The Volokh Conspiracy

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Cathy Young on Putin's American Fans

As she explains, admiration for Putin on the US right is rooted in a combination of illiberalism, nationalism, and cultural grievance.


Vladimir Putin. (Newscom)


At the UnPopulist site, Cathy Young has a valuable analysis of Vladimir Putin's admirers on the political right in the US:

[W]hile opposition to aid to Ukraine doesn't necessarily entail support for Vladimir Putin…. Putin-friendly themes have been increasingly prominent on the right. At this point, pro-Putinism is no longer an undercurrent in right-wing rhetoric: it's on the surface.

But not all Putin-friendly conservatives are the same. For some, their hatred of the American left overrides any feelings they have about Putin. Others are more ideological: they oppose the Western liberal project itself. Untangling these different strains is key to explaining why so many on today's right embrace views that, until recently, would have gotten them branded Kremlin stooges by other conservatives….

[Tucker] Carlson reflects the dominant mode on the Trumpist right: if not actively pro-Putin, then at best anti-anti-Putin. The anti-anti-Putinists may concede that Putin is kinda bad, but only to insist that other things are far worse: Mexican drug cartels, progressive philanthropist George Soros, "the left," or America's "ruling class." Like the left-wing Soviet apologists of old, they make up faux political prisoners in America to suggest moral equivalency with the dictatorship in the Kremlin….

It's hardly news by now that many American right-wingers see Putin's Russia as the antithesis of Western "wokeness." This is especially true with regard to sexual and gender norms: I noted the beginnings of this trend in 2013, when several right-wing groups and conservative pundits praised a Russian law censoring "propaganda" of homosexuality. Discussing the phenomenon recently in the context of the GOP's anti-Ukraine turn, David French pointed to such examples as far-right strategist Steve Bannon's praise for Putin's "anti-woke" persona and Russia's conservative gender politics, or psychologist Jordan Peterson's suggestion that Russia's war in Ukraine was partly self-defense against the decadence of "the pathological West."

The idea of Russia as a bulwark of traditionalism and "anti-woke" resistance is an image the Putin regime deliberately cultivates—not only to appeal to its own population's biases but to win friends among conservatives in the West. And many are seduced into an affinity that goes well beyond anti-anti-Putinism…..

Yet distaste for post-1960s social and sexual liberalism doesn't entirely explain the right's Putin love. Some right-wing pro-Putin rhetoric indicates a far more radical rejection of liberalism, even in its more classical varieties (the liberalism of John Locke and John Stuart Mill….)….

[Christopher] Caldwell, who unabashedly hails Putin as "a hero to populist conservatives," just as unabashedly acknowledges that the "hero" has suppressed "peaceful demonstrations" and jailed and probably murdered political opponents. Yet he asserts that "if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time." Leaving aside dubious claims about Russia's "flourishing" under Putin, perhaps the most revealing thing about this defense is that it openly invokes standards which predate and reject modern, Enlightenment-based beliefs about liberty, self-government, and human rights.

Young rightly analogizes Putin's American right-wing fans to earlier  left-wing Western admirers of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. Both groups feel a strong enough affinity to a foreign dictatorship that they overlook or deny horrific atrocities, which in Putin's case include both large-scale domestic repression and horrific atrocities in Ukraine, comparable to those committed by Hamas against Israel, but on a much larger scale.

Interestingly, as Young notes, one of Putin's American right-wing fans even embraces the analogy with support for communism:

Caldwell praises Putin's refusal to accept "a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders"—and offers a startling analogy:

"Populist conservatives see [Putin] the way progressives once saw Fidel Castro, as the one person who says he won't submit to the world that surrounds him. You didn't have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country."

If Putin-friendly "populist conservatives" are the equivalent of Castro-friendly, Cold War-era progressives, that's quite a self-own—and a self-reveal.

I made related points about Putin's Western fans (including Europeans as well as Americans) in this video, part of Marshall University's series of podcasts about the Russia-Ukraine war:

If I have a disagreement with Young, it's that I give more emphasis to the nationalist element in Western right-wingers' affinity for Putin. I think that, for many, this is more significant than social conservatism and cultural grievances.  US social conservatives who are not also highly nationalistic tend to be far less sympathetic to Putin, and some strongly support aiding Ukraine against him. Examples include former Vice President Mike Pence and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.

But these two sources of pro-Putin attitudes are often interconnected, and their relative importance varies from case to case.

Young also devotes part of her article to Tucker Carlson, one of the American right's most prominent cheerleaders for Putin. I discussed some of his fallacies regarding Russia here.