Last week, before Russian threats toward Ukrainian borders turned into an all-out invasion, one part of the American media landscape questioned why we weren’t supporting the invaders.
“Hating [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has become the central purpose of America’s foreign policy. It’s the main thing that we talk about,” Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson said on Tuesday. “It might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious: What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
Interviewed on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show” on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump described Putin as “smart” and “savvy.” Then on Wednesday night, as reports of Russian explosions across Ukraine rolled in, Mr. Trump repeated his admiration for the Russian leader. J. D. Vance, a Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio, said during a Feb. 19 podcast interview with Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief strategist, “We did not serve in the Marine Corps to go and fight Vladimir Putin because he didn’t believe in transgender rights, which is what the U.S. State Department is saying is a major problem with Russia.” Mr. Bannon, for his part, hailed Mr. Putin as “anti-woke” hours before Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
The American political right was long associated with Cold War hawkishness. But in recent years the trend has shifted toward fawning praise for autocrats, even those leading America’s traditional adversaries, as well as projecting our own culture wars overseas. Where once Russia and other autocracies were seen as anti-democratic, they have now become symbols of U.S. conservatism —a mirror for the right-wing worldview.
Supporting Mr. Putin, as well as other authoritarian leaders, is yet another way in which the political right is weaponizing culture wars to further divide Americans.
Part of this new paradigm is that foreign policy is now a partisan matter. In 2016, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán offered an endorsement of then-candidate Donald Trump, admiration that was later returned. Mr. Putin’s Russia reportedly meddled in the American election in 2016, and the Russian president has admitted that he wanted Mr. Trump to win. Those amicable relationships trickled down to the Republican voting population, which shifted its views on Mr. Putin’s favorability, which soared from a mere 10 percent in July 2014 to 37 percent in December 2016. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll from January of this year found that 62 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents consider Vladimir Putin a stronger leader than Joe Biden.
“Strong” may be the key word here. In this construction, a strong leader is apparently one who cracks down on opposition, cultural and political, and does not concede. This idea then dovetails with right-wing ideas that liberal elites are actively corroding deeply held traditional values — including traditional gender roles. For those who spend a fair amount of airtime worrying about the emasculation of men, the kind of strength portrayed by Mr. Putin — who on Monday convened his top security officials and demanded they publicly stand and support him — is perhaps appealing.
Many of the admirers of the world’s strongmen on the American right appear to believe that the countries each of these men lead are beacons of whiteness, Christianity and conservative values. On Wednesday, conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote, “I adamantly oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make the Donbass safe for genderqueers and migrants.”
These comments, from the right, aren’t exactly advancing a new position. In 2018, political commentator Pat Buchanan said that Mr. Putin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko were “standing up for traditional values against Western cultural elites.” He considered the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs to have told a “moral truth” in asserting that same-sex relationships were “fake.” But those traditional values do not include the freedom to political opposition. According to Viasna Human Rights Center, an organization dedicated to keeping track of Belarusian abuses, there are over 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus, many of whom were arrested for peaceful assembly, protesting or daring to engage in political activities.
Russia is neither all white nor all Christian — it is a country that encompasses several regions, religions and ethnicities. Still, it is often perceived as white. White nationalist Richard Spencer has referred to Russia as “the sole white power in the world.” Matthew Heimbach, a founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party who was involved in the 2017 Unite the Right rally, has expressed admiration for Mr. Putin and ultranationalist European political leaders. “Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Mr. Heimbach told The Times in 2016. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.” As The Times reported at the time, this construction of Mr. Putin as a beacon of far-right values began with the ultra-far-right nationalists in Europe and later spread to the United States.
But, as the Washington Post opinion writer Christian Caryl wrote in 2018, just as the halcyon image American Communists had of Stalinist Russia in the early 20th century belied the truth of a brutal regime, the Russia celebrated today by conservatives is also, in some ways, a fiction.
In any event, Mr. Putin is not waging a culture war. He is waging real, actual war, in which real, actual lives are already being lost.
But then, why would that matter? The Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and Belarus of conservative pundits’ imaginations are just that: imaginings. Avatars. Projections of themselves. The Russians and Ukrainians who are living — and dying — do not factor into the picture.
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. senior editor at The New Statesman and author of “The Influence of Soros” and the forthcoming “Bad Jews.”
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