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The Americans who think Vladimir Putin isn’t so bad

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool via AP)
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For many Americans, Vladimir Putin is perceived as some kind of international boogeyman, with alleged links to nefarious plots all over the world. This perception helps explain why many Americans find Donald Trump's seemingly admiring comments about the Russian president so unnerving.

Yet Trump seems unmoved by critics of this rhetoric. On Wednesday, after widespread speculation that Russian-backed hackers had helped release a series of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee, the Republican presidential nominee appeared to push further than ever before, appearing to appeal for Russian leadership to hack Hillary Clinton's email. (On Thursday morning, Trump told Fox News that he was being sarcastic when he made the statement.)

Trump's comments may seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, alienating potential American voters by linking himself with the alleged misdoings of a feared foreign leader.

But perhaps not all Americans are so fearful of Putin. It seems that a minority may even revel in the idea that, actually, Putin is good.

In early 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll that looked at American views of the conflict in Ukraine. Respondents were asked whether they had favorable or unfavorable views of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Video: Adam Taylor, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who co-authored a biography of Putin, says that on a recent U.S. book tour she was struck by how positive people were about Putin. "There's a lot of admiration for Putin," Hill said Thursday. "It's grudging, but people see him as one of those larger-than-life characters."

In early 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll that looked at Americans' views of the conflict in Ukraine. Respondents were asked whether they had favorable or unfavorable views of Putin. Overall, the results were clearly not in Putin's favor: A total of 70 percent had unfavorable views of the Russian leader, while just 12 percent had favorable views and a further 18 percent had either not heard of Putin or could not rate him for some reason.

A closer look at the demographics of the result shows some interesting findings. Republicans had the most unfavorable views of Putin, at 76 percent, and only 10 percent were favorable. Among Democrats 69 percent had unfavorable views, and 12 percent of them had favorable views. But 68 percent of independents had unfavorable views, and 14 percent of them had more positive views.

The poll found that higher levels of education seemed to correspond with more negative views of Putin. The most positive views came from those with a high school education or less — 15 percent said they had a positive view of Putin, while 61 percent said it was negative and a further 24 percent would not answer the question or did not know. Younger people also seemed more positive about Putin. While just 8 percent of those older than 65 had positive views of Putin, 20 percent of people ages 18 to 29 were found to, while 57 percent said they had negative views and 23 percent said they were not sure.

It is worth noting that this poll came at a time of heightened tension between the United States and Russia. The poll found that of the 19 percent who knew "nothing at all" about the conflict in Ukraine, only 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Putin. Forty-one percent had no opinion, and a further 19 percent had a positive view.

The takeaway here is interesting: Less educated, younger Americans who were not as up to date with current events may not view Putin as quite so bad.

There is not a huge amount of other data on what Americans think of Putin, but what there is points in a similar direction. A different Pew poll conducted about the same time found that 21 percent of Americans were confident that Putin would "do the right thing regarding world affairs," though it did not offer a more detailed breakdown. A more recent poll has even suggested that Putin has lower negative ratings than Trump or Clinton.

Even if plenty of people do not like Putin, it's possible that not that many view him as a major threat. In a Gallup poll from February, just 39 percent of Americans were found to view Russia's military power as a critical threat. This was far behind the top-ranked fear, international terrorism, which 79 percent of Americans listed as a critical threat. (Also, 73 percent ranked cyberterrorism — "the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society" — as a critical threat.)

Anecdotally, for years, there have been signs that a small yet vocal segment of U.S. society viewed Putin in a positive light — or, at the least, thought his negative reputation was overblown or somehow hypocritical. Stephen F. Cohen, a writer for the Nation magazine, is one example of a left-leaning journalist who has pushed back against criticism of Putin — often drawing his own critics in the process.

What has been more obviously apparent is the view of Putin from some corners of the right wing. At times, the tone has appeared to be sardonic,such as when right-wing blogging star Matt Drudge labeled him "the leader of the free world" in 2013, or more genuinely contemplative, such as when conservative writer Pat Buchanan wrote a column asking whether Putin was "one of us?"

Despite major rifts with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, Trump's support seems to be evidence that such attitudes have become more mainstream. Many see Trump's leadership style as having similarities with Putin's — one study found that Trump supporters seemed to favor an authoritarian leader, a style that can certainly be attributed to the Russian president.

Hill says another factor in Putin's favor may be his macho, wisecracking public image, which may appeal to younger Americans. "Putin is a celebrity president. He's playing the same game that Trump is," Hill said. What's different, however, is that Putin's image has been crafted by years of focus groups and highly paid PR consultants. "Putin didn't start off as a celebrity president. Trump is trying to turn being a celebrity into a president," she said.

Whatever you make of the alleged links between Trump and Putin or Russian involvement in the DNC hack, it seems clear that Putin favors Trump over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a leader with whom he seems to have a personal animosity. And at least one poll has suggested that Trump is the top pick for ordinary Russians, too.

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