If Loving Putin Is ‘Right,’ I Want to Be Wrong
On May 17, I listened to what for me was a mystifying televised conversation 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 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” and “one of us, a paleoconservative.” A commentator 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.” These reasons are presented emphatically in the book 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. 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 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 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.