Putin Apologists In The West and The Unfortunate Allure of Strongmen Political Leaders
[guest post by Dana]
If you, like me, are appalled that some of our politicians, media pundits, and Americans (patriotic lovers of freedom!) sound like Russian apologists and pushing conspiracy theories and propaganda instead of fully condemning Putin for the unwarranted invasion of Ukraine, here are some thoughts on why this repugnant view is being embraced by the aforementioned.
First, Dan Hanahan worries that ultimately, Putin apologists here in the West truly believe in what Putin is doing, and by extension, I guess, believe in Putin himself:
Part of the explanation has to do with domestic tribalism. Some commentators are so inward-looking that they have pressed the invasion into the familiar narrative of Hunter Biden’s alleged improprieties there. Trump was always strikingly warm in his attitude toward Putin, whom he infamously believed more than his own security agencies and whose invasion of Crimea he endorsed. Even as Putin’s armored columns punched their way into Ukraine last month, the former president called him “a genius.” For some conservatives, that is enough — where Trump goes, they go.
But what is it that Trump and his followers see in Putin in the first place?… For a Reagan conservative, Putin’s flaws are obvious. He does not respect elections. He believes he can make up the rules as he goes along. He defines some of his people as “traitors” and encourages others to go after them. The sole principle of his foreign policy is Machtpolitik — let the stronger take from the weaker. He has replaced multiparty pluralism with a cult of personality. He can’t tolerate criticism.
Are Trumpsters as repelled by these things as Reaganites? Considering that list in an American context, I wonder… In a polarized age, people are readier to overlook the shortcomings of politicians who specialize in “owning” the other side. Instead of wanting to limit the state as a general principle, modern conservatives are happy to make use of it when it suits their ends. And whereas they used to support candidates who shared their principles, they now tend to shift their principles whenever their champion does.
How paradoxical, and in its way, how tragic. Ukrainians are fighting to establish a democracy on what they see as the American model — pluralist, law-based, and open. Yet Americans themselves are less interested in defending that model than they have been at any point in my lifetime. The likeliest explanation for the behavior of Putin’s American apologists is also the most disquieting one. They really do approve of what he is doing.
And despite having footage and evidence of the horrors the Russians are inflicting on the Ukrainian people, including the deaths of two Fox News journalists, useful idiot Tucker Carlson continues to supply the Kremlin with much-wanted propaganda to play on state media:
But the far-right Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the alternately flabbergasted and outraged primetime host and Trumpist standard-bearer, carried on presenting his conspiratorial show with such a seeming lack of regard that the Kremlin itself reportedly considers his equivocations over the causes of the conflict vital to its propaganda apparatus.
Even Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov – no doubt largely thanks to Carlson – had praise for Fox’s coverage of the conflict. “If you take the United States, only Fox News is trying to present some alternative points of view,” he said on Friday.
I believe the outrage that Carlson delivers is the goal. It is what his viewers demand and expect, so if shilling for Russia gets the ratings, he’s happy to deliver – no matter how wrongheaded and dangerously misleading it is, and no matter if it’s a gift to the enemy:
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the daily images of suffering it has produced for US media, have complicated Carlson’s platform, at least in terms of the broader US media landscape, even if not within Fox itself.
“This balancing act he’s been playing on so many different levels is getting a lot more precarious,” said Bob Thompson, a former professor of media studies at Syracuse University and current director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
Carlson’s equivocation on Russian aggression is complicating the ideological real estate he occupies. “It’s not only confused, it’s almost dada,” Thompson says. “You see it playing out on the show when someone makes a rational argument and it’s deflected not with an alternative, but the abandonment of rationality.”
But that may also be what Carlson’s avid supporters and equally avid detractors come to see.
Finally, Kevin D. Williamson delivers a blisteringly brilliant take on the “allure” of strongmen:
The allure of strongman nationalist government — Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the America that Donald Trump and his acolytes dream of — has always been the promise of power. You can take the word of the foreign caudillos themselves or listen to the slavering of their American admirers — the story is always the same: While liberal societies slide into softness and decadence, illiberal societies have the resolve to spurn cheap gratification, particularly in the form of consumerism and sexual license, in order to secure the genuine common good.
That this line of analysis is almost invariably framed in sexual terms — the masculine patriarchal nationalist vs. the effeminate liberal globalist — says more about the psychology of the authoritarian follower than it does about the actual issues of political economy in question.
But the more important thing to know is that the promise of autocratic power is a lie.
Does Russia look strong today? Vladimir Putin’s thugs are pretty tough guys when the contest is, say, a five-on-one fight against an unarmed female journalist (Anna Politkovskaya) or when they’re quietly poisoning his critics with polonium-210 (Alexander Litvinenko), but they aren’t much in a real fight with Ukrainian patriots. Instead, they have been reduced to vulgar terrorism, bombing hospitals and residential buildings in an attempt to use atrocity as a substitute for victory. Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers are towing abandoned Russian tanks around with tractors, taunting the cowards who left them behind.
Definitely, read the whole thing.
Postscript: A member of my household just had a video chat with an individual currently living in Russia (via VPN). The individual said that the young Russian people in his city are adamantly against this invasion and are wholly supportive of Ukraine. However, the elderly people are generally complacent in their views because, having lived through the Soviet Union, they simply don’t believe that things could ever be any worse than that.