AAmerica is divided. It’s not new. But the authoritarian leader of the Kremlin deciding to invade a Democratic neighbor — it’s the kind of international crisis that traditionally might have inspired a closing of ranks: putting aside differences, letting domestic squabbles rest. But the conservatives obviously got out of the idea of patriotic unity. Right-wing reactions to Russia’s attack on Ukraine range from blatant admiration for Putin to anti-Russian saber slashes combined with sharp criticism of President Joe Biden. Donald Trump initially called the invasion a “genius”; he then defended his position at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend, adding that NATO was “not so smart” and “our leaders are stupid”. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson, America’s most famous cable news anchor, ridiculed American solidarity with Ukraine, a country he called a “tyranny,” ruled by “the people who paid Joe Biden’s family”.
Donald Trump is the political leader of the Republican Party and likely its next presidential candidate. Tucker Carlson is one of the nation’s leading right-wing culture warriors. Trump and Carlson aren’t fringe voices, and neither are they outliers: At last week’s CPAC, conservative speakers focused their anger on Joe Biden’s alleged weakness as the real cause of the Putin’s aggression; and they left no doubt about who they saw as the biggest threat – the “enemy within”as Senator Rick Scott said, “our country’s militant left wing.”
This may sound shocking, but it should come as no surprise that many Republican leaders and conservative elites believe the US president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular and “left” liberalism. In 2013, for example, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our time, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country rising up against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famed evangelist Franklin Graham praised Putin for “taking a stand to protect the children of his country from the ill effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda that Barack Obama was supposed to pursue in the United States.
After the 2016 election, simmering admiration for Putin turned into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican Party’s pro-Russian turn. This rapprochement has shaped the right well beyond the conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump is strongly correlated with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the United States as a “Christian nation” have a much more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.
Such authoritarian, white Christian nationalist and anti-left leanings now inform the right-wing reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The far right is all-out on Putin – Steve Bannon, for example, declared his support because “Putin is not awake, he is anti-awakening.” On the Christian nationalist wing of the Republican Party, Lauren Witzke, Delaware’s 2020 Republican Senate nominee, proudly declared that she supported Putin because it protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than with Joe Biden. Not to be outdone, the Wendy Rogers, Arizona State Senator stressed that “I stand with Christians everywhere and not with the world bankers who push ungodliness and degeneration in our faces”; in case it wasn’t entirely clear which side she was on, she added that Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, was “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.” Finally, Tucker Carlson, representative of a whole phalanx of right-wing media activistsboldly stated in the days leading up to the invasion why his problem was not with russia“Has Putin ever called me a racist? Did he threaten to fire me for disagreeing with him? The message was clear: the real threat was the “awakened” cancellation mob at home, not the staunch defender of Christian values abroad.
Vladimir Putin precisely understands his appeal to Western reactionaries. He likes to present himself as an ally in the fight against “wokeism”. In a high-profile speech in October 2021, for example, he attacked “cancel culture” and the West’s supposed obsession with trans rights, called the teaching of gender fluidity “on the brink of a crime against humanity”, spoke out against “reverse discrimination”. against the majority in the interests of minorities”, and emphasized his love for traditional “family values”.
This speech, in particular, earned Putin rave reviews from conservative commentators and intellectuals. A telling example is that of Rod Dreher, editor of the American Conservative. Dreher is a leading figure on the religious right; certainly not a moderate, but in good standing – and friends – with conservatives like Ross Douthat and David French who are widely respected and admired by liberals. Dreher is an interesting pointer to the reactionary intellectual sphere: he is reluctantly pro-Trump, because he is enthusiastically illiberal. “Putin, Orban and all the illiberal leaders our baizuocracy loves to hate are all absolutely clear and absolutely correct about the destructive nature of the awakening society and post-liberal leftism,” Dreher mused a while ago. some months. And he was quick to voice his disdain for Western support for Ukraine: “I categorically oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make Donbass safe for homosexuals and migrants”. In other words, it’s not necessarily that Dreher wants to see Putin win — he simply shares his contempt for America’s “woke” culture. This criticism has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “anti-American” woke left wants to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in significantly undermining the nation, in particular its “Awakened and emasculated soldiers”, as Texas Senator Ted Cruz said; a weak West foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and blast the gender binary“, according to right-wing activist Ben Shapiro.
None of the conservatives and right-wingers who currently profess sympathy for Putin seem to know much about Russia or care about the specific causes and dynamics of what is happening in Ukraine. What matters to them is an imaginary Russia: a bastion of white patriarchal Christianity, where men become real men. They also love the way autocrats like Putin and Orbán glorify their country’s past and forcefully fend off these cunning “globalists.” For Western reactionaries, imaginary versions of ‘Russia’ and ‘Hungary’ have become models for organizing society and dealing with the real ‘leftist’ enemy.
The American right is not alone in its reaction to Putin’s invasion. Across the West, far-right and reactionary movements have also oscillated between openly siding with Russia and condemning Putin while fully agreeing with his general criticism. right-wing politicians Switzerlandconservative commentators in Germany, reactionary monarchists in the United Kingdom: everywhere one looks, the same diagnosis: the West had seen it clearly, weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture”.
The right’s transnational admiration for autocrats like Putin and Orbán is a crucial reminder that the struggle for democracy and multiracial pluralism is not just being played out in the United States, and that reactionary counter-mobilization is an international phenomenon. It’s also why, conversely, right-wing movements around the world are obsessed with Trump. They rejoiced in 2016, seeing in his election proof that the forces of reaction would eventually prevail. Trump, in this interpretation, was seen as proof that any attempt to install a multiracial pluralist democracy would trigger a reaction strong enough to defeat the nefarious forces of liberalism – Trump was meant to stem the tide.
In a way, the growing obsession with foreign autocrats is a reaction to Trump’s failure to deliver on his promise. If not Trump, then who? The reactionaries look elsewhere. Many, like Dreher, believe that Putin and Orbán have shown the way forward: “They understand that this is a civilizational struggle and that they are not just dealing with opponents, but very people. powerful forces pushing an agenda that is tearing our societies apart.”
All over the world, people on the right understand the transnational dimension as well as the global historical significance of the current struggle for democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial and pluralist democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has in fact never existed. There have been several stable and fairly liberal democracies – but either they were culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a fairly clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial and pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined in any meaningful way by race, gender or religion? I don’t think this has ever been done anywhere. It’s a vision that reactionaries abhor – for them it would be the end of “Western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by any means necessary.
Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, specializing in the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and contributing opinion writer for the US Guardian.