The ruling-class talking point du jour is that Russia’s war in Ukraine has dealt a crushing blow to Western populists. The populists, according to this view, tied their fate to Vladimir Putin’s: whether by praising him, calling for more genial relations with Moscow, turning a blind eye to Kremlin depravities, or some combination of the above. Now that Putin has launched a failed invasion of Ukraine—failed according to Twitter and feverish media wish-casters, at least—his populist fan club is also tainted by his cruelty and incompetence. Ergo, “populists are losing this war,” as a headline in UnHerd put it.
It’s pure poppycock, but before I explain why, let’s briefly pause to note the sheer grotesqueness of this ideological posturing at this moment. Amid the carnage wrought in Ukraine by Moscow’s aggression, the suffering of ordinary Russians under Western sanctions, and the anxiety that grips Europe as a whole, the liberal establishment sees fit to cashier misery into point-scoring against their domestic political opponents. This is the business we’ve chosen, you might say, and fair enough—but then kindly stop whinging about civility, decency, and unity.
As to the charge itself, it is built on a foundation of deliberate misunderstandings, misdirections, and outright slanders. While some of the criticisms might apply to some populists, they don’t apply to others. Yet the liberal columnists’ underhanded tactic is to barrage all populists with all the charges, to see what sticks. There are different versions of this, offered variously by William Galston in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Eric Kaufmann in the aforementioned UnHerd piece, and Francis Fukuyama and Janan Ganesh in essays for the Financial Times.
Let’s attempt to unpack three of the main strands:
One charge is that Western populists fetishized Putin as an emblem of strongman confidence and now must “own” the logistical setbacks and military snafus dogging the Russian army on its path to conquest.
This was the line taken by Ganesh: “While liberals get lost in the bureaucratic and legislative fog, the autocrat supposedly cuts through (‘I alone can fix it,’ said Trump of the US). While the one thinks wishfully, the other grasps the eternal verities of power and strategy.” If Russia had easily subdued Ukraine, populists “would now, in that phoney I-hate-to-say-it tone, be urging their own societies to learn from the guile and virility of the illiberal world.”
Ganesh curiously didn’t quote any actual populists praising Putin’s mythic competence, but let’s generously concede that one Donald J. Trump has hailed the Russian leader as a “genius,” etc. The question becomes: competence in relation to what ends, given what conditions? Assume for argument’s sake that the NATO-ization of Ukraine is an existential threat to the Russian state. If so, then even a costly, messy invasion, mounted by a wounded former superpower with an economy the size of Spain’s, is effective enough if it in fact forestalls NATO-ization.
Putin’s desired outcome may yet come to pass. He achieved Russia’s goals in Georgia, Syria, and Crimea. That is more than can be said for U.S. strategists with respect to their goals in Afghanistan. After 20 years, the Taliban took back power, while the Western alliance’s 300,000-strong Afghan army collapsed.
But there is another point here: If “autocratic” incompetence humiliates Western populists, as Ganesh suggests, it should equally embarrass plenty of blue-chip liberals who have waxed about a nondemocratic regime’s ability to get things done.
Remember Tom Friedman in 2010? “What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment?” Or how about Justin Trudeau in 2013? “There is a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go green, we need to start, you know, investing in solar.” The examples abound.
Liberals as much as Western populists, then, must “own” the failures of a nondemocratic regime—which is another way of saying this is a ludicrous line of attack.
Another argument is that populists advance an “anti-Western foreign policy,” born of their “hostility to the rules-based liberal world order.”
That was the line taken by Kaufmann, who says he would prefer populists like Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance to temper their anti-woke energies and focus them at home on cultural issues—not against elites in “Davos, Geneva, or Brussels,” which, he reassures, aren’t that woke. He should know, “having given talks at some of these institutions.” Or something. His commitments are a jumbled mess.
The bigger problem here is circular reasoning. Kaufmann assumes that opposing hawkism and escalation makes one “anti-Western.” Pro-Western-ness is thus defined at the outset as a preference for the foreign policies of the liberal imperium and its marquee institutions. Therefore, he concludes, Carlson, Vance, et al. are lamentably anti-Western. But this is to beg the question. Carlson and his populist confreres argue that hawkism is inimical to the interests of ordinary people in the West and, if escalated to a nuclear point of no return, to the survival of humanity at large. They are defining Western-ness differently than self-identified liberals, in other words, and judging by the record of liberal interventionism the past 20 years, such a redefinition is sorely needed.
Finally, there is the outright slander that populists admire Putin precisely for his cruelties.
It was lamentable to see this line taken up by Galston, someone I have often disagreed with but couldn’t fault for lack of probity in debate. Galston tsk-tsked Carlson for a recent monologue in which the Fox primetime host prompted Americans to ask themselves: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he ever threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
Contra Galston, it is an uncharitable stretch to suggest that those questions amount to “defending Vladimir Putin against his American critics.” Carlson’s point, as Galston probably knows, isn’t that Putin is wonderful, but that after two decades of failed foreign adventurism, it behooves Americans to confront the monsters within our own order: a rapacious domestic overclass that has wrought inequality, health insecurity, opioid misery, stagnant wages, cultural degradation—and increasingly resorts to technological censorship to deal with popular discontent.
The establishment may yet succeed in hanging Putin like an albatross round the necks of its internal enemies. But doing so won’t resolve any of these internal crises. Then again, maybe that is the point.