A fracture on the international right may seem small fry given everything that is going on right now. But it is worth loitering over. Because in recent years an interesting divide has grown among conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. On one side are the Cold War warriors and their successors who have continued to view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a strategic threat. Meanwhile, a new generation has arrived at a different view.
While the West has deranged itself with assaults on its own history, on biology and much more, an assortment of conservatives have come to see Putin as some kind of counterweight. A bulwark – even an admirable corrective – to the madness of our own societies.
As a guest on Steve Bannon’s talk show recently said: ‘The Russian people still know which bathroom to use.’ Of course knowing which bathroom to use isn’t everything. Certainly it is no basis for a foreign policy. But such shorthand has become commonplace.
There are those, for instance, who admire Putin for his embrace of the Orthodox Church. Why do our own political leaders not stand up for the Christian faith in such a sincere and totally uncynical way, they wonder.
On it goes. As the West goes woke-mad, Putin doesn’t even recognise the most basic rights of gay people. And as our political and cultural elites turn our own history into one of shame, Putin presents a version of Russian history filled only with pride. Just how badly these people have gone awry has become especially clear in recent days.
At the furthest extreme is America’s tiny white nationalist fringe, such as those at the America First Political Action Conference at which Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at the end of last month. That conference was made up of wannabe fascists who follow an especially repugnant little anti-Semite called Nick Fuentes. The crowd actually chanted ‘Putin, Putin, Putin’ before the ignoramus congresswoman took to the stage. She pretends to have heard none of this.
Part of what is going on here is known as ‘edgelording’, by which people spend most of their lives online revelling in saying the unsayable about the Holocaust, Putin and more. They may well know it to be wrong, but they get a quasi-sexual thrill from saying such things. Perhaps because it is the nearest thing to a sexual thrill they have ever known.
More significant figures also tread close to this. In the immediate aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Donald Trump made comments which sounded ludicrously admiring of him. Just before the invasion, as Putin prepared for it by ‘recognising’ the ‘independence’ of Donbas, Trump said to a radio show host: ‘This is genius.’ Of the ‘peacekeeping’ force Putin was threatening to send, Trump said that it was ‘the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen’.
This too has become a theme on part of the American and European right. We are weak, Putin is strong. We are dumb, he is smart. We obsess over stupid minutiae, Putin gets the big picture. As Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers said very recently: ‘Putin’s military gets Ukraine. Our military gets trannies and face masks.’ Of course we shall see if Putin gets Ukraine, let alone holds it. And we are already seeing how much genius there is in his unprovoked invasion. My suspicion is that most people will slink away from this position. But it is one they never had to assume in the first place.
At a conservative conference in Florida in November a fellow panellist compared the US military’s ridiculous ‘intersectional’ recruitment ads with the crazily tough-robots recruitment ads for the Russian army. As I pointed out then, such conservatives unwittingly fall for part of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Yes, our societies have problems. Yes, at times we can seem almost unsurvivably stupid. But it does not follow that you have to drool over the Kremlin’s version of itself.
Even the smartest of the new-generation Republicans have fallen into similar furrows. J.D. Vance, currently running to be senator for Ohio, bemoaned Joe Biden seeming more concerned about the integrity of Ukraine’s borders than he was about his own. Again, there is something in this. Over the past year more than two million illegal migrants have poured over the southern border into the United States, though, significantly enough, they did not arrive in tanks. Yet surely this does not need to be an either/or? Surely it must be possible to secure the southern border of the United States and not sit by idly as Russian tanks roll into an allied nation?
In part the right got here because left and right have heard too much about Russia in recent years. Ever since 2016 a certain type of leftist in particular has been perfectly happy to lie about Russian involvement in our politics and use Putin as a political cudgel for domestic disagreements. In the UK, this certain type of politician, journalist and pundit found it immensely comforting to blame the 2016 Brexit vote on Russian interference. So much easier than considering that the British public might have had enough of the EU and voted out.
Likewise in the US, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party spent years unwilling to accept that they had lost the 2016 election. Again, rather than reflect on how they could have lost to Donald J. Trump, they pretended, from the week after the election, that it must have been down to the Russians. So it has been across Europe, where there is the added complication that some parties actually have been supported by Russia. Yet rather than work out truth from lies we have seen conservatives and conservative movements across Europe routinely smeared with the blanket insult ‘Putin’. Neither does it help, in America, that the Biden family so enriched itself in Ukraine in recent years, and that these revelations were suppressed by Silicon Valley.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the right would get fed up with this. What was not inevitable was the conclusion that a portion of them decided to adopt.
Perhaps they will recognise their error now, and accept that it is possible to admit your own society has gone a bit crazy but that the man in the Kremlin has gone crazier still. Conservatives used to pride themselves on being able to do two things at once. So it is now. We should be able to walk and chew Putin at the same time.