Embracing The Lies

As the GOP has steadily radicalized, its ardent base has embraced an alternate reality– a place where, among other things, Donald Trump won the 2020 election, Democrats engage in pedophilia, Jews operate space lasers, and public schools are teaching Critical Race Theory.

The number of Americans who appear to actually believe these things–the number who have adopted some or all of what has been called the “QAnonification” of the GOP– is staggering. The danger this mass psychosis poses for democratic (small-d) government has been obvious for some time; we are now beginning to see how disinformation–lies–shade into something akin to treason.

The Guardian recently reported on the embrace of Putin’s propaganda by the American Right.The article focused on the conspiratorial narratives being  pushed by radical American politicians and media figures who have echoed Russian lies about its invasion of Ukraine, and have “bolstered and created synergies with the Kremlin’s legendary disinformation machine, experts on information manipulation say.”

Led by Tucker Carlson at Fox News, a few Republican rightwingers in Congress, and some key conservative activists, a spate of comments that have disparaged Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and echoed other Russian war disinformation have been recycled by Moscow, say experts.

A feedback loop between the Kremlin and parts of the American right has been palpable since the war’s start in February, which Moscow falsely labeled as a “special military operation” aimed at stopping “genocide” of Russians in Ukraine and “denazification” – two patently bogus charges that drew widespread international criticism.

The fact that multiple credible sources have debunked Russian claims hasn’t kept Rightwing influencers like Tucker Carlson from pushing these false narratives to millions of Fox News viewers. The Guardian reports that Fox segments echoing Russian propaganda have been “eagerly embraced and recycled by Moscow and by parts of the American right.

On a separate front, two Republican congressional conservatives, Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene, delighted Moscow last month by condemning Zelenskiy without evidence in conspiracy-ridden terms that sparked some bipartisan criticism. Cawthorn called Zelenskiy a “thug” and his government “incredibly corrupt”, while Greene similarly charged that Zelenskiy was “corrupt”.

Further, the former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, last month attempted to soften and spin Putin’s onerous crackdown on independent media in Russia, where reporters and other citizens now can face prison terms of 15 years for not toeing the Kremlin’s Orwellian war line and spreading what Moscow deems “fake” news about its Ukraine invasion. Gabbard made the wild claim that “what we’re seeing happening here [in America] is not so different from what we’re seeing happening in Russia”.

More recently, Russian state TV lauded Gabbard as “our friend Tulsi”, when it introduced a Carlson interview with her in which Gabbard accused Biden of “lying” about his true motives in Ukraine after Biden said in Warsaw that Putin “cannot remain in power”, which the White House quickly clarified was not a call for regime for change.

The Guardian article explores what it calls the “feedback loop” between Moscow and significant elements of the American right, and notes that when the same narratives are being repeated by influential political figures and pundits on news networks in Russia and the United States with large audiences, those narratives are reaching a lot of people. As one observer noted,

 “Given that many within those audiences have been primed to dismiss and distrust the ‘mainstream’ media and expertise writ large, there’s no amount of factchecking and objective reporting that is likely to change attitudes once certain falsehoods become adopted as facts.”

What is most mystifying–at least to me–is that this wholesale embrace of Russian propaganda is occurring primarily among the MAGA crowd, the “America First,” self-proclaimed patriots and believers in America’s Exceptionalism and historical purity. The threat Putin poses to the United States and the West is obvious; you would expect these particular figures to be first to rally around the flag, defend the myth of America’s glorious past, and agitate for an even stronger response.

Evidently, the allure of Putin’s strongman populism outweighs their asserted patriotism. Putin’s war on modernity–his defense of traditional (!) Christianity and efforts to stamp out “deviations” like homosexuality are presumably more appealing to the American Right than defense of that messy thing we call democracy and respect for other countries’ right to self-determination.

In another era, these weren’t the folks you’d expect to see giving aid and comfort to America’s enemies. But then, as I wrote in yesterday’s post, this isn’t your father’s GOP.


Today’s “Fellow Travelers”

Younger readers of this blog may not be familiar with the term “fellow-traveler.”

As Wikipedia defines the term and its historic usage,

In the early history of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet statesman Anatoly Lunacharsky coined the term poputchik (‘one who travels the same path’) and later it was popularized by Leon Trotsky to identify the vacillating intellectual supporters of the Bolshevik government. It was the political characterization of the Russian intelligentsia (writers, academics, and artists) who were philosophically sympathetic to the political, social, and economic goals of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but who did not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.. the Western world adopted the English term fellow traveller to identify people who sympathized with the Soviets and with Communism.

I thought of the term when I read a column in the New Republic describing  the ways in which the Republican Party has “cozied up” to the Kremlin over the past few years.

The column began by quoting Mike Pompeo, who–in an interview in 2020–said  Americans didn’t “give a fuck” about Ukraine.

Things have changed. And as the essay notes, that poses a problem for the GOP.

Whatever Americans were thinking two years ago, when Pompeo gave his NPR interview, they now do give a fuck about Ukraine—and therein lies a problem: For more than 25 years, the party of Reagan has been transforming itself into the party of Putin, only to discover that Vladimir Putin may not be a great role model after all. As a result, one leading Republican after another has begun to perform Simone Biles–level gymnastics in their bids to condemn their party’s most powerful patron.

The author, Craig Unger, emphasizes that this cozy relationship between Putin’s Kremlin and the American Right didn’t begin with Donald Trump, although Trump is pretty clearly in Vladimir Putin’s pocket. As Unger documents,  a “large swath” of the GOP has been closely involved with Russian operatives, who have provided campaign funding via “K Street lobbyists, political consultants, super PACs, campaign fundraising operations, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, social media operations, cyber-warfare efforts, money laundering schemes, think tanks harboring Russian intelligence operatives, and much, much more.”

Jonathan Winer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, has observed the relationship for years. “If you go back to the days of Jack Abramoff, when Americans started going to Moscow in the ’90s, and then to Paul Manafort in Ukraine, and so on, you start to see the spine of a secret influence campaign between the Republicans and Russia that has been built up over decades,” he said. “It goes right up to Tucker Carlson rooting for Putin on Fox today. It has been built up over decades, and it is not new, and it deeply infects the Republican Party. You have two forces with deep political ties that are fighting American democracy in order to keep Putin in power and install a Putin-like system in America. And to that end, they have penetrated deep into our think tanks, our media, our journalism—everything.”

Take Ed Buckham, the recently appointed chief of staff for Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Today, Buckham handles a congresswoman who proudly attends “white supremacist, antisemitic, pro-Putin” rallies, as Congresswoman Liz Cheney characterized them, and has become renowned for touting conspiracy theories about how the California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. On Thursday, when the House of Representatives voted to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, Greene, not surprisingly, was one of eight Republicans who voted against it.

Unger traces Buckham’s relationship with Russia back 25 years– to his work for Tom Delay and his relationship with Jack Abramoff–but notes that even Buckham’s sleazy history “pales” in comparison with that of Paul Manafort. Manafort worked for a rogue’s gallery of dictators, but had especially close ties to Putin’s Russia–the Senate Intelligence Committee found that over $75 million Russian dollars had flowed through Manafort’s offshore accounts.

The article is lengthy, and it documents a number of other relationships between the Kremlin and GOP operatives, including the party’s preferred law firms.

Unger says that, as Americans watch the horrifying images from Ukraine, we need to remember those cozy relationships. We also need to remember the Russian trolls exerting influence on social media platforms, “the money laundering through real estate that enriched Donald Trump and his associates, and the Russian conspiracy theories that just happen to be echoed by QAnon, former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and the like.”

We need to recognize–and vote to rid ourselves of–the Fellow Travelers.


It’s Not Just Putin

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…


Putin And The Right

Arwa Mahdawi is a columnist for the Guardian, and she devoted a recent column to a question many of us have been asking–especially since the brutal, unprovoked attack on Ukraine by Russia– to wit: what is it about Putin that has won the hearts and ((to the extent they have them) minds of the American Right?

Yesterday’s post offered one theory; Mahdawi essentially concurs.

She begins by noting Tucker Carlson’s defense of Putin and his assertion that the U.S. has employed propaganda to make our citizens believe Putin is “a baddie.” She also points out that Carlson is” far from the only person on the US right to have a soft spot for old Vlad.”

Trump, of course, famously called Putin’s assault on Ukraine “genius”, “savvy” and “smart”.

For those of us who can’t understand why the American Right is so enamored of the Russian autocrat (and other anti-democratic strongmen around the globe), Mahdawi has an explanation similar to the one offered yesterday.

While I haven’t called up every white nationalist group in the US and Europe for comment, it is fair to say the Russian premier has a fervent fanbase among the far right in the west. Why is this? They love what he has done with Russia. They love the way he has dismantled women’s rights. They love his attacks on gay and transgender people. They love his dismissal of western liberalism. Their values align perfectly.

There is also a whiff of antisemitism in the right’s support for Putin. On Sunday, for example, Wendy Rogers, a Republican state senator in Arizona, tweeted about the Ukrainian president: “[Volodymyr] Zelensky is a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.” “Globalist” and “Soros” are well-established dog whistles, of course. (Zelenskiy is Jewish.)

Rogers’ comments on Zelenskiy came shortly after she attended a white nationalist convention in Florida, where she praised Nick Fuentes, its Holocaust-revisionist organiser, and proposed hanging “traitors” from “a newly built set of gallows”. A very normal thing for a politician to say! Fuentes, meanwhile, urged the crowd to applaud Russia and had them chanting: “Putin! Putin!

Putin’s racism, homophobia and misogyny aren’t the only things that endear him to the Right . They love what I’ll call his “John Wayne masculinity”–his willingness to demonstrate what Mahdawi calls “muscle.”

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll from January found that 62% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents reckon Putin is a “stronger leader” than Joe Biden; that number rises to 71% among those who name Fox News as their primary source of cable news.

Those numbers, and yesterday’s, reinforce an observation I’ve previously shared: a depressingly significant portion of the American population (and media) has yet to grow up. That portion of the population has retained a cartoonish vision of what “strength” and “leadership” look like. A disturbing number of pundits–including many who are working for reputable media outlets– utterly fail to appreciate the skill, savvy and resolve with which Biden and his administration strengthened NATO and the West, and forged an unprecedented alliance to bring Russia to its economic knees–without sending American young people to die.

I fully expect to see those pundits commiserating with Rightwing complaints about gas prices (mask mandates are disappearing, so they will require some other indignity to assign to the administration). Meanwhile, television screens and Internet sites continue to testify to the horrors being rained on innocent Ukrainians by the “strong leader” that Carlson and his audience so admire.

It will be interesting to see how Putin’s fawning Rightwing fans react to the undeniable evidence of his brutality. As a column from the New York Times put it,

For years, a global choir of right-wing politicians have sung the praises of Vladimir V. Putin. They looked up to the Russian strongman as a defender of closed borders, Christian conservatism and bare-chested machismo in an era of liberal identity politics and Western globalization. Fawning over him was a core part of the populist playbook.

But Mr. Putin’s savaging of Ukraine, which many of his right-wing supporters had said he would never do, has recast the Russian president more clearly as a global menace and boogeyman with ambitions of empire who is threatening nuclear war and European instability….The stain of Mr. Putin’s new reputation threatens to taint his fellow travelers, too.

I would like to believe that “taint” will be widespread–that it might even cause those on the Right to reassess their grievances and bigotries– but I doubt it. What they are really fighting–as I indicated yesterday– is maturity, modernity and the necessity of living with complexity and ambiguity and people who don’t look like them.

They won’t give up their tribalism, or their cartoon version of America.


Who Are We #2

Us versus Them. It’s tribal, a way of approaching life that has–unfortunately– persisted through centuries. For most of those centuries, the major divisions have taken the form of national boundaries, although religion and skin color have been close behind.

In our increasingly globalized world, however, perceptions of who “we” are–and perceptions of the threats posed by “them”– are changing. The identity of the “tribe” to which one belongs is no longer totally dependent upon nationality or even skin color, although religious beliefs remain a potent part of what we might call the New World Disorder.

I was struck by some statistics in a recent New York Times column.The author was considering the genesis and character of pro-Putin/pro-autocrat sentiment on the Right.

It may feel shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular, “leftist” liberalism. In 2013, for instance, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our era, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famous evangelist Franklin Graham lauded Putin for having “taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda Barack Obama was supposedly pursuing in the US.

After the 2016 election, the simmering admiration for Putin morphed into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican party’s pro-Russia turn. This rapprochement shaped the right well beyond conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump correlates strongly with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the US as a “Christian nation” have a much more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.

The author followed those two paragraphs with a litany of far Right statements confirming that worldview: Steve Bannon declaring his support for Putin because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke;”  Christian nationalist Republican Lauren Witzke (a Delaware Republican candidate for Senate in 2020)  asserting that she supports Putin because he protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”  Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers is quoted as saying “I stand with Christians worldwide and not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face”; in case you (inexplicably) missed the anti-Semitic tropes in that statement, she then described Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, as “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.”

There were several others–and of course we all know what Tucker Carlson has had to say.

This critique has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “un-American” woke Left is out to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in undermining the nation considerably, especially its “woke, emasculated military,” as Texas senator Ted Cruz put it; a weak west foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary”, according to rightwing activist Ben Shapiro.

For these culture warriors, the message is clear: the democracies of the West had it coming; they’ve been weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture.”

Those fighting the so-called “woke” culture celebrated Trump’s election as a success in that culture war–as proof that the forces of reaction would ultimately prevail.

Rightwingers everywhere understand the transnational dimension as well as the world-historic significance of the current fight over democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has indeed never existed. There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere. It’s a vision that reactionaries abhor – to them, it would be the end of “western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by whatever means necessary.

We are about to see what happens when “we”–the despised, “woke” humans who want to live in that “stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy”–are targeted and opposed by “them,” the neighbors and fellow-citizens) who view that desire with fear and contempt.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore….