July 19, 2017 by Neal Gabler
This post first appeared on BillMoyers.com.
One of the most astonishing turnabouts in the history of American politics is the big bear hug with which so many conservatives and Republicans are embracing former KGB operative and current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. This, after 50 years of lacerating the former Soviet Union as what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.”
Nothing may better certify the chaos into which our world has descended after Donald Trump’s election than the fact that Republicans now seem perfectly content with the Russians having attempted to subvert our democratic process, something that not all that long ago would have sent them into a rage.
This isn’t necessarily because these Republicans think no such interference occurred, despite the proof that it did. It is because they revere what Putin represents more than they revere their own democracy.
You can call this rank hypocrisy. You can attribute it to Trump and his own Putin love and say that Republicans zealously follow their leader. But the truth is far more frightening: conservatives have a deep affinity for authoritarianism and an even deeper distrust of modern Western culture. When it comes down to it, their lament, as captured in surveys, is that America isn’t more like Russia.
I don’t have to tell you how chilling this is or what it portends. It means that many of your fellow Americans subscribe to the philosophy of a ruthless, murderous, lying, kleptocratic, illiberal potentate who runs the largest criminal organization in the history of the world. And if that doesn’t scare you, this will: These same people, although thankfully still a minority, run the country now.
That’s why Russia love matters.
Back in 1984, writer-director Paul Mazursky made a wonderfully funny and moving film starring Robin Williams as a Russian defector trying to find his way in New York. It was called Moscow on the Hudson, and though it wasn’t rah-rah or sappily patriotic — the hero goes through many travails — it was nevertheless a sweet valentine to this country of ours where so much is good in spite of ourselves.
In its own way, it set out the terms of engagement with the then-Soviet Union, which was an economic and moral disaster. None of that was terribly surprising — then. Alas, I suspect this charming movie would have little resonance today. In fact, a reboot might be titled America on the Volga.
Though Trump seems the black hole from which all evil emanates, and though he certainly gave license for his followers to embrace Putin — polls show a rapid change of heart about Putin in the GOP base over the last few years — Russia love among conservatives long preceded him. A seminal article in American Conservative by its founder Pat Buchanan in 2013 already was hailing America’s one-time enemy-in-chief as a possible savior of Western civilization. Buchanan approvingly quoted a Putin speech on moral depravity:
With America clearly in mind, Putin declared, “In many countries today, moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered.”
“They’re now requiring not only the proper acknowledgment of freedom of conscience, political views and private life, but also the mandatory acknowledgment of the equality of good and evil.”
Translation: While privacy and freedom of thought, religion and speech are cherished rights, to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil.
No moral confusion here, this is moral clarity, agree or disagree.
Then Buchanan added, “President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire ‘the focus of evil in the modern world.’ President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”
Not to be left behind, Matt Drudge called Putin “the leader of the free world.” And in the comments section of a 2014 piece on Putin by Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post, worshippers called the Russian dictator a “man’s man who makes his own decisions and loves his country and its citizens,” “a world leader,” “a professional and a very talented one” and “the West’s (and the world’s) last great hope.” One commenter proudly declared that he was naming his son Vladimir.
In an instructive and terrifying four-part series on Russia reported by the irreplaceable Nick Schifrin on the PBS NewsHour last week, you could easily see the conservative affinity for the authoritarian Russian state. A popular Russian commentator named Alexander Dugin told Schifrin that America and Russia are really mirror images of one another now, and the Russian state does appear to be the conservative paradigm: white, highly nationalistic, militaristic, oligarchic, nostalgic for a lost past (the Cossacks, who murdered Jews in pogroms, are back in vogue), moralistically religious (as one Russian Orthodox patriarch tells Schifrin, tradition supersedes law), highly suspicious of change and with a propagandistic state media system that closely resembles Fox News but without the countervailing forces of an objective, nonstate press. (No shocker here: Trump and Putin share hostile views of an independent press.)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, however it comes packaged, authoritarians like authoritarianism, or even that they find greater common cause with Russians dedicated to turning back the clock than with their fellow Americans determined to advance it. But what accounts for the pivot among these hard-boiled anti-communist conservatives, the turn from ostracizing Russia to extolling it? After all, under Stalin, Russia had virtually all the same characteristics as Putin’s, save for religiosity.
Here’s how I account for it: Republican anti-communism was always a hoax — an insincere political ploy to woo Americans fearful of Russian hegemony in an anxious postwar world and get them to turn on Democrats. After all, conservatives were nowhere near as exercised over Hitler’s threatened hegemony in prewar America, and some of them — including Republican congressmen Hamilton Fish, Jacob Thorkelson, Steven Day and George Tinkham — actually gave Hitler the kiss-kiss Putin treatment.
But anti-communism was different. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy demonstrated how much political advantage there was to gain from linking Rooseveltian liberalism to communism, the conservative wing of the Republican Party decided to go all in. To be sure, the GOP establishment didn’t much care for a crackpot like McCarthy (sound familiar?), but, as David Oshinsky points out in his McCarthy biography, A Conspiracy So Immense, Senate GOP leader Robert Taft — “Mr. Conservative” — recognized McCarthy’s usefulness and how the party could ride his Red-baiting to electoral victory, so he held his nose and let McCarthy rip.
It was never anti-communism that made those Republican hearts palpitate. It was the hatred of liberalism. McCarthy wasn’t attacking Russians. He was attacking Americans supposedly in league with Russians. (Talk about irony.) The party subsisted on that conflation for a long, long time, right up through Reagan. If you want to understand conservative Putin love now — if you want to understand conservatives — you can look to the same source. Putin hates liberal democracy. So do most Republicans now. It’s the old, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And Putin really is the enemy of their enemy — the very antithesis of liberal values.
During that 2013 speech that Patrick Buchanan loved so much, when Putin railed against Western decadence, he was launching an attack on liberal democracy that any American conservative could have delivered. He berated “so-called tolerance, neutered and barren,” (translated by some as “genderless and infertile”) and the “destruction of traditional values from above.” He explicitly called his vision “conservative,” saying, “the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.” Of course, some might see it as exactly the opposite.
Perhaps the best way of understanding what Putin means by values is his rabid homophobia, which seems to occupy a central place in his contempt for the West, much as it does with conservatives generally and evangelicals especially. Only Russia voted against a UN Security Council resolution to support the LBGQT community, and a Russian law preventing homosexuals from “propagandizing” teenagers was found homophobic by the European Court of Human Rights, although the law didn’t go anywhere near far enough for the popular anchorman of Russian state news. “They should be banned from donating blood, sperm,” he said of homosexuals. “And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”
Everyone knows what Russia is. The media have been doing their job to keep us apprised. (See Richard Engel’s MSNBC special report on Russia and the murder of the Putin regime’s opponents.) Everyone knows that it violates every value Americans once held sacred.
We now know that an all-too-large segment of Americans believe in the Russian way and seem eager to force its “traditionalism” down the country’s throat a la Putin. I think Breitbart News founder and Steve Bannon mentor Andrew Breitbart was correct when he was quoted as saying that politics is downstream from culture, which accounts for the fact that conservatives are alright with Putin subverting our democracy so long as the autocrat reviles liberal values.
But think of this: If it is all about destroying liberalism, there is another force that is also deeply religious, white, transnationalistic, gun-loving, autocratic, traditional, homophobic, women-hating, ruthless in achieving its ends, and hates liberal values even more than Putin does. Talk about conservative!
It’s called ISIS. When might we get that conservative pivot?