Donald Trump just can't stop lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin, and there are two things he never fails to mention whenever the subject of the Russian president comes up. The first is that he has almost no choice but to exalt Putin, because he thinks Putin called him brilliant. "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump says, though he doesn't explain why that's so important (not to mention the fact that the word Putin used to describe Trump translates not as "brilliant" but as "colorful"). The second thing Trump always says about Putin is that he's a "strong leader," and much stronger than President Obama.
It's this quality of strength that has Republicans rushing to back Trump up on this score and express their own admiration for Putin. "I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country," says Trump's running mate Mike Pence. "And that's going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president." To paraphrase something Trump likes to say about winning, when he's elected president there'll be so much strength you'll get tired of all the strength.
Vladimir Putin is, undoubtedly, strong. But so was Stalin, and Attila the Hun, and Pol Pot, and ... I'll stop there. So why is it that we consider strength, apart from any context or specifics, something that is so necessary and admirable in a leader?
We've associated strength with leadership since before we were even human. The gorilla best able to beat the stuffing out of his rivals gets to be alpha male for as long as he's the strongest, and even in 2016 we haven't fully left the association of physical power and leadership behind, even if we aren't choosing our presidents in a powerlifting contest. There's a reason that George W. Bush cleared brush on his "ranch" while Ronald Reagan chopped wood, all for the benefit of photographers—they wanted the public to see them as manly and vigorous, no matter how tenuous the connection between physical strength and presidential success might be.
Like Putin, they knew the value of a good photo op. But it wasn't Putin's hairless, doughy chest that won him Donald Trump's heart. It was his iron fist—crushing the press, having his political opponents arrested or murdered, and extending his rule indefinitely, all in a country that claims to be a democracy. That's the strength Trump admires, the willingness to achieve your own ends no matter how much harm you might do to others.
Even if most Americans might disagree on Vladimir Putin's virtue (though now that Putin is on Team Trump and vice-versa, Republicans are coming around on him), we've long believed that strength is an unalloyed good. Pollsters have asked for decades whether voters consider candidates to be strong leaders, and their answers correlate highly with their choice for president.
There's no value in weakness per se, but strength can come in many forms that might be beneficial to a president. We'd want a president to be morally strong, willing to do the right thing even when there might be a cost to themselves. We'd want them to have the intellectual and emotional strength to reason clearly in the midst of crises, which every president will face. We'd want them to cultivate our own national resilience, to have the strength to demonstrate leadership at trying times. And we'd want them not to let fear cloud their reaction to foreign threats or domestic problems.
But we all know that when someone like Donald Trump talks about strength, that's not what he means. Which makes him right at home in his party: In certain conservative circles, strength often means things like an eagerness to send other people's children to war and the willingness to order other people to commit acts of brutality. This is why they consider a president like Barack Obama, who is suspicious of military adventures and eager to find diplomatic solutions to international problems, to be hopelessly weak (though they simultaneously consider him a tyrant; figure that one out).
For instance, this rancid op-ed from Dick and Liz Cheney says that "Defeating our enemies has been made significantly more difficult by the policies of Barack Obama. No American president has done more to weaken the U.S., hobble our defenses or aid our adversaries." Cheney the elder, architect of the single most catastrophic foreign policy decision in American history, is particularly incensed by the fact that Obama ended the Bush administration's torture program. In addition to demanding that the next president begin torturing prisoners again, they want to junk the Iran nuclear agreement, then "make clear that all options are on the table where Iran's nuclear program is concerned." In other words, the way to achieve peace and security is to allow Iran to go ahead and resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons, then use that as the justification for some future invasion or other large-scale military action. If nothing else, they'll know we're strong.
Donald Trump may claim (falsely) that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and periodically express skepticism about overseas adventures. But that won't bother most Republicans, because no candidate has ever fetishized the conservative brand of strength more than he does. Whether he's assuring a debate audience that his hands are normally sized, saying that we have to torture prisoners because ISIS "probably think[s] we're weak," telling his bloodthirsty crowds that the way to deal with protesters is to "knock the crap out of 'em," or suggesting that we murder the families of suspected terrorists, Trump is offering exactly the brand of strength Republicans love. It's what you get when you bake together a tribalistic morality with a crippling insecurity. And like so much of what Trump has said and done, it takes what Republicans ordinarily clothe in subtext and euphemism, then slaps it right on the table for everyone to see.
It's something to behold, no question about that. But strong? Hardly.