Editorial cartoon

When Vladimir Putin falls asleep, I can imagine what he dreams: He sees himself basking in the glory of another landslide victory in a sham election as Washington offers congratulations, not criticism. The White House press secretary tells the world that it is no longer America’s place to push for democracy. NATO splinters as the United States abandons its European allies. And the president of the United States snubs longtime friends while publicly praising Russia as a new friend that America should court — regardless of what Moscow does.

A guy can dream, right?

President Donald Trump is making Putin’s fantasies come true. And, as those long-sought dreams come to life, America’s role as a defender of democracy and freedom is fading fast.

Here are the hard facts: Putin is a ruthless despot. His regime murders political rivals, dissidents and journalists. Russia has no genuinely independent media, and state-controlled outlets endlessly parrot Putin’s chosen messages. Russian elections are clearly rigged.

Those domestic tactics reverberate globally. Putin is complicit in facilitating war crimes in Syria. He snatched Crimea from a sovereign Ukraine, stoking conflict with covertly deployed Russian troops. And in the West, the Kremlin attacked democracy in America and in Europe, using a sophisticated blend of hacking and information warfare to sow chaos and undermine confidence in democratic institutions.

Now Putin’s regime appears to have used a chemical nerve-agent in an assassination attempt within Britain, America’s closest and most powerful ally.

Apparently none of this had any impact on Trump, who has savagely insulted those who defend America — the FBI, Republican Sen. John McCain, Gold Star families — while relentlessly praising a foreign dictator who attacked the United States.

In response to Putin’s rigged re-election, Trump uncritically congratulated Putin, despite advice from his national security team that should have been difficult to misinterpret (“DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” the guidance read). Worse, when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether the Russian election was free and fair, she dodged, simply saying it wasn’t America’s place to “dictate” what happens in other countries.

The correct response should have been “No.” It would have been even better if she had added something along these lines: “We won’t dignify Putin’s sham ‘election’ with comment as it has no legitimacy. In the meantime, we stand with our ally, the United Kingdom, in solidarity against Russian aggression and unequivocally condemn their deployment of chemical weapons. We know friend from foe. Britain is our friend. And until the Kremlin stops its unacceptable attacks against the United States and its allies, Russia will be our foe.”

Of course, such a statement would require principled, moral leadership — which is about as plentiful in the White House these days as oxygen is in outer space.

So, instead we got — you guessed it — a presidential tweet praising Putin: “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Should we just make nice with a world power that seeks to harm the United States and its allies at every possible opportunity? Apparently so. The Tweeter in chief has spoken.

Trump made similar statements during the 2016 campaign. And yet, as Putin’s aggression becomes increasingly brazen, Trump’s embrace of him is unshakably enthusiastic. That is the very definition of appeasement. And as history teaches us, appeasement only emboldens tyrants.

Trump’s praise for Putin also sends a clear signal to the rest of the world. The president of the United States openly admires dictators and despots, from the Philippines to Turkey to Egypt and China. Worse, Trump doesn’t just praise them — he mimics what they do: Attacking the press. Threatening to jail his political rivals. Surrounding himself in the West Wing with family members and unqualified cronies.

How is the State Department supposed to promote freedom of the press abroad when Trump refers to journalists at home as “the enemy of the people”? How are our diplomats supposed to press for the release of political prisoners overseas when Trump incessantly talks about jailing his own opponents? And just imagine trying to lecture another country about the dangers of nepotism.

Well, apparently Trump realized this glaring hypocrisy, so instead of fixing it, he just stripped the word “democracy” from the State Department mission statement altogether.

The modern Republican Party used to be the Party of Reagan, which depicted America as a “shining city upon a hill” that stood for democracy and freedom. “And she’s still a beacon,” President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, “still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

The Republican Party is now the Party of Trump. The “beacon” is being snuffed out as America hurtles into its own darkness. In that darkness, Putin’s unthinkable dream is finally coming true.

Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”