What Trump’s Putin love reveals about conservatives

Some American conservatives are attracted to authoritarianism and distrust modern Western culture

By Neal Gabler | BILLMOYERS.COM | July 22, 2017


One of the most astonishing turnabouts in the history of American politics is the big bear hug with which so many conservatives and Republicans are embracing former KGB operative and current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. This, after 50 years of lacerating the former Soviet Union as what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.”

Nothing may better certify the chaos into which our world has descended after Donald Trump’s election than the fact that Republicans now seem perfectly content with the Russians having attempted to subvert our democratic process, something that not all that long ago would have sent them into a rage.

This isn’t necessarily because these Republicans think no such interference occurred, despite the proof that it did. It is because they revere what Putin represents more than they revere their own democracy.

You can call this rank hypocrisy. You can attribute it to Trump and his own Putin love and say that Republicans zealously follow their leader. But the truth is far more frightening: conservatives have a deep affinity for authoritarianism and an even deeper distrust of modern Western culture. When it comes down to it, their lament, as captured in surveys, is that America isn’t more like Russia.

I don’t have to tell you how chilling this is or what it portends. It means that many of your fellow Americans subscribe to the philosophy of a ruthless, murderous, lying, kleptocratic, illiberal potentate who runs the largest criminal organization in the history of the world. And if that doesn’t scare you, this will: These same people, although thankfully still a minority, run the country now.

That’s why Russia love matters.

Back in 1984, writer-director Paul Mazursky made a wonderfully funny and moving film starring Robin Williams as a Russian defector trying to find his way in New York. It was called Moscow on the Hudson, and though it wasn’t rah-rah or sappily patriotic — the hero goes through many travails — it was nevertheless a sweet valentine to this country of ours where so much is good in spite of ourselves.

With America clearly in mind, Putin declared, “In many countries today, moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered.” “They’re now requiring not only the proper acknowledgment of freedom of conscience, political views and private life, but also the mandatory acknowledgment of the equality of good and evil.” Translation: While privacy and freedom of thought, religion and speech are cherished rights, to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil. No moral confusion here, this is moral clarity, agree or disagree.

Then Buchanan added, “President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire ‘the focus of evil in the modern world.’ President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”

Not to be left behind, Matt Drudge called Putin “the leader of the free world.” And in the comments section of a 2014 piece on Putin by Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post, worshippers called the Russian dictator a “man’s man who makes his own decisions and loves his country and its citizens,” “a world leader,” “a professional and a very talented one” and “the West’s (and the world’s) last great hope.” One commenter proudly declared that he was naming his son Vladimir.

In an instructive and terrifying four-part series on Russia reported by the irreplaceable Nick Schifrin on the PBS NewsHour last week, you could easily see the conservative affinity for the authoritarian Russian state. A popular Russian commentator named Alexander Dugin told Schifrin that America and Russia are really mirror images of one another now, and the Russian state does appear to be the conservative paradigm: white, highly nationalistic, militaristic, oligarchic, nostalgic for a lost past (the Cossacks, who murdered Jews in pogroms, are back in vogue), moralistically religious (as one Russian Orthodox patriarch tells Schifrin, tradition supersedes law), highly suspicious of change and with a propagandistic state media system that closely resembles Fox News but without the countervailing forces of an objective, nonstate press. (No shocker here: Trump and Putin share hostile views of an independent press.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, however it comes packaged, authoritarians like authoritarianism, or even that they find greater common cause with Russians dedicated to turning back the clock than with their fellow Americans determined to advance it. But what accounts for the pivot among these hard-boiled anti-communist conservatives, the turn from ostracizing Russia to extolling it? After all, under Stalin, Russia had virtually all the same characteristics as Putin’s, save for religiosity.