Most Americans think of the United States as different from the rest of the world, with a very distinct political and social culture. That perspective far too often limits our preoccupations to issues within our borders. Academics may engage in comparative studies, but most of America’s “chattering class” confines its chatter to American politics and institutions.
These days, there are numerous articles, books and columns devoted to the American Right, for example (especially about its current control of the GOP), but aside from a throwaway sentence here and there, there are relatively few efforts to tie that paternalistic, theocratic, nationalist movement to the broader, worldwide culture war that is pitting people who are embracing–or at least accepting– modernity against those hysterically trying to stop the (emerging) world so that they can get off.
Despite the lack of attention to similar movements elsewhere, there are significant similarities–and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a couple of recent columns have traced the connections between our homegrown cultural Luddites and their fellow resisters around the world.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted Paul Krugman to consider the roots of Putin’s appeal to the American Right.
Krugman locates the sources of the right’s infatuation with a brutal dictator–an infatuation that he reminds us began even before Trump’s rise–to Putin’s championing of “antiwokeness “— Putin is someone who (to quote Tucker Carlson’s recent defense of his pro-Russian propaganda) “wouldn’t accuse you of being a racist, who denounced cancel culture and ‘gay propaganda.'”
Some of it reflected a creepy fascination with Putin’s alleged masculinity — Sarah Palin declared that he wrestled bears while President Barack Obama wore “mom jeans” — and the apparent toughness of Putin’s people. Just last year Senator Ted Cruz contrasted footage of a shaven-headed Russian soldier with a U.S. Army recruiting ad to mock our “woke, emasculated” military.
Finally, many on the right simply like the idea of authoritarian rule. Just a few days ago Trump, who has dialed back his praise for Putin, chose instead to express admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s generals and aides, he noted, “cowered” when the dictator spoke, adding that “I want my people to act like that.”
In one of his more perceptive columns, David Brooks also delved into the mind-set of the pro-Putin Right. According to Brooks, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the continuation of identity politics by other means.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the writings of conventional international relations experts to be not very helpful in understanding what this whole crisis is about. But I’ve found the writing of experts in social psychology to be enormously helpful.
That is because–as Brooks points out–the war in Ukraine is primarily about status. “Putin invaded so Russians could feel they are a great nation once again and so Putin himself could feel that he’s a world historical figure along the lines of Peter the Great.” Along the way, Putin has increasingly portrayed himself as not just a national leader “but a civilizational leader, leading the forces of traditional morality against the moral depravity of the West.”
Right-wing populism hasn’t been confined to the United States and Russia; these movements can be found throughout the Western world –and for that matter, probably in every country that is experiencing significant modernization and liberalization, which are seen as undermining “traditional values.”
Populist movements are generally associated with rejection of science, particularly the science underlying environmentalism, with nationalism and nativism, and with anti-globalization fervor. (Trump’s protectionism fit right in.) As Wikipedia defines the European variant of the populist movement,
In Europe, the term is often used to describe groups, politicians, and political parties that are generally known for their opposition to immigration, especially from the Muslim world, and for Euroscepticism. Right-wing populists may support expanding the welfare state, but only for those they deem are fit to receive it; this concept has been referred to as “welfare chauvinism.”
Here in the United States, research confirms that our homegrown populists cling to the belief that only White Christians can be “real” Americans. These people–terrified of losing cultural hegemony– have their analogues around the globe. (It’s one more way in which we aren’t “exceptional.”)
What’s scary is recognition of how widespread that terror is–and how powerfully motivating. Obama’s much-criticized observation that frightened, disoriented people “cling to their guns and their bibles” may have been politically unwise, but it wasn’t wrong–and the phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S. Islamic fundamentalist cling to their Korans and bombs…
Global populism is just one more reminder that–despite different geographies and cultures– humans are essentially similar mammals…