One candidate doesn’t know what Aleppo is, but is quite certain that whatever is going on in Syria, the only way we can deal with it is by “joining hands with Russia.” The other argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been a leader, far more than [Barack Obama] has been a leader.” His pick for VP, hailing from the northern fringe of the Bible Belt, said that opinion was “inarguable.”
But how exactly did a country which in one iteration was the the world’s first constitutionally socialist state, only to mutate into a “gas station masquerading as a country”, as one prominent critic put it, become a beacon of hope for America’s increasingly fractious (and fractured) right?
The answer to that question, of course, is as varied as the sundry state of American conservatism itself. Putin has become a Rorschach test for the American afflicted. Knowledge of his actual policies or how they manifest themselves in Russia society has little bearing on his perceived efficacy as a leader. Much like Trump himself, perceptions of Putin are far less a matter of rational choice than emotional need.
Establishment Republicans, who had long excited the passions of Americans who saw elections in eschatological, and not political terms, one day woke up to find they had lost control of a base they had been whipping into a frenzy for decades.
Is it really shocking that a party which ignored (if not actively undermined) the interests of the working class at every turn while engaging in dog whistle politics and playing upon the most paranoid fears of pre-tribulationists would one day decry the fact that the lunatics had taken over the asylum?
The rise of Trump, and the seemingly oblique embrace of Putin, have been fueled in part by the establishment’s perceived betrayal of the social contract with the white working class. The post-war years were defined by rising living standards, two-tone ideological considerations and political realism.
Americans were the good guys fighting the good fight against an Evil Empire that built concrete walls and dropped iron curtains.
But then the end of the Cold War ushered in the end of history, a much heralded utopia that for many devolved into a post-industrial wasteland where neither gender, God, nor well-paying jobs appeared to actually exist anymore.
As it increasingly seemed that the culture wars and America-first rhetoric were in fact smoke screens for a two-party duopoly beholden to the movements of global capital and other shadowy “cosmopolitan” forces, right wing political movements from Tea Party populists, libertarians, paleoconservatives, outright nazis and the so-called alt-right have all sought to pour a healthy dose of iodine into brackish political waters.
How these same groups would come to lionize one of the most opaque and unaccountable political systems in the world is, to put it mildly, ironic.
But, for leading libertarians like Ron Paul, his son Rand Paul, their ideological bedfellow (and Aleppo-amnesiac Gary Johnson), arch Paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan and white supremacist Richard Spencer, Putin has at worst been given a bad rap, and at best serves as an exemplar for the type of leader needed to pull Western civilization from the brink.
In this strange, post-Reagan world of the right, Americans no longer tear down walls, they build them; Russia is no longer viewed as the Evil Empire, but is rather the levy holding back America’s decadent globalist tide.
Otherwise, after Putin comes the flood…
‘One of us’
In a December 2013 article entitled ‘Is Putin One of Us?’, Buchanan bemoaned the fact that “our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live.”
Given the fact that Buchanan’s grandfather actually fought on the side of the Confederacy, one is free to take from that statement what they will. He goes on to write that Reagan had once called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world,” though, as Putin implied in a recent speech, “Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”
Buchanan continues that Americans caught up in a “Cold War paradigm” have missed the decisive struggle of the 21st century, which entails “conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”
In a later essay published this past May entitled “Why Russia Resents Us,” Buchanan, in reference to NATO’s expansion, poses the question, “If there is a second Cold War, did Russia really start it?” Buchanan is not the only one who who believes the US policy establishment is stuck a Cold War paradigm (while otherwise missing the plot).
On the eve of military operations that would see Russia annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Senator Rand Paul argued: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”
Then, in April 2014, after Russian had already annexed Crimea and was clandestinely fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine, Johnson, the Libertarian party nominee, had choice words not for actual Russian intervention, but perceived US meddling, while speaking on RT America.
“When you look at The Ukraine [sic] right now, that would be analogous to Russia getting involved in Puerto Rico. They’re not going to do it. We shouldn’t get involved in The Ukraine [sic].”
Months later, when Russian-backed rebels shot down passenger flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, Ron Paul was quick to jump to Russia’s defense.
“Just days after the tragic crash of a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, Western politicians and media joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster. It had to be Russia; it had to be Putin, they said.”
Those more establishment figures echo the views of Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-right movement which is, in many ways, a synthesis of 20th century white supremacy and 21st century 4chan sophomoric snark.
This past December, RT gave him a platform to both advocate for a Trump presidency and further join the chorus of right wing cheerleaders rallying against a Western-agitated Cold War 2.0.
In his words, Putin and Trump to some degree offer “an alternative to what you call neo-conservative or neoliberal foreign policy.”
He continues that it was ridiculous for former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to say that Russia was America’s number one geopolitical adversary.
“Anyone who would say that is not looking at the world as it is; they are looking at the world through some 1980’s Cold War rosy glasses.”
Spencer had previously written about what he called “Putin Derangement Syndrome, what he called “a common affliction among Washington consensus journalists” following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
“Symptoms include delusions that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not simply a totalitarian dictator at home but a super-genius strategist in foreign affairs. If anything unusual happens in his part of the world, it’s all part of one of his wicked schemes for more power,” he wrote.
In short, Putin, through his embrace of traditional values and penchant for, if not non-interventionism, at least spheres of influence, resonates with political actors themselves who are struggling with the perceived decline of nation-states and the alleged rise of unaccountable globalist forces. For his troubles, he’s been consistently demonized by the Western establishment.
Further below the surface, there is a tacit belief among many that white Americans are being deracinated in their own homeland, and Putin, somehow, offers a chance at mooring one’s nation against inundation of the other.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has grasped at the basic tenants of these intellectual undercurrents, both in his praise of Putin and denigration of Obama, his threats to deport 11 million Mexicans and ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, and his promise of protectionist policies to somehow stem the tide of transnationalism.
Trump has also embraced non-interventionism by coming out against the Iraq War, though he did tell NBC’s Matt Lauer “it used to be [to] the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, take the oil.”
That he would advocate non-intervention and pillaging at the same time is likely a sign of his deep political illiteracy. But then, Trump is grasping at ideas put out by more intellectually dexterous members of political movements he scantly understands but primally embraces.
He further solidified that targeted ideological incorporation by choosing chairman of Breitbart Media and alt-right promulgator, Stephen Bannon, to lead his campaign.
Nothing is real
Many non-ideological Trump’s supporters, in turn, are simply harkening back to the postwar years where everything, from the rules to remaining a productive member of the middle class to the immutability of the now endlessly mutable sexual, moral and cultural values, were more concrete.
Despite fears of nuclear war, the binary battle between communism and capitalism provided a model which, at least in hindsight, was more intellectually (and emotionally) tractable. No matter how formidable the opponent, the spectacle of well-trained pugilists having it out under the Marquess of Queensberry rules provided a metanarrative everyone could follow.
The post 9-11 era, in turn, brought a Royal Rumble with the referee having been concussed by a folding chair outside of the ring. Everything has been decentralized and deconstructed. Perpetual watchers of the 24-hour news cycle have long since had the bends.
Proponents of Putin are looking to return to that world of Hegelian conflict, though this time, it will, as Buchanan put it, be a decisive struggle between traditionalists and the secular, multicultural, transnational elites. This time, it is America, or at the very least the American establishment, sitting on the wrong side of history. This time, it is our house which needs to be burnt down and built anew.
Matthew Heimbach, a self-described white nationalist and leader of the US-based Traditionalist Worker Party has followed Buchanan’s logic, telling eurasia.net this past July:
“[The World National-Conservative Movement] is a broad coalition of all ethno-nationalists – all nationalists that reject neoliberalism, and reject globalism, coming together as a united front, based out of Russia. [During the Soviet period] there was the Comintern, the Communist International. And in the modern era, it’s almost like a nationalist version – or the Traditionalist International.”
He further said that “Putin is the leader, really, of the anti-globalist forces around the world.”
Trump, with his rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans, mixed in with protectionist promises and anti-PC swagger, has modeled himself, not exactly on what Putin is, but rather on what he perceives Putin to be.
It was enough to earn him the support of former-KKK leader David Duke, who has shown sympathy towards the Russian president, writing in 2005 that “Putin and the Russian people dare to defend themselves from the powers of Jewish supremacism.”
Duke for his part has been traveling to Russia, a country he once labeled “the key to white survival,” throughout the duration of Putin’s tenure.
He was an early adopter in the belief that Russia, along with other Eastern countries, had the “greatest chance of having racially aware parties achieving political power.”
They know not what they speak
For many of globalization’s discontents, Putin’s Russia has become an imagined bulwark against an ever-changing social and economic tide. That Putin himself is a neoliberal completely enamored with the benefits of transnational finance is seemingly lost on many of them. How, after all, do staunch opponents of “creeping islamisation” tout Putin as the vanguard defender of Christendom when he successfully lobbied for Russia to be granted observer status in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation over a decade back?
Putin, who opened Moscow’s new grand mosque last year, heralded “traditional Islam as an important spiritual component of Russia’s identity” during a visit to Uffa in 2013.
Ironically, Rustam Batrov, the deputy mufti of Tatarstan, expressed a sentiment to Al Jazeera America that sounded shockingly similar to a something Buchanan (or Heimbach) might have said:
“Just like after the fall of Byzantium, [when] Moscow saw itself as the Third Rome, defending orthodoxy, under Stalin we were the defenders of the proletariat, [and] today Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.”
Begging the question for Putin’s Western cheerleaders: What fruits, exactly, have these so-called traditional values borne at home?
Russia has been chided by pro-life activists for having an “abortion culture” while the number of registered cases of HIV exceeded the one-million mark in January.
The country also boasts some of the highest divorce rates in the world. It is beset with a raging heroine epidemic and endemic alcohol abuse. Domestic violence is rampant.
Due to Putin’s economic policies which have led to a protracted financial crisis, prostitution has also surged in Russia. Vladimir Zazhmilin, deputy head of the campaign group Vice Squad, told Newsweek earlier this year that the number of Russians engaged in sex work had “exceeded 3 million a long time ago.”
And while Barack Obama is ostensibly a closeted Muslim, it is Putin’s Russia where, according to RT, “girls as young as three undergoing genital mutilation.”
Then there are the child brides and polygamy , which anti-gay activist and archconservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina said would be “ridiculous” to criminalize, as there are “not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children.”
That “traditional” idea has long held by leader of the faux ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who a decade back said polygamy should be instituted in Russia “because we have 10 million unmarried women”.
That such a country has been reconceptualized as some sort of Valhalla for white, Western, Christian traditionalists and outright neo-nazis beggars belief.
Russia, the non-interventionist, has invaded two of its neighbors in eight years, annexing (both de facto and de jure) parts of their territories, while holding other neighbors hostage by leveraging frozen conflicts that the Kremlin can help reignite at any time. Then there is Russia’s at times indiscriminate intervention in Syria.
Another bugbear of conservatives in general and Trump in particular — immigration —is an issue that also resonates with the Russian right.
Russia, after all, has the world’s second largest migrant population, trailing only the US. And unlike in the United States, many of those migrants are Muslims. Regardless of rhetoric about creeping Sharia in the UK, France and Germany, it is Russia that boasts Europe’s largest Muslim population.
And from the 2010 Manezhnaya Square riot to the 2013 riot in Moscow’s Biryulyovo district — both sparked by the murder of ethnic Slavs by Muslim migrants — multicultural-free Russia is anything but free of ethnic tensions. Putin’s embrace of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, along with his penchant for “feeding the Caucasus”, meanwhile, has never sat well with Russian nationalists themselves.
Though in truth, none of this really matters. Such misconceptions about Putin’s Russia are essentially myths for disaffected Westerners grasping for an alternative view of reality. For those piecing together the world via message boards and broadband rather than direct experience, anything and everything can be whatever one needs it to be.
Ultimately Trump, who has long aped the affectations of the authoritarian strong man, implicitly offers a key component of palingenetic ultranationalism: the promise of societal rebirth following period of moral decay. Putin, through his rhetoric and carefully-crafted strong man image, has proved an exemplar for those looking to bring the United States from it knees, even if, in the end, they are merely dragging it into the gutter.