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...These comments, of course, were folded into all kinds of additional claims about Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Trump's reactionary vision of American politics - but setting those aside, the narrow point he's making here is reasonable to the point of utter banality. Putin is quite obviously the most important, powerful, and influential Russian of the post-Soviet era, and arguably one of the most consequential world leaders of the past two decades. Inasmuch as a leader is someone who has a vision of the world and compels others to implement it, Putin is easily one of the most effective and accomplished leaders of our time.
None of this is praise. Putin is a monster and his imperial aspirations and ethnonationalist sympathies are monstrous, as is his violent, reactionary and antidemocratic political practice. The instrumental conception of leadership that Trump is advancing here - a variety of competence and efficacy - does nothing to imply that Putin will use his gifts and talents towards progressive, socially useful, or moral ends; it simply says that he is good at what he does.
Again, this distinction strikes me as pretty simple, commonplace, and logically independent of the broader political argument in which it appears - someone could make the same point while praising Clinton and Obama.
But time and time again, liberals have taken aim at even this modest and fairly irrelevant point. Clinton's running-mate Tim Kaine objects, "What about invading other countries is leadership? What about running your economy into the ground is leadership? What about persecuting LGBT Russians is leadership?" Alex Shephard, in The New Republic, argues that "Donald Trump is wrong: Putin isn't a strong leader." Think Progress's Jedd Legum seems to think he's calling into question Putin's leadership with some point about Russia's recent GDP, and so on.
Why is this even a controversy? I can think of two possible reasons:
1. Liberals are so ideologically blinkered that they literally cannot comprehend an instrumental conception of leadership. Managerial and entrepreneurial culture have so thoroughly indoctrinated them into fetishizing leaders and leadership as absolute goods, always cultivating productive, progressive and profitable outcomes, that they simply cannot imagine the idea of a bad leader. That's why Tim Kaine insists that there's "a difference between dictatorship and leadership"; he is so completely radicalized that he cannot permit the merely rhetorical idea of a bad leader, even though his reference to dictatorship indicates that he clearly understands what Trump is getting at.
2. Liberals have become so radicalized in their opposition to Trump that it isn't even enough to say "99% of Trump's interview was incorrect and crazy" - literally every aspect of everything he says has to be attacked in every way possible, and it is that imperative that dictates political truth. It seems clear to me that at least some of Clinton's partisans are thinking about politics in this way, which is why (for example) even gentle mockery of liberal Twitter etiquette is considered dangerous enough to put victory at risk. Trump has to be wrong on every front and in every way imaginable, so that even when he goes on an odd but mostly benign tangent about Putin's strength as a malevolent leader, even this has to be eviscerated as some kind of horrific gaffe.These dynamics aren't mutually exclusive, and they're largely variations on the same theme: some combination of ideology and expedience has completely divorced liberals from any ability to engage with an obvious observation about Putin's power and influence. The semantics of a "bad leader" are so verboten in their ideology, and the prospect of agreeing with a Republican presidential candidate so anathema, that liberals have become uncoupled from reality; leadership must be treated as purely good, and Trump as purely evil. Thus, liberals are completely incapable of parsing a truism so dull that even the blandest media outlets were treating it as conventional wisdom a decade ago.
And that, as I put it earlier, is what radical liberalism looks like.