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If Loving Putin Is ‘Right,’ I Want to Be Wrong

On May 17, I listened to what for me was a mystifying televised conversation [1] between Tucker Carlson and a conservative guest. Tucker expressed his real or feigned astonishment that the Democrats, and the left more generally, would “make such a pivot regarding Russia.” It is “ironic that the left used to ‘love’ what is now Russia” but is now beating up on this country and its president. The guest explained this was natural, since “President Vladimir Putin does not subscribe to their progressive worldview as Soviet leaders did.” But Tucker persisted in treating a favorable view of Putin’s regime as characteristic of the left. He may have done this at least partly to draw our attention to the presumed blunders of two Democrats, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who went quite far in accommodating Russia.

Although Tucker was playing partisan games, he may be too much part of the Republican establishment bubble to have fully understood what Prince was saying. Allow me to restate it in a way that is relevant for this commentary: With notable exceptions, the further one moves to the Right, the less anti-Putin people sound.

And this is hardly surprising. Putin makes no secret about his associations with the Right, whether he is speaking out against the power of LGBT activists in the West, praising the cultural influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, or cultivating the friendship of Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, or other figures of the European Right. Those on what has been called “the hard Right” here in the U.S. have noticed these gestures. They respond with either gushing admiration for the conservative Putin, or criticism of the Leftists and neoconservatives who despise Putin as “fascist” or reactionary. One has to be very insular about ideological divisions on the Right to believe that conservatives are uniformly against Putin. The entire Right, beyond the journalistically acceptable, mainstream “conservative movement,” has a soft, and sometimes even a squishy soft, spot [2] for the Russian president.

This list would include (but is not exhausted) by at least some contributors to Breitbart, Pat Buchanan, Taki, paleoconservative and paleolibertarian bloggers, so-called cultural conservatives, neo-Confederates and the alt-right. Pat Buchanan is not alone on the right when he praises Putin as the “preeminent statesman of our time [3]” and “one of us [4], a paleoconservative.” A commentator [5] for the “Daily Beast” who is terrified that someone with these opinions was once the confidant of American presidents, may be just now expanding her political horizons. She is noticing a largely marginalized American right; and contrary to what she asserts, this force is not the same as the GOP establishment.

Although I correspond with and speak to Putin-admirers just about every day, I don’t necessarily agree with their view of Russia’s president. Unlike my friends on this end of the dial, I don’t find Putin to be a man of peace, who supposedly consults with Russian Orthodox holy men before reaching his political decisions. His aggressive behavior in Ukraine and Syria suggests the need for us in the West to be wary of his expansionist ambitions. Moreover, I am unsettled by my fellow-Rightists who seem to have forgotten the murder and mayhem unleashed by past Russian governments against Ukrainians, Balts, Hungarians, Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans. Trump was perfectly justified when he reminded the Poles (who need no reminding) of their suffering under the Soviet Russian occupation. And as a former KGB official, Putin was not totally free of entanglement in the repressive Soviet government under which so many Europeans suffered.

But I also fully appreciate the frustration of the pro-Putin Right here and in Western Europe. These are the people who have seen the Right-Center move decidedly to the left on social and cultural issues. The conservative establishment has also closed ranks with the Left against populist and traditional rights. An understandable frustration drives Putin worship—and may also cause its bearers to find considerable merit in Trump because of the enemies whom our president attracts. Also contributing to this adulation for Putin are some of the moral reasons given by the Left and the neoconservatives for why we’re supposed to hate the Russian “thug.” [6] These reasons are presented emphatically in the book [7] The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age recently brought out by the neoconservative star advocate James Kirchik, courtesy of Yale University Press. The “good Europe” that Kirchik holds up for our admiration is mostly a politically correct one, which favors feminism, gay rights and secularism. But Kirchik sees this “West” as being under assault. He stresses the danger posed by Muslim extremists, who are seen as both anti-Semitic, and opposed to the kind of advanced democracy that Kirchik wants the entire planet to enjoy.

The End of Europe refurbishes the conceptual polarity that Arthur Schlesinger introduced into American political debate after the Second World War in The Vital Center [8]. Supposedly the good guys are located in what the author calls the “center,” a position flanked by “extremists” on either end. For Kirchik and other neoconservatives, the extremists on the right are homophobic nationalists and religious reactionaries like Putin, Marine and Orban, and those on the other end are violent Muslims and their Western enablers. The “coming dark age” may soon descend on Europe unless that continent starts producing lots of people who think like Kirchik and his neoconservative and neoliberal patrons. (I won’t hold my breath until my alma mater’s press publishes my book-length riposte to this argument.)

Kirchik’s reasoning is common among not very conservative, “respectable” conservatives; and it drives a purer Right not only up the wall, but also, metaphorically, into the arms of Vladimir Putin. If the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal subscribe, even with reservations, to Kirchik’s neoconservative vision for Europe, then their most hated European adversary Vladimir Putin will seem like a great guy to masses of non-establishment Right-wingers. The American Right is split between an official opposition to the Left, and a much more boisterous and genuine Right that the establishment keeps out of public view. As George Hawley points out in his study [9] of Rightist critics of the conservative movement, these two Rights have been mortal enemies for decades; and it wouldn’t surprise me if Tucker Carlson, who dwells largely in the bubble of Washington’s elite, blue-blood Republican conservatism,  knew nothing about the attitudes of a Right that he doesn’t hang with. The only pro-Putin voices whom he’s had on his program are those of two dissenting Leftists, Stephen Cohen and Oliver Stone.

It would be unfair for me to close without noting a sensible comment about Putin that I discovered where I least expected to find it, from a senior editor of Weekly Standard. Christopher Caldwell expresses eloquently in a speech at Hillsdale College [10] why non-respectable conservatives admire Putin, warts and all. What Caldwell observes about Putin as a symbol of resistance to globalism and the cultural Left seems entirely credible; and Caldwell’s remarks conclude with this noteworthy statement:

Putin has become a symbol of national sovereignty in its battle with globalism. That turns out to be the big battle of our times. As our last election shows, that’s true even here.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "If Loving Putin Is ‘Right,’ I Want to Be Wrong"

#1 Comment By MM On July 18, 2017 @ 11:30 am

“The myth that ‘the Left’ always admired Russia/USSR is a straw man that lost any credibility by 1956.”

Right, because the New Left never existed, and never embraced Mao, Castro, etc. and by extension, Stalin:

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Many of the students in the movement went on to very successful careers in the Democratic party, academia, etc.

#2 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On July 18, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

@Nick
“Do American pro-Putinists deny that Russians shot down flight MH-17?”

It was pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, not Russians, who shot it down by mistake.

Do American anti-Putinists deny that the US shot down Iran Air 655, leading to the deaths of 290 people? That was a similar mistake.

#3 Comment By Dan Phillips On July 18, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

This is not a mystery people. We know how the consensus globalist neoliberals view Russia because they tell us in so many words how they view Russia. Go to the Amazon page for Kirchick’s book and read the description. It is exactly the same thing the Russia sympathetic right says except the things we think are bad and need to be dismantled (the liberal world order), they think are good and need to be preserved.

As a neocon, Kirchick perhaps differs somewhat from some globalist in that he recognizes a problem with mass Muslim immigration, but his fundamentally liberal system renders him powerless to do anything about it because in the same breath he denounces nationalism.

#4 Comment By Dan Phillips On July 18, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

Read this. I called this already.

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#5 Comment By Reality Check On July 18, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

Janwaar Bibi says:
July 16, 2017 at 8:43 pm
His aggressive behavior in Ukraine and Syria suggests the need for us in the West to be wary of his expansionist ambitions.

This is nonsense on stilts.

Putin’s “aggressive behavior” in Syria was to support a secular Arab government against a bunch of Islamic thugs that included Al-Qaeda and ISIS. This may not be clear to people in the US since the US is a client state of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who want Syria to disintegrate, but it is perfectly obvious to the rest of the world.

Ukraine is payback for what the Western powers did in Kosovo. To spite Russia, the Western powers supported Kosovo when it broke off from Serbia, claiming they were doing it to support the right of self-determination.

Yes, it is nonsense ‘on stilts’, as you so aptly describe. However, Payback for Kosovo is only part of the Ukraine story. Kosovo was indeed a precedent, since the UN saw fit to give it the necessary ‘legal’ opinion for secession but so did it act as precedent for subsequent ‘secessions’ under similar circumstance. If Kosovo, with fewer civilian casualties (according to KFOR) ascribed to the JNA, than those in the Donbas under Ukraine’s ATO, can be regarded as a ‘unique case’, then certainly by the same criteria, so should the Donbas.

Suffice it to say, the direct analogs to 1) Crimea was Slovenia and that to 2) the Donbas is Kosovo.

There’s an added twist. It was clearly Washington’s intent (led by Nuland, Kagan and their beloved PNACmanifesto) to evict Russia from Sevastopol (much as Yushchenko had tried to do years earlier and ‘capture’ Crimea for NATO, hence creating a NATO lake of the Black Sea. Ask any US military strategist over a whiskey sometime if Russia behaved ‘rationally’ or not re: Crimea. Ask them what they’d have done had Cuba had gathered the necessary force to repatriate Guantanamo as a bonus. To that end, a violent coup d’etat transpired that if not a carbon copy of the 1953 Iranian coup, hired fascist thugs and all, it certainly was a passing facsimile.

No sir, as every month passes since Maidan, it only revalidates my original thoughts that we are most definitely on the wrong side of history on this one. The history books will not treat this one kindly.

#6 Comment By G. Mayre On July 18, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

My opinion of Paul Gottfried is that he is a Jew neocon shill of the right, and his invented “Russian aggression” nonsense copied from the press controlled by his fellow tribesman does little to change that opinion.

#7 Comment By unwelcome guest On July 19, 2017 @ 11:19 am

@G. Mayre – what a disgusting and ignorant comment. I’m surprised that TAC’s famously well-balanced curation let it through.

#8 Comment By sid_finster On July 19, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

“aggressive behavior in Ukraine and Syria”?

Please.

On the one hand, we have an American financed and led coup against a democratically elected government, which brought actual live Nazis into positions of power. Putin could at worst be said to be salvaging what he could without going to war.

In Syria, Russia is there at the request of the legitimate and internationally recognized government.

The United States is the aggressor in both these situations.

#9 Comment By SteveJ On July 19, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

Putin understood that the political objectives attached to the Iraq operation wouldn’t work.

He understood that the political objectives attached to the Libya operation wouldn’t work.

He understands that current U.S. policy in Syria won’t work.

It looks to me like he should be hired by the U.S. as a Middle Eastern consultant.

That hardly translates into being “enthralled” with the guy.

It does mean that I understand what a Constitutional Republic is and have some idea as to how it comes about. And it means I understand the harm Democracy, as opposed to a Constitutional Republic, can cause.

Oh I forgot Yemen, where war crimes are committed on a weekly basis with our support for the “good” of its people. Silly me. In the brutality category, the Saudis, and by extension us, are putting Putin and Assad to shame.

#10 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On July 19, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

I share the opinion that President Putin (as well as President Trump) are symbols and world brands. Symbol Putin in addition to national sovereignty means the ability to keep a punch, efficiency, logic, restraint, the ability to protect the weak, and … and of course politeness. A person who likes these traits of character is a man of Putin. But it seems to me that Putin does not need love. He needs a result. Meanwhile, America is one of the most effective countries in the world. People appreciate the efficiency and the result in this country. After reading the article, I thought: to love Putin, not to love Putin. What are all our arguments compared to one real thing?
If many local adult men who are able to bear arms believe that to evade the defense of their homes, old men and women, to hide in the territory of neighboring countries is right, then one day there will be a person in America who will do wrong. He will sell the property, take the last savings from the bank and come to protect other people’s old people, women, children to the other end of the world at his own expense.
If he is lucky and he will survive, I have no doubt that Putin will shake his hand.

#11 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On July 19, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

Nowhere is the political status quo’s invincible ignorance more prominent than in two related things–free trade and Russia. Utopian free trade policies under the self-dealing auspices of the Washington Consensus drove Russia into economic ruin after the end of the Cold War, and now Putin is paying us back for it.

I blame the henchmen of the Washington Consensus for Russia’s contemporary aggressiveness. The intellectually curious may wish to read Ian Fletcher’s brilliant *Free Trade Doesn’t Work* alongside Stephen F. Cohen’s masterful book on “the tragedy of post-communist Russia.” The latter book names names in the footnotes–lots of Bill Clinton people as well as establishment Republicans and well-respected journalists.

Much of what comes from purveyors of the weakened but still powerful Washington Consensus is, almost by definition, Fake News, especially when it concerns Russia.

#12 Comment By Matjaž Horvat On July 21, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

@tz, Since commenting is no longer on for the Sowell article:

“They should be selected out as any other adverse mutation would be within a generation or two.”

Actually, the human genome has been deteriorating for thousands of years.

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#13 Comment By Sam McGowan On July 22, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

I could care less about Putin or Russia. They’re Europe’s problem – Russia sits smack dab between Western Europe and China. I grew up believing that Russia was our enemy when it was actually the USSR. Killed a lot of commies but those days are now over since the USSR folded almost three decades ago. We need to worry about our own borders and the enemy within.