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.