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Putin’s Useful Idiots on the American Right
Despite Putin’s naked and murderous aggression in Ukraine, some prominent conservative populists continue to admire and praise the Russian strongman
The valiant defense mounted by the Ukrainians against Russian aggression has united much of the world and almost all of America in stunned admiration. But not everyone. There were those who have expressed a different kind of admiration. Former President Donald Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “savvy.”
Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine—Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper.... We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.
Trump’s response, aside from being wrong—Putin’s invasion is looking more and more like a colossal blunder—reflects Trump’s habitual admiration for strongmen and bullies. What is more disturbing, though, is the support for Putin and Russia coming from a wider swath of the right.
Pat Buchanan was quick out of the gate arguing that Putin’s invasion is really our fault because we provoked Russia. The sympathy for Putin and Putinism drips from every sentence: “Putin is a Russian nationalist, patriot, traditionalist and a cold and ruthless realist looking out to preserve Russia as the great and respected power it once was and he believes it can be again.”
Buchanan is old and washed up, but you hear the same thing coming from a younger cohort of internet-native conservative populists like Candace Owens: “I suggest every American who wants to know what’s actually going on in Russia and Ukraine read this transcript of Putin’s address. As I’ve said for months—NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.” There is a fine line between American First and Blame America First.
You also hear this coming from prominent Trump sycophants like Steve Bannon. “On a podcast on Wednesday, Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former adviser, also praised Mr. Putin as ‘anti-woke.’ He suggested the Ukrainian conflict was ‘not our fight.’”
J.D. Vance, who is trying to sell his soul to the #MAGA right in exchange for a Senate seat—and failing—joined the chorus: “I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” He later backtracked, but this is the kind of situation where you only get one shot at getting it right.
Charlie Kirk, leader of the massive conservative grassroots organization Turning Point USA, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Florida last week, dismissed the attack on Ukraine as “a dispute 5,000 miles away in cities we can’t pronounce, places that most Americans can’t find on a map.” If I gave him more credit, I would think he was deliberately paraphrasing Neville Chamberlain’s description of the Sudetenland Crisis as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Kirk declared that instead of hearing about Ukraine, he wanted Republican politicians at CPAC to talk about the real “invasion” of illegal immigrants on our southern border. That’s one theme in conservative deflection on this issue. The other is sympathy for Putin because he is “anti-woke.” How can we say that the Russians are the bad guys in this war when they don’t practice “cancel culture”?
Here is Putin’s most prominent American cheerleader, top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson, asking his readers to question why they should hate Putin.
Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?
That part about “snuffing out Christianity” is the real underlying issue. America is becoming a more secular nation, the old “moral majority” is becoming a minority, and some of them are in a panic. Putin, meanwhile, has climbed to power by seeking a partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church, positioning himself as a defender of faith and traditional morality. There is an undercurrent in the American right that looks on this with envy, as a model they would like to adopt here at home.
I mean that literally. As gay marriage was gaining acceptance in the U.S., Putin responded with legislation criminalizing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” i.e., any defense of equal rights for homosexuals. This was championed by the Pat Buchanan types because “Putin is trying to reestablish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism.” And now Republicans are beginning to emulate this Putinist approach, starting with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” legislation for Florida’s public schools.
Reality Doesn’t Matter
The idea that Putin, a man who has carried out a decades-long campaign of assassination against his critics, is somehow an ally against “cancel culture” is an absurdity. “Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner” has a history of canceling his critics in the most literal sense, with Polonium, nerve gas and bullets. Equally absurd is the idea that Russia is some sort of utopia of Christian culture and moral values, a fantasy projected by American conservatives onto a much uglier reality. As Anne Applebaum writes:
In reality, Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, nearly double that of the United States. It has an extremely low record of church attendance, though the numbers are difficult to measure, not least because any form of Christianity outside of the state-controlled Orthodox Church is liable to be considered a cult. A 2012 survey showed that religion plays an important role in the lives of only 15% of Russians. Only 5% have read the Bible.
Or consider the courtroom speech of a young Russian dissident.
An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. Russia has the world’s [second-] highest rate of suicide among men. As a result, a third of all Russian families are single mothers with their kids. I would like to know: Is this how we are protecting the institution of the family?
But the reality of Russia doesn’t matter, only the fantasy of a “Christian nationalist” nation to be contrasted to the supposed failures of our liberal society. And of course, as in a previous Western flirtation with Russian dictatorship, all of these people are “useful idiots” whose rants are shown on Russian state-controlled TV as propaganda to support Putin’s invasion.
To get an idea of what’s at stake for our domestic politics, check out the Twitter feed of Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor for the New York Post, which is basically a long nervous exchange between him and fellow Christian nationalist Adrian Vermeule downplaying the Ukrainians’ chances, mocking them for their “false hopes,” disparaging the motives and characters of Ukrainian leaders, engaging in moral equivalence between Putin and the West, and dismissing the vast and nearly unanimous outpouring of support for Ukraine as “herd mentality and liberal arrogance.”
It is as if they know the game is over. Putin’s murderous madness has already exposed the vicious inhumanity of the Christian nationalist and integralist models. How can a man who forces kindergarteners into bunkers claim any kind of moral high ground? But worse, every day that Ukraine holds out exposes the weakness of Putin’s social model. The nationalists like to thump their chests about returning to a stronger creed—but what if modern Western liberalism proves itself the stronger creed?
That is the secret fear that motivates Putin’s conservative apologists, and it is yet another reason we should support Ukraine and hope for the success of their cause.