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Why the MAGA Movement Loves Putin
The Far Right's adulation for Putin is closer to mainstream GOP thinking than many would have you believe.
It says everything about the modern Republican Party that in the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it wasn’t clear whose side the GOP would be on. Much of the party spent the last five years either echoing or staying silent about Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin. Many, many Republicans beyond Trump praised Putin and dishonestly absolved him of his interference in the 2016 election.
But as the horrors of the invasion unfolded on live television and social media feeds, the bulk of the Republican Party united behind the Ukrainians in their fight against the Russians. Sure, there are partisan squabbles over various tactics. And there are cynical political opportunists trying to score points against President Biden, but there was a comforting normalcy to the politics of Russia.
Some Republicans even pushed back (ever so mildly) against Trump’s praise of Putin just as Russian tanks started rolling towards Kyiv. But the Republican establishment doing the bare minimum to support a U.S. ally being invaded by an adversary should not obscure the raging pro-Putin sentiment on the Right. Pay attention to what Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and others are saying because the sentiments of the Far Right are a leading indicator of where the party is headed. Donald Trump’s birtherism and racist nationalism was laughed at by all of the Republicans until he won the nomination. The same is true for the apocalyptic anti-government ignorance of the Tea Party. Therefore, it’s worth understanding why the Far Right is so enamored with Putin and other authoritarians around the world. The answer helps explain how Trump rose to the top of the party and why the next Trump may be more dangerous than Donald.
An Authoritarian Obsession
I have no problem being unfair to the Republican Party. They lost the benefit of the doubt a long time ago, but I want to make it clear that I am not cherry-picking the comments of random Twitter users to expose the Right Wing obsession with Putin. Heck, don’t take my word for it. Russian state television has been re-running clips of Tucker Carlson’s comments in support of Russia and critical of Ukraine. Most dangerously, Carlson has been aggressively pushing a debunked piece of Russian propaganda about biolabs in Ukraine. If you want to read more about what a dishonest dupe Tucker Carlson is, check out this New York Times fact check. And speaking of dupes, Sean Hannity recently quoted the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as evidence of his long-running bullshit claims about Biden’s cognitive abilities. Fox’s pro-Putin commentary has been so consistent that Lavrov recently praised Fox’s coverage.
As Aaron Rupar pointed out in his newsletter, no one at Fox went on air to push back against the gold star they received from a murderous propagandist. It’s not only Fox. Steve Bannon, and others spoke critically of Zelensky, pushed Russian propaganda, and justified the rationale for the invasion.
The Far Right’s obsession with authoritarians goes beyond Putin. Carlson has long praised Victor Orban, the Hungarian dictator. Despite the absence of a free and fair election, Trump even endorsed Orban for reelection. The Conservative Political Action Committee — a ComiCon for White nationalists, buffoos, and grifters — even scheduled its conference in Budapest.
Why the Right is Obsessed with Putin
Trying to understand the logic behind the sentiments of Donald Trump and the cavalcade of extremist morons comprising the Far Right seems like a fool’s errand. With that important caveat, I think there are four reasons some Republicans can’t quit Putin:
Addicted to Strength: The concept of strength is the axis on which Republican politics has long rotated. Every Republican political campaign is about portraying the GOPer as strong and the Democrat as weak. This is why so much hay was made of Michael Dukakis’s tank photo op. Republicans worked hard to undermine John Kerry’s military service, and pushed false narratives about the health and cognitive abilities of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The type of strength and how it is used is irrelevant. When strength at all costs is emphasized at the expense of empathy, compassion, and morals, Putin can become the ideal leader for a morally bankrupt political party.
An Apocalyptic Mentality: The public tends to gravitate towards strongman-like figures out of fear. And fear is a central feature of Republican messaging. Watch any GOP campaign ads or consume Right Wing media and experience a constant stream of apocalyptic imagery. America is under ceaseless assult from immigrants, terrorists, criminals, and an array of non-White bogey men and women. Partly, this is a political strategy designed to keep the shrinking, mostly White GOP in a rabid state. According to a January NPR/Ipsos poll, 47 percent of Republicans strongly agree that “America is in crisis and at risk of failing” compared to 29 percent of Democrats
The driving force in the politics of fear is that before too long White people will represent a minority of Americans and the dominant political position that many believe is their birthright is at risk. Putin’s restorative nationalism is appealing to this segment of the population. His death grip on power and aims to restore the Soviet Union is essentially a platform to Make Russia Great Again. Supporting Trump doesn’t necessarily equate to becoming a political apologist, but the sentiments driving the very Far Right to embrace Trump above all else are the same sentiments causing the folks to side with Putin right now.
White Power: There is something grossly ironic about the America First movement idolizing a former KGB agent trying to reestablish America’s greatest adversary. But “America First,” really means “White America First.” As Emily Tamkin wrote in the New York Times: “Many of the admirers of the world’s strongmen on the American right appear to believe that the countries each of these men lead are beacons of whiteness, Christianity and conservative values… The white nationalist Richard Spencer has referred to Russia as ‘the sole white power in the world.’” Matthew Heimbach, a founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, told The Times in 2016, “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.” As the nomination of Trump indicates, the White nationalist fringes of the Republican Party are the tail that wags the dog. If you are skeptical about the central role of race, ask yourself why the Far Right loves Putin and Orban but disdains Xi Jinping of China? Pay close attention to what they are saying today in order to be prepared for tomorrow.
The Perverse Incentives of the Internet Attention Economy: Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Tucker Carlson have a lot in common. One of these commonalities is an inherent understanding of how to get and maintain attention in a media ecosystem powered by outrage. There is financial and political incentive to say outrageous things that generate backlash. You get attention for what you said and then you get to scream “cancel culture” when people get mad. The anger and outrage fuels the algorithms pushing your content to even more people, lining your pocket and increasing your political power. So, if you are looking for someone to blame, feel free to add Mark Zuckerberg and other tech folks to your list.
In the modern Republican Party, the distance between extreme and mainstream is often traversed in the blink of an eye. Today’s loons are tomorrow’s leaders. Attention must be paid. I suspect the pro-Putin fascination is only the beginning of a larger trend.