. Researchers ran a study to measure the extent to which people may have been lying to pollsters, finding that Putin's broad support appeared to be genuine.

During NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday night, Donald Trump used Putin's popularity to argue that the Russian president must be doing something right. (Read Chris Cillizza's assessment of the whole exchange.)

Moderator Matt Lauer raised the subject. "You said, 'I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he's getting an A. Our president is not doing so well,' " Lauer prompted. "And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said, 'It's always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.' "

"Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here," Trump replied. It's worth noting: That figure is right on the mark.

The core of Trump's argument came a bit later.

"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump said. "I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.' Now, it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."

Note this part: "I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.' "

Part of the reason that Putin is so popular is precisely that: He has strong control over his country. That control takes many forms, one of which is that he has zero tolerance for dissenting media opinions.

Russia scored an 83 out of 100 in the annual press freedom scores compiled by the watchdog organization Freedom Press. (100 is the worst possible score.) By contrast, the United States scored a 21. What's more, in January, Politifact determined that since 2000, when Putin was first elected to the presidency, 34 journalists have been murdered in Russia.

When Trump was confronted with Putin's track record on journalists on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" earlier this year, he was unfazed.

"He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country," Trump said, when presented with some critiques of Putin.

"But, again: He kills journalists that don't agree with him," host Joe Scarborough replied.

"Well," Trump said, "I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe."

Trump has consistently berated the media for what he views as unfair coverage of his campaign. For an extended period, he barred media outlets (including The Post) from attending his events, a ban that was recently lifted. He has talked about somehow changing libel laws so that it would be easier to sue media outlets for coverage that he didn't like.

So the through-line here is this: Trump thinks Putin should be emulated because he is viewed positively in his country. He is viewed positively in part because he crushes dissenting media opinions, something that Trump has also either praised or tacitly accepted. It's part of being a "leader," it seems.

"I mean, you can say, oh, isn't that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country," Trump said. For most of America's recent political history, there was no ensuing "but."