Two old friends of mine once sat at opposite ends of the political spectrum. One was pro-American – a liberal Cold Warrior and Vietnam War advocate. The other was very leftist, a longtime opponent of “American imperialism” and a convinced anti-Zionist. Both are now strong proponents of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda: Ukraine is a Nazi-dominated American puppet state, Putin is a man of peace, Russia must defend itself against a warmongering North Atlantic Treaty Organization , etc
One could easily dismiss their blog posts and YouTube performances as the rantings of bitter old men. But that will not be enough. Because their views echo those of prominent politicians on the fringes of left and right. And they are amplified in mainstream media such as Fox News as well as, of course, countless social media far beyond the US and Europe.
Until recently, far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour called Putin a brave nationalist defending his country against NATO. “I would dream of a French Poutine,” he once said. His far-left rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon has defended Russian atrocities in Syria and accused NATO of invading Ukraine.
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Former President Donald Trump called Putin a “genius”. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News political showman, described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as an “obedient puppet of the … State Department,” praised Putin as an advocate of white Christian values, and repeated propaganda Russian over US biological warfare labs in Ukraine.
What do these Putin propaganda parrots have? For the most part, their defense of the indefensible has less to do with genuine love for Putin or Russia than with domestic politics. Zemmour wants to be the French Poutine. Mélenchon wants France to leave NATO.
Carlson and his hero Trump hate President Joe Biden so much they will defend his greatest enemy. In this they resemble the America Firsters of the 1930s, who viewed Franklin D. Roosevelt as a more dangerous enemy than Adolf Hitler. These isolationists, too, felt that the United States was being drawn into a foreign war – in their view, by liberals and Jews. The latter, in the words of Charles Lindbergh, posed a particular danger because of “their wide ownership and influence in our films, our press, our radio and our government”.
Much of the pro-Putin rhetoric today too reflects disgust with what is seen as the grip of “liberal elites” over media, finance and foreign affairs. In Europe, these elites are associated with the bureaucracy of the European Union, generous immigration policies and a tolerance of Islam. In the United States, the main bugbears are the United Nations, anti-racist activists, immigrants, and liberals who believe that the United States has a duty to fight for global freedom and democracy. In developing countries like India, Putin’s supporters resent being lectured by Western powers on human rights.
Even harmful ideas sometimes contain a kernel of truth. America’s catastrophic wars in the Middle East, touted by Republicans as well as warmongering Democrats as great battles for democracy, were terrible mistakes. Poor Americans rightly resented the politicians who sent them to fight overseas. This helps explain why NATO, which once had bipartisan support, is now viewed by the Trumpist right with almost as much hostility as by the anti-imperialist left.
Yet the most important thing that extremists on each side of the political spectrum have in common is a deep sense of self-pity. In their minds, they are always ‘marginalized’, dominated or threatened by a seemingly omnipotent establishment. In the United States, inevitably, race plays a large role in such sentiments, albeit for opposing reasons left and right. Leftists are obsessed, not without reason, with “white supremacy”. On the right, Carlson asks with a straight face, “Does [Putin] teach my children to accept racial discrimination? »
Both Putin and Trump like to present themselves as victims – or, at least, as leaders who speak on behalf of the victims of liberal elites, arrogant internationalists, critical race theorists or people who disrespect “greatness”. Russian or American. It is this idea of victimization that people, especially on the far right, identify with. Remember how Nazi propaganda was steeped in grievances: the treatment of Germany by the Allied nations after World War I, the domination of the Jews who were supposed to pull all the strings of power. The first official heroes of the Nazi movement were “martyrs” who died in street fights with leftists.
The real victims exist, of course. But when powerful men exploit the fear of powerlessness to stir up popular anger, it becomes a dangerous force, because it is always bent on revenge. When there is revenge, there will always be blood.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Human Rights at Bard College. His latest book is “The Churchill Complex”. ©2022 Bloomberg LP Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.